Chinese New Year, and Continuity and Discontinuity in Biblical Theology

Chinese New Year passed with the usual surfeit of steamboats and lo heis and barbecues and restaurant feasts and CNY tidbits.

homemade pineapple tarts with melty crusts and Anzac biccies with bak-kwaWas glad to get back to merely nibbling on a colleague’s homemade pineapple tarts and some Anzac biccies (because of Australia Day) studded with bak-kwa, instead of being pressed, on pain of seeming discourteous, to sample a plenitude of snack jars as we visited friends over the holidays.

Double-treat Tuesday -

Ecstatic too to be back to smoothie bowls for breakfast and to be cracking on with the second volume of “Justification and Variegated Nomism“. Nom nom.

The lecturers at the Cornhill Training Course used to be adamant that every single passage of the OT should point to Christ, citing Luke 24:27. I thought this an unwieldy sledgehammer that resulted in all sorts of dodgy exegesis. Yet, I also thought that the insistence of some folk at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate on holding tightly the tension of the biblical narrative (and so being very hesitant in going to Christ), while dealing quite well with an OT passage’s position on the salvation-historical timeline, did not adequately take into account our position on that same timeline.

How then to read, teach, and preach the OT now? Could some part of the answer depend on one’s conclusion on the continuity and discontinuity between the testaments?

  • What should we, who live on the other side of the cross/resurrection/ascension, make of the Old Testament ?
  • Which laws should we follow and which ones should we ditch?
  • What about infant baptism (as continuity from saved-as-a-household x circumcision)(see eg. pg 3 of Themelios April 2016)? What about keeping the Sabbath (on Saturdays)?
  • What is the biblical warrant for any of that?

 This didn’t make it as one of my Heresies of the Month back in London. But since it will be a lifelong task to comprehensively consider the continuity and discontinuity between the OT and NT, let’s get this party started.

dragonfruit smoothie bowl with Korean strawberries and Chilean blueberries

 I do not think the usual tripartite division of the law into moral, civil, ceremonial laws works well:

  • they are not biblical categories – no Bible writer thought in those categories
  • therefore, they impose an alien framework on the text

The first port of call, perhaps, would be a careful reading of how NT writers treat the OT.

D.A. Carson, in “Mystery and Fulfillment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and the New” (p393, Justification and Variegated Nomism), concludes that for Paul, this is a “both-and”. That is,

“Paul thinks of the gospel he preaches a simultaneously something that has been predicted in times past, with those predictions now fulfilled, and something that has been hidden in times past, and now revealed.

…there is no evidence that Paul himself was aware of any tension between these two stances…the two stances…genuinely lock together…

…Paul assess the significance of Israel and the Sinai covenant within the larger biblical narrative…the law’s most important function is to bring Israel, across time, to Christ…

…the Old Testament, rightly read in its salvation-historical structure, led to Christ…

…the law is upheld precisely in that to which it points…”

Yet, Carson is insistent that we need to see too “how radically Christocentric Paul’s reading of the Old Testament really is…”

Andy Naselli’s done a good summary here.

cast-iron shashuka - tomatoes, chickpeas, bayleaves, cabanossi, eggsa quick shashuka lunch straight from the hot cast-iron pan

Right. So are there any general principles that one can draw on what continues and what doesn’t, and can this be applied to any OT text faithfully?

Akan datang.

Chinese Lunar New Year Reunion Steamboat Dinner

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Friday the 13th Paris Attacks. Pray for Paris; Pray for Humanity

Far too early on a Saturday morning in Singapore, abruptly awakened by Facebook notifications, I peeked a bleary eye at what was happening. Two friends had, in quick succession, marked themselves safe in Paris, on Facebook’s Safety Check.

Paris Terror Attacks - Facebook Safety CheckNo, I’d thought. No, no, no.

