Author: Nick Brennan

Zeal for the good (Nick Brennan)

On Sunday evening I quoted Rom 10:2, 3 in passing:

For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.

These verses came back to me in the last few days, as I thought about the relationship between enthusiasm and right doctrine. Frequently I seem to encounter zealous Christians (on the internet or in person) who are zealous “but not according to knowledge”. It seems Christians not only are frequently deceived but seem often to place their zeal on the most inane things possible.

In light of which, I have to admit that I am basically suspicious of zeal. If pride comes before a fall, zeal normally comes before being a loon. But if you look closely at Romans 10 there’s something that rebukes me (and perhaps you).

The zeal of Rom 10 is certainly a tragic zeal, a putting the Law ahead of Christ in the place of God, such that Jews of Paul’s day were unwilling to put their faith in Jesus. And yet there’s something qualificatory about Paul’s comment. He bears them witness they are zealous, just not in a knowledgeable way. It is as if Paul says, I can positively say they are zealous (which we agree is good) but not for what is right.

Paul seems to associate zeal in religion as a good thing though it can be misdirected. But the solution is not no zeal but rightly directed zeal. And this is not an isolated phenomena but something that runs through the Scriptures.

So in Galatians 4 Paul exhorts the Galatians:

“It is good to be zealous for what is good, and not only when I am with you.”

Phinehas was commended for his zeal:

11 “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was zealous with my zeal among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my zeal.”

Nor is it surprising that we are encouraged to be zealous when the Lord Jesus himself was characterised by zeal. The NT frequently quotes Ps 69 as being spoken by Jesus, including these verses:

“Zeal for your house consumes me. The reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.”

Jesus was sufficiently zealous for God and his glory that those who opposed God, opposed him.

All of this is quite contrary to my way of thinking. I am suspicious of zeal, suspecting it falsely directed. I am happy with the calm teaching of right knowledge as opposed to empty zeal.

But this is a false dichotomy. We ought to be seeking to be zealous for God, rightly understood. Notice, not zealous simply for right understanding ie zealous about being right. But zeal for what is right. (And by zealous, it might be helpful to simply replace the word with passion or devotion.)

What on earth, in the end, does it mean to unzealously rehearse what God has done for us in Christ? Should I be matter of fact about being chosen before the foundations of the world? Or cooly interested in my sonship and guarantee of inheritance of a world to come? Or blithely attached to a God who became man and died in my place?

Ah, but some may say. But you are advocating a kind of worked up emotionality. No. I am simply saying we ought to be more passionate about the things of Christ than we are about anything else. If we are not as attached to the gospel as we are to our spouses (if we have them) and our hobbies then we are failing in this area.

Thankfully we do not stand before God on the basis of our passion or lack thereof, but on the finished work of Christ. This is not to disengage us from a passionate life, but to redirect our passions to God. We are being saved, though not on the basis of our own zeal or passions, but on the basis of Christ’s zealous work in which he is preparing a people zealous for God, and zealous for what is good (Titus 2:14).

In this light, zeal without knowledge is certainly terrible, misleading many. But knowledge without zeal – is the clever way of disengaging oneself from the service of God, by affirming the truth and passing quietly on to be passionate for other things. A way from which I (and perhaps you) need to repent.

Why study biblical languages? (Nick Brennan)

I’m sure like me you have your own personal little mantras. Pearls of personal wisdom which, when asked, can drop from your lips like morning dew. If only someone would actually ask once in a while. They never do – not even my wife. But she gets them anyway.

In this vein I often find myself mystically murmurring to myself, my spouse, my bemused children, passers-by: not every argument which supports your position is a good argument, and not every argument against your position is a bad argument. It’s easy to slip into this fallacy: I have a view, I want to support it, and I’ll darn well coral whatever I can, arguments good and bad, to do the job. So what if some of them take mass casualties.

As someone pursuing a PhD in Hebrew and about to start teaching Greek for the first time Im certainly interested in arguments that encourage people to learn them. It amazes me more and more, as Bill Mounce notes, that frequently those who are most enamoured with the Word of God and champion its preaching are frequently less than enthusiastic about their own study of the Bible in its original languages or in encouraging others to pursue learning them too and that those most equipped in the biblical languages I meet are often the furthest from being believers.

This all to say: I want to argue that we ought to be prioritising learning the biblical languages amongst those who are hoping to be entrusted with preaching and teaching the Word of God (and to kindly give a kick up the pants to those who already are but don’t have a yiqtol, a peal or an aorist to cuddle up to at night).

There is, however, a very bad argument I frequently hear at the moment from those trying to promote the learning of biblical languages. To the many who are saying, "We don’t really need to learn Greek and Hebrew to be effective ministers of the gospel", those seeking to champion biblical languages are too often saying "but you can’t really understand the Bible without them".

I know what both sides mean, have some sympathies with each, and … a curse on both your houses. What they both betray is a mis-understanding of the nature of language and biblical interpretation (yes I know, I’m holding back). A mis-understanding which can be elucidated by asking a simple question: what do you mean "really understand"?

What both positions betray is a view of reading where there is a kind of "getting it right" and a "getting it wrong". Now before you pull the wacky alarm I’m not saying that Scripture is a wax nose and all readings are equally valid or anything like that. Nor do I mean that Scripture has more than one meaning. What I mean is that it is much better to see reading as an art which we grow in, like being a patient listener; something in which we asymptotically move away from a reading that is not what is being communicated towards one that is approaching the meaning of the author. We never fully exhaust a text, especially the Word of God. We never "get it right", even if we may still pronounce that certain readings are wrong.