But yes.
screen capture of Telegraph's headlines on Paris shootingSo ISIS (or is it ISIL? Daesh? The Islamic State?) has claimed responsibility, leading to the usual reactions in national and social media:

Immediate Reactions

    • immediate vows of retaliation, and an appeal for unity and togetherness (François Hollande: “So France will be merciless in its response to the Islamic State militants…use all means within the law…on every battleground here and abroad together with our allies”.)
    • calls for non-retaliation – you cannot bomb an idea that is religious, anti-Western, anti-imperialist (Peter van Buren);
    • calls for justice not vengeance – war on terrorism fuels more terrorism (The Nation);

Speculating how this could have been prevented

    • err, pointing to this as an example of why people need the freedom to own guns to shoot “the bad guys” (Donald Trump);
    • the authorities should have had adequate information to stop the attacks (Buzzfeed)

Speculating on the rise and aim of ISIS

  • fingering George Bush’s Iraq War as responsible for the creation of ISIS (Vanity Fair, Huffington Post);
  • rebutting that, qua Leo Tolstoy, no one can really be certain of the cause of historic events – “US invasion of Iraq, massive corruption, recent drought, Sunni v Shia sectarianism, constant Western and Russian meddling, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, trade sanctions, foundational scriptures, Muhammad’s example of religious militarism, Hulagu Khan’s sack of Baghdad, Al-Ghazali’s anti-scientific ‘renewing of the faith’, the Curse of Oil, establishment of the state of Israel etc etc. So many causes of the bedlam in the Middle East. Some are traceable to US foreign policy. Some not at all.” (comments from Muslim Matters)
  • (and also apparent real joy at the American liberation of Iraq (Wait But Why))
  • demanding that politicians finally officially acknowledge that ISIS is a Muslim organisation albeit one that interpretes the Quran differently from peaceful Muslims (The Spectator);
  • explaining that the West needs to know the intellectual basis of their enemy; that the Islamic State really believes that they have set up a caliphate with Baghdadi as caliph, that all good Muslims are to show allegiance to the caliphate, that they are working towards the Day of Judgement (The Atlantic);
  • insisting that it is grossly misrepresentative to say the Islamic State is Islamic (The Slate).

Another group has been greatly offended. Their cause of anger: #prayforparis and #prayforhumanity.

Atheist responses to #prayforparis
Atheist responses to #prayforparisAu contraire, God is neither powerless to prevent evil, nor does he ignore the tragic consequences of evil.

  1. God is so concerned with evil and that most of the Bible, God’s word, teaches how he has dealt with it and will deal completely with it.
  2. Good news for the good guys? Yes. But bad news for all of us, the whole of humanity. Because evil isn’t out there – not zombies, not another country or race or economic group or political party or bloodthirsty terrorist group, it’s in us – it is us. Since the Fall, every intention of the thoughts of the human heart has been evil continually (Genesis 6:5); it has been deceitful all the time and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9); out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander (Matthew 15:19). No one seeks for God or worships him – the ultimate definition of sin.
  3. If God had dealt completely with evil at the Fall, none of us would exist. If God comes to deal with evil now, all of us, on the basis of our own records, will have to be wiped out for justice to be done.
  4. So as I write this and as you read this and life goes on around us, it is erroneous to ask why bad things happen to good people. Because there is no one good, not even one. (Romans 3:10). No one seeks for God. The real question then is this: why do good and bad things happen to us bad people? Why does the sun still shine on us? How can we still enjoy life and love and companionship and food and air?
  5. It is the mercy of God for now. But we cannot be so complacent as to think this means we are home free. There is a judgment to come:

    “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly.

    But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” (2 Peter 3:7-10)

  6. And what does repentance look like? It is acknowledging that we have forsaken the true and living God and have wickedly chosen to live our own ways. It is turning back to acknowledging God and trusting his promise that the blood of his Son, Jesus, who died on the cross, has paid for our sins. It is submitting to the lordship of this Christ.
  7. It is to this God whom we pray. It is this judge Jesus whom we must fear. So yes, ISIS is scary but “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).

And why pray? The Christian is in a very different relationship with God the Father – able to speak to him and be heard, but of course, God being sovereign may not give us everything we ask for. Skimming the surface of the topic of prayer is D.A. Carson:

Making Dumplings and Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Bible Reading / Bible Study / Bible Interpretation

What pedagogical approaches are there for teaching people to read the Bible for themselves? I asked several people as a small assembly line of chatterers produced dumplings for dinner.

making dumplings on the second day of Chinese New Year, Singapore(Dumplings, Chinese dumplings and other ones in the same skinned family – Latvian and Russian pelmeni eaten with sour cream and Mongolian Бууз (buuz) slick with the oil of boiled mutton and Georgian khinkali, are best contained a delicate membrane that just about holds the filling in but can be broken with a decisive chomp. Too thick a skin and poor granny might be chewing till kingdom come. Also, when chopsticks are the utensils of choice, the food needs to be bite-sized to avoid all sorts of ungainly contortions (or perhaps that’s just me).

Lucky Peach magazine’s recent dumpling obsession under the banner of Dumpling Month, has resulted in a nice cluster of anecdotal articles on dumpling diplomacy (complete with recipe for shui jiao), the familial socialising that comes with communal making of jiaozidumplings shaped to look like mice.)

Biblical interpretation is mostly about good comprehension skills, yet at the same time it is about God’s word being used by God’s Spirit as a sword for God’s people. So the first and most important thing about biblical interpretation is prayer – depending on God to enable us to understand what he is saying in his word.

But what about comprehension? How can comprehension be taught? Whether or not unique to the school programme I was in, but I don’t remember being formally taught to read or understand a passage. It was just something picked up as we went along.

An English teacher, while rolling out the dough, admitted that even in the normal education stream in Singapore, understanding a passage isn’t a priority in most Singapore schools. Rather, students learn how to ace exams by knowing how marks are allocated for certain sorts of questions. This might explain the dearth of constructive political-social discussions online and offline.

making dumplings on the second day of Chinese New Year, Singaporeugly dumplings

This is very preliminary sketch of things. Have to train a few groups in “Bible reading” and Bible study leading in the next few months, and typing things out helps me think. Wish someone else more competent could do it, but here I am. So, future me, here are some very vague, possibly confused, thoughts about how I might go about it. Please edit as mistakes become apparent:

Session 1 – Priority of God’s Word (Why do Bible study at all?)

Several people have suggested that we dive straight into the skills bit and skip all this “boring doctrine”. But I think that understanding the divine origin of God’s word, and the implications of that undergirds the whole of the human life. Most people would agree its priority in the Christian life, but what exactly does this mean?

There is so much to talk about, including:

    • the trustworthiness of the word because of its divine origins;
    • the necessity of the word because of our sinful creatureliness (cf. John 1:18 – cue cheeky question of “if Christ is the Word of God, then Christians are those who believe in Christ, not in the Bible” etc. Nope, false dichotomy.);
    • the sufficiency of the word to accomplish God’s purposes in the world and in us (1 Corinthians 2:6-16, 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:6). Therefore we focus on planting the word faithfully, not ensuring the fruit, eg. the experience the word should produce, the community that the word should gather, the repentance that the word might extract;
    • the power of the word to do this (2 Timothy 3:15-16);
    • confidence in the word – clarity and purpose (cf. reader-response);
    • the ultimate authority that lies in the word (cf. the Pie of Ultimate Authority); and
    • as a warning against bibliolatry, how the Bible is merely the means to an end and not the end.

Maybe Timothy Ward’s excellent Words of Life: Scripture as the living and active word of God as set reading? Or some David Jackman? Jackman’s always good.

Here’s one facet:

  • Q: What is God’s plan for the world? His will and plan is, in the fullness of time, to unite all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10).
  • Q: Since we Christians are part of “all things”, how are we to be united to him? Once we were separated from Christ and far off, but have now been brought near and united with each other and in Christ through his blood (Ephesians 2:11-22). But that’s not all – we are to maintain the unity of the Spirit, build up the one body of Christ until “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-16)
  • Q: What does God give us to enable the body of Christ to be built up? Bible (apostles, prophets), people to tell us about Jesus (evangelists), people to proclaim Christ/teach us about Jesus from the Bible (shepherds, teachers) (Ephesians 4:11-16)
  • Q: Why are these necessary for the building up of the body?
  • Q: Who builds the body of Christ?
  • Q: How do they do it?

-> Q: What does this tell us about the usual way God accomplishes his plan for the world?

-> Q: What then are we seeking to accomplish in our times of Bible study?

-> Q: Why would the idea that “everyone can make the Bible say anything they want” be blasphemous?

-> Q: What specific ways would this change the way we personally lead Bible study this year?

 When I was little, Bible study was a chore that you avoided the best you could. But the reality is that it’s not just necessary for growth as much our daily food and water, it’s also like sweet fresh water after you’ve crawled about in a hot acrid desert, or, when you’ve come in from the snow, stamping your feet and sniffling, a steaming pot of slow-cooked stew, rich with red wine, bobbing with tender beef chunks and good carrots and tomatoes .

working on God's word in the Bible with some reference material - Timothy Ward's "Words of Life", Andrew Sach and Richard Alldritt's "Dig Even Deeper", Andrew Sach and Tim Hiorn's "Dig Deeper into the Gospels"Session 2 +++ – Grammatical-Historical Bit and Expositional (Book) Context (What is he saying and why is he saying it?)