Most of us work with this kind of outlook of reading the Bible a priori. We are willing to admit that some who teach the Word have a deeper understanding of Scripture and what it teaches, but we do not thereby doubt that a new Christian reading the Bible does really understand something of what it’s saying. If we did we’d basically be ditching the Protestant doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. This issue of clarity (connected with issues of Christ’s incarnation) certainly applies to the issue of language. The biblical languages are able to be translated into English. Not perfectly, but they are able to be done so with a high degree of fidelity. One reading a translation is reading the Bible and as one understands what is written in English one really is understanding the Bible. As at Pentecost, so now, each one is able to hear the thrust of the Bible "in their own language". I doubt at this stage (if you’re still reading) that many would disagree.

But here’s the rub. We ought to be increasing in skill at reading. And to do so means acquiring the skills necessary to read better. Anyone in ministry or hopeful to pursue ministry is one seeking to be approved by God in handling the Word well. This involves growing in skill. Skill that does not move one from "getting it wrong" to "geting it right" (most of the time) but surely moves us closer to what the text is saying and to a deeper and more precise understanding of the Bible and its author.

Again I doubt anyone disagrees. But applying this paradigm to learning biblical languages is often where I seem to lose people. Let me then apply it to biblical background. I imagine we all would admit that in order to progress in the art and skill of good Bible handling we ought to be trying to grow in understanding the contexts and cultures in which the Bible was written. And, again, that growing in this understanding is not something that necessarily moves us from a wrong reading to a right reading (though it might do) but one that refines our understanding asymptotically. Take for example the famous passage in the letters to the churches in Revelation where God threatens to spit out the church at Laodicea for being neither warm nor cold. Understanding of aquifers in that region helps us understand quite why this metaphor has been chosen and that God is essentially criticising them for being neither hot water (which is useful) nor cold water (which is useful) but warm and insipid like the water of Laodicea.

Misunderstanding this reference can lead to some false points being drawn (e.g. imaginging God is saying he prefers straight pagans over luke-warm Christians). Knowledge of the cultural background increases our reading proficiency and ability to handle the word of God well. As a preacher it’s gold dust – their attitude invokes a reaction in God which we all know from drinking warm tap water in heavily urbanised areas – a desire to spew. But ignorance of the cultural background does not render us unable to read the text. (Gladly so, for there are many practices and issues of background that remain opaque, at least at our present moment in history.) Even the newest Christian can read the letter to Laodicea and understand that God is displeased with his church and about to do something drastic because of their attitude. Background understanding corrects where we wrongly fill in our own cultural understanding (and it is worth noting here that so too in reading nature abhors a vacuum), but most of the knowledge of background clarifies, enriches, deepens and solidifies our understanding of the text at hand.

This is exactly the case for biblical languages, which are in a sense simply the linguistic application of cultural background. Language and culture are not detachable items; the former encodes and transmits the latter, the latter guides and shapes the former. Language understanding sometimes entirely reverses understanding, but most of the time it does not. It is not a silver bullet. It only clarifies, enriches, deepens and solidifies our understanding of the text at hand.

So I will not tell you Mr. Preacher or Budding Preacher that you must study Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic if you want to understand the Bible. Or that if you don’t, you won’t understand the Scriptures. I will only ask two questions: is it a matter of your sanctification to seek every means possible by which to clarify, enrich, deepen and solidify your own reading, believing and preaching of Scripture or not; and if it is, are we really "right-handlers" without it?

A dangerous comparison

If I were to ask you what in particular makes ministry in the modern world difficult, I wonder what you’d say.

Though it might seem odd I would include amongst the greatest threats to the pastor’s heart is: the internet.

Now your mind might fly to all sorts of relevant ways in which the internet is a threat to Christian purity or discipline of time, but what I principally have in mind is the way in which the internet sets the consciousness of the average person, average Christian and average minister into a global perspective in the twenty first century. Continue reading

What preachers can’t ignore

The environment in which I was discipled as a Christian was one that was very strong on preaching and very good at training up younger men to be preachers. To that end it was also very strong on teaching men (and women) the principles of exegesis and hermeneutics. All of this was galvinised by a strong sense of the supremacy and God-giveness of Scripture, to which I remain entirely indebted through both the teaching and example of those men.

It is interesting, however, that in that same environment there was a certain antipathy to systematic theology. Not by explicit repudiation of the discipline as much as by an implicit neglect. Now this is, to some degree, understandable given the history of UK evangelicalism. Most of the old guard trained in a day when theological colleges were rife with liberalism and graduating with one’s evangelical beliefs still in tact was as much about pulling up the drawbridge and holding on tight for three years as anything else. Theology was mostly liberal speculation; evangelicals were marked by their desire to hold to the infallible Scriptures, to get back to the source and take it on its own terms. That era produced some great evangelical preachers (Stott, Lucas) and some fine exegetes (Wenham, Kidner, Marshall, Bruce) but not exactly a glut of evangelical systematicians. (In fact one wonders if the strengths of British evangelicals in encouraging men in biblical studies in that era via initiatives like Tyndale House had a direct impact in discouraging a high regard for systematics). Continue reading

Seamless truth and the gospel

Some further thoughts on Geoff’s previous post…

Is truth really a seamless fabric? I suppose it depends which question you are asking. Do truths contradict one another and still stand the test of truth? No, all truth is a seamless fabric. Are all true truths able to be related to one another in a consistent way with elucidated connection. Yes, all truth is a seamless fabric.

But in another sense truth is not a seamless fabric. There are common truths, revealed by general revelation, and special truths revealed through Scripture. Can one find out the truth of spin quantisation from investigating an atom? Yes. Can one find out the truth that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God and died for sins from peering at an atom? No. Does that atom hint at the truth of the incarnation and sacrifice of Christ? No, truth is not a seamless fabric – in the sense of total homogeneity.

Continue reading