God chose to make his official communication through human agents, using human language, expecting human minds to comprehend the same…but not without hard work.

Ask an evangelical minister for book recommendations for a toolkit to interpret the Bible and you get:

As a young Christian, neither of the first two books worked very well for me. It was all very well to have a catalogue of tools to use and a few worked examples, but I still couldn’t understand how they were to be deployed. “It’s more of an art than a science.” they said. Oh thanks very much, I said then, could I have someone hold my hand please? (The latest in the Dig Deeper series is really very useful in this regard, I think.)

Many years on now, I find myself agreeing that it’s more of an art than a science. But let’s see how much of a process we can put on it to help others.

It is clear that to understand the Bible correctly, we need to understand what the human author of that particular passage is saying. God chose to work through prophets and apostles and they wrote at a specific time, to a specific people, in a specific situation.

So our interpretation would have to be two-fold:

(i) working out what the human author is saying; and

(ii) understanding, as far as is necessary, the historical context into which he is writing. working on God's word in the BibleQ: How do I work out what God, through a historical author, is saying?

Here goes an attempt at a process (although I suspect one usually moves back and forth between most of these points in any ordinary reading exercise):

  • read through the whole book once preferably, if you are distracted by such things, without editor-imposed headings and sub-headings
  • note any obvious themes, statements of purpose for writing
  • hypothesize a structure to the book (how the Gospel writers build their argument/evidence for Jesus as the Son of God etc, or for Paul’s epistles, perhaps his argument flow)
  • hypothesize a structure to the given passage
  • work through individual chunks to test hypothesis – bearing in mind the genre of the book or of the specific chunk, dealing with the grammatical stuff like nouns, verbs, tenses, cases, use of metaphors and idioms, and using the usual comprehension skills (eg. in Dig Deeper‘s terminology, “linking words”, “repetition”, “narrator’s comment”, “tone and feel”, “quotation / allusion”) or equivalent in the language in use for that study (Chinese? Tamil? French?)
  • work through the details – this is somewhat controversial in certain circles: my SLOB leader was adamant that one must not spend alot of time working on the details, whereas a lecturer at The School was convinced that the main point of what the author was saying was dependent on the details and the more elusive our understanding of them was, the harder we needed to work at them. I suspect it’s the more-art-than-science thing of knowing when to pursue the details and when to leave them alone because it is unlikely they will contribute much to the main point.
  • check hypothesis of structure to given passage
  • from the structure, hypothesise the main point, that is, the thrust of the given passage

Q: What do we do with the historical context and the expositional/book context? Check how the hypothesised main point might fit into author’s context, intended audience, and the overall purpose of the book as a whole. After all the breaking up of a book into passages for bite-sized studies is artificial.

  • How would this passage link to previous chunk?
  • How would this passage help to develop the purpose of the book (if stated)?
  • What would be missing if this section was not here?
  • Why is this here? What would change if this passage was moved somewhere else in the book?

So:

Q: What does the passage say?

Q: Why is the passage saying this?

Q: Why is it saying it here?

Then come to a conclusion as to the main point of the given passage. Write what some people call a purpose statement – stating the aim of the human author in this chunk of the book. Ensure that it is a clear and specific sentence, not something that can be applied to any other part of the New Testament (eg. not “God loves you and his son died for you.”)

But we need to hold our horses – a nice succinct purpose statement is not the point of Bible study; responding rightly to what God has said is (see Session 4).

(Pedagogical approach-wise, wonder if, instead of doing endless exegetical exercises, we could just work through the text together with the leader modelling how he/she was thinking about it as we went along. Very NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) “pseudo-science”, but it’s certainly the way I personally learn best.)

not quite shashuka Session 3 – Redemptive-historical Context Hmm, it’s really artificial to break all this up into different sessions, but seeing that I have only an hour for each session…

All Scripture (and all of us) fit in somewhere on God’s timeline for the world. Knowing where our particular book fits in eschatologically would help us understand not only what God was saying to his people then, but also what he is saying to us now as we head towards the consummation of all that he has promised.

Loads of biblical theology (“the study of how every text in the Bible relates to every other text in the Bible”) books to choose from here: Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom and Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture trace the storyline through the Bible with themes of kingdom and covenant, Michael You’s Read Mark Learn: Bible Overview studies at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, and Thomas Schriener and D.A. Carson have a good number of books and articles on this between them.

Session 4 – Living in Light of God’s Word

The main point of the main point is to understand God’s word so that our minds can be changed and we can live differently. Michael You has said in several of his talks that broadly, there isn’t that much that God wants to tell us:

  • he wants us to acknowledge that he is God and we are not;
  • he wants us to see that reality is quite different from what we might think. Our baseline is usually that this world is all there is, will continue forever. But the world isn’t like that – God exists, he made this world, this world will come to an end, whether you like it or not, and Jesus will return to judge;
  • he wants us to change our worldview that shapes how we think and how we act. If we think that this world is all there is, then we want more money, and to get that we will decide on a well-paying job even if we have to work all days of the week. Even if we were brought up in a Christian family, most of us have a worldview that tells us that we have security because of the things of this world. But the reality is that this world is passing away and God wants us to want the new world to come. We must want what God wants, his goals, eternity, new creation.
  • God is not an arbitrary spoilsport. He cares for us with his infinite power and love and he wants us to be assured that we can leave our lives in his hands.

Our right response to God’s word will totally transform our lives. Will this work? Pray so. Now to get some dinner.

Ash Wednesday, Pineapple Tarts at Chinese New Year, and the Significance of Lent

“Excuse me,” I said to the lady who’d just sat down beside me on the bus,”You’ve got this bit of…oh…” I’d mistaken a cross marked with dark ash on her forehead for unwelcome dirt.

So it was Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent. For one brief moment, I thought of pleading Lent as an excuse to abstain from all the Chinese New Year “goodies” that inevitably beleaguers visitors as they make their rounds, festive house-visiting. To decline any of the pineapple tarts, kueh bangkit, kueh lapis, bak kwa, love letters, peanut cookies, sugee cookies, etc would be to blow a raspberry at the proffered hospitality. But having always nurtured a great dislike of the overly sweet, overly buttery stuff, accompanied by sickly pop soda in garish colours, if I could just claim a fast…

Le Cafe Confectionery, golf ball pineapple tarts, Chinese New Year, SingaporeLe Cafe golf-ball pineapple tarts

Sadly, that would have been a very bad excuse indeed:

(i) it would be an outright lie;

(ii) but if I did make good my fast not just to escape the tyranny of festive baked goods, my motive for so doing would have been wrong ab initio; and

(iii) even if I did mean to fast for a properly good reason, there’s the danger of hypocrisy:

“Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you…” (Matthew 6:1, 16-18)

Kim Choo pineapple tarts (with cloves), Chinese New Year, Singapore
Kim Choo pineapple tarts (with cloves), Chinese New Year, SingaporeKim Choo pineapple tart / balls with cloves

Well, come to think of it, what rationale is there for fasting for Lent? It’s not prescribed in the Bible. And we can be quite sure about what it is not:

  • for Christians, it is certainly not to earn merit. For Buddhists, for example, vassa is a period of intensive meditation, marked by asceticism – in practice, by the giving up of meat-eating, alcohol-drinking, and smoking. From what I understand (and I might be wrong, since I was only Buddhist for a few years), this stems from the Buddhist world-view that one must accumulate merit in life to ensure rebirth higher up on the spiritual liberation plane. For the Christian, however, there is the understanding that sin is not acknowledging God, who created the world and sustains it, as God, and therefore not heeding his word. The punishment for sin is death, but the blood of Jesus on the cross paid for all the sin of humankind who ever existed in human history. We accept this offer of life by believing that Jesus really did pay for our sins, and living with him as our Lord (as God the Father appointed him to be) and God. Nothing we can do can earn us our salvation, and self-inflicted pain does not in any way gain us spiritual reward;Glory kueh bangkit, Chinese New Year, Singapore
  • it is not quite an act of repentance per se. There are many instances in the Old Testament where fasting is a sign of sorrow over sin, contrition, repentance. That is to say, sackcloth and ashes (eg. Nehemiah 9:1) were merely an outward symbol of the inward turning back to God – the mere act of fasting meant nothing in itself. If sin means not to acknowledge God as God, then repentance is turning back and doing the opposite – acknowledging God as God, and living according to his word in the Bible. Said God through Isaiah to the people of his time:“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a trumpet;
    declare to my people their transgression,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
    2 Yet they seek me daily
    and delight to know my ways,
    as if they were a nation that did righteousness
    and did not forsake the judgement of their God;
    they ask of me righteous judgements;
    they delight to draw near to God.
    3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
    Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
    4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with a wicked fist.
    Fasting like yours this day
    will not make your voice to be heard on high.
    5 Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
    Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
    Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?
    6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
    to let the oppressed[b] go free,
    and to break every yoke?
    7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
    when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58, see also Zechariah 7)Glory pineapple tarts, Chinese New Year, SingaporeGlory pineapple tarts, Chinese New Year, Singapore
  • it might be hipster spirituality, not true spirituality. Carl Trueman (good name!) in Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing Our Piety wonders how much of the popularity of Lenten observance “speaks of a certain carnality: The desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it. As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness. In fact, far from revealing deep seriousness…it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion of the movement…it also puzzles me that time and energy is spent each year on extolling the virtues of Lent when comparatively little is spent on extolling the virtues of the Lord’s Day. Presbyterianism has its liturgical calendar, its way of marking time: Six days of earthly pursuits and one day of rest and gathered worship. Of course, that is rather boring. Boring, that is, unless you understand the rich theology which underlies the Lord’s Day and gathered worship, and realize that every week one meets together with fellow believers to taste a little bit of heaven on earth.”
  • fasting is commonly termed a “spiritual discipline” but what is a spiritual discipline? Spirituality itself is a mere theological construct whose basis, as D.A. Carson says in When is Spirituality Spiritual?, is scripturally debatable. And this theory generally devolves into techniques of self-discipline, sometimes called “spiritual disciplines” in order to get on more intimate relations with God.But, continues Carson in Spiritual Disciplines, techniques are never neutral. They are invariably loaded with theological presuppositions, often unrecognized. How closely would fasting (and self-flagellation, hairy shirts etc.) be tied to “medieval notions of elitist perfectionism not open to ordinary Christians? A relationship with God is not based on ecstatic experiences akin to going on a green detox diet or decluttering one’s possessions, but on meditating and chewing on how he has revealed himself in history, as recorded in the Bible, and so understanding him enough to be thinking his thoughts after him.

    “In one sense…all those who by God’s grace exercise saving faith in Christ Jesus have the Spirit (Romans 8:9) and are “spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:1-15). But then we are to “live by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), and that means self-consciously putting to death the “acts of sinful nature” and producing the “fruit of the Spirit”…And so we could go on, adding dimensions to any construct of spirituality controlled by the Word of God, correcting ourselves and our experience by Scripture, so that we may enjoy the fullness of the heritage that is ours in Christ Jesus while remaining entirely unwilling to be seduced by every passing fad.”

Bread and Cheese, and D.A. Carson on Biblical Theology

Je manger du fromage avec du pain” (“I eat cheese with bread”) was the first French phrase I learned, even before the usual “je m’appelle” (“I am called”), reflecting the central importance of those foods in my life and even, identity.

The brie de meaux is a lovely and melty (in Singapore weather) cheese with a sweet, creamy, slightly truffley, complex taste that totally cuddles up to your tastebuds. The morbier I am less effusive about – it is stronger tasting (good) but the saltiness trumps any nuance in flavour. There is a bitter aftertaste (interesting), and an almost agar-agar texture (not keen).

Accompanying the cheese, baguette au levain (sourdough baguette) from The Bread Table was a decent loaf. Its lack of an assertive depth of flavour (cf, say, Poilâne) commended it as a good base for any cheese.

There was no reason why a finicky child born and bred in Singapore, where lactose-intolerance prevailed on a sizeable chunk of the population, would take to bread and cheese so readily. It was too specific a liking and too early a proclivity to be any sort of pretension.

Photograph Wine and Cheese and Bread by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

On the subject of non-pretentiousness, we were discussing theology and the ordinary Christian, and how all Christians engage in theology, not just pouncy academics. Of course, the term could be used to mean generic academic study (in the U.K.) and systematic theology (in the U.S.), but at its heart, all these merely amount to serious discourse, reflection about God, based on the Bible.

Some points from D.A. Carson’s Introduction to Biblical Theology at The Gospel Coalition’s 2014 National Women’s Conference:

Biblical theology is interested in the temporal development themes across redemptive history. It is normally concerned with the following:

  1. What is the particularly set of theological emphases in particular book or corpus? What is contribution of Gospel of John? What is role of Moses in redemptive history? So as we study Nehemiah, we want to outline the biblical theology of Nehemiah – thinking through themes, argument, priority of Nehemiah.
  2. The examination of certain themes that run through the entire canon, where you’re keeping an eye on temporal development. What does the bible say about the temple – where is the temple first introduced? storyline? Some themes that run through the whole Bible: temple. covenant, priesthood, sacrifice, exile, creation-new creation etc.
  3. A combination of the first two: theology of a particular book, but looks backward to see what biblical themes it is taking up and looks forward to see how later books use this particular book. Carson recommended James M. Hamilton Jr’s With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology as a good example of this.

What are the ways that a good grasp of biblical theology help us to understand the Bible better, lead better Bible studies, and preach better?

    1. biblical theology directly addresses the massive biblical illiteracy prevalent in our age. If you have preaching and teaching that thinks only in terms of systematic theology, you just pull in all sort of biblical texts that seem to apply to your theme. It does not help you understand the Bible. You need to examine the flow, immediate context – what comes before and later. For example, the “fear of the Lord” is a theme in Nehemiah, but how does it work out in Nehemiah, how does it contribute in understanding Nehemiah? Look at the flowline, textline.This is also one of the aims of expository preaching. The truthfulness of what is being taught in systematic preaching is based largely on proof-texts. Rather, with expository preaching we take readers to the text and say “follow with me”. What we want to hear after the sermon is not “boy, i could not have seen it in the text” but “it is so obvious, it’s in the text”.Look at the Bible storyline – how the story of redemption is unpacked. It works with biblical categories: fear of lord, tabernacle, faith, kingship that are there in the Bible. Pointing out biblical categories is desperately important because these usual themes are incoherent to current biblically-illiterate generation. Systematic theology generally uses synthetic categories – categories that are not found in Bible, eg. trinity or cessationist. These might reflect truths but they don’t help readers understand the Bible, because when they turn to their Bibles, they don’t find these words there.
    2. biblical theology draws attention to the turning points in biblical history. If we only use bible as source book for pious thought for the day, it may be of some help, but reading like that won’t tell you how all the bits fit together.

      Turning points: creation – fall – choice of abe – beginning of covenant people of God – story of Abraham and patriarchs – Jacob and sons to Egypt – slavery – exodus – law at Sinai – tabernacle and priestly system – entrance to land – judges – united monarchy – David and davidic dynasty – splitting of kingdom – northern tribes go to captivity – southern tribes go to captivity – return and rebuilding – silence – coming of Jesus (sacrifice, temple, high priest, covenant – all categories in the new testament) – descent of Spirit in Pentecost – new heaven and new earth.

      If you know the Bible storyline well, you know how the different books fit in it. The Bible is not primarily organised on chronological grounds. For example, in the New Testament, the letters to churches come before letters to individuals. And long letters come before short ones.

    3. biblical theology enriches systematic bible reading and vice versa. This prepares the way for mature preaching. A biblically-informed parishoner is the best hearer.

    4. biblical theology encourages various kinds of integration and diversity in preaching. We can see that biblical books are of many sorts: letters, poetry, songs, narrative, discourse, curses, maledictions, oracles, apocalyptic, wisdom. Every genre of literature has its own way of making an appeal. What would be lost from the book of Genesis if i lost this chapter? What is this chapter doing in this book?
    5. biblical theology fosters inductive rigour. If we what bring to bear on the Bible first from systematic theology, then comes out of our pre-existing framework. This blinds you to what can be inductively perceived from Bible. BT therefore makes you a better interpreter of Bible.
    6. biblical theology helps you to avoid anachronism in preaching and teaching. It enables biblically-warranted connections and avoids imposing something from the big picture on the local text – this may be doctrinally right in general but anachronistically wrong in chapter.
    7. biblical theology is also fundamental for detecting one of many penetrating biblical arguments for connecting Old Testament and New Testament, and the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament. See Edmund P. Clowney’s The Unfolding Mystery.