Thursday, August 26, 2010

watching the Bible as the TV show: towards an understanding of biblical narrative

In my estimation, many churchgoers (or any reader for that matter) read biblical narrative incorrectly. There may be any number of reasons for an incorrect approach, however I would suggest that the major approach that people take towards the biblical narrative can be likened to the way those people watch TV or movies. If you will listen to the way most people talk about biblical narrative they will say things like, “what stood out the most,” or perhaps “what struck me.” The problem with these statements is that people are merely describing their experience with the text and not the text itself.

If you will notice, these phrases seem to implicitly describe the experience of a viewer in relation to some type of visual experience. This means that most people are approaching the text of Scripture as if it were an object to be interpreted visually. Practically speaking, most people are coming to narrative texts with the question: how does this narrative look visually. This line of interpretation assumes that the medium of communication is conveyed through images. However, I would suggest that the most important medium of communication for biblical narrative is not image-based but language based. More specifically, the most important interpretive key for biblical narrative tends to be found in the mouth of a speaker and not in any sequence of images.

So (the practical question is) how can one possibly begin to read biblical narrative correctly? I would suggest several things? First, one needs to understand the type of genre that the given text falls under. The reader must understand the distinction between form and genre. You see, narrative is simply a form of way to communicate a biblical truth; however the genre is how that particular narrative functions in relation to the community. For instance, the books of Exodus, Kings, and Ruth are all written in the form of narratives, however they are all placed within different genre categories. Exodus falls under the larger category of law or teaching. Kings is prophetic history or history that is being explained or interpreted from the prophetic framework. Kings aims at answering the question: why did the kingdom divided and why is we in exile? The book of Ruth however is practical or instructional in some sense. It is telling the story of the person of Ruth in such a way that is withholding of Ruth as a virtuous character. An example of interpretation found in the mouth of a character in the book of Ruth is found in the mouth Boaz who says, “The LORD repay you for what you have done,” (Rut 2:12 ESV). There are many available resources, which can enable the reader to get hold of the specific genre of any given book.

Second, readers need to stop thinking in terms of verse division. Verse division is helpful for referencing different parts of the Bible; however it does not adequately divide the text into individual interpretive units. Instead of focusing on verse division, readers should begin to look for individual lines of text. In most cases, (especially if the reader is unable to read Greek or Hebrew) is probably most helpful to focus on individual sentences. The reader should then ask: how is this individual sentence or line functioning within the given story? Is this line relaying a sequence of events or is it perhaps giving a piece of background information? Asking these kind of questions is helpful because as a rule stories tend to begin and end with background information or narrative comment. Determining individual lines can help determine the beginning and end of stories as well as the more significant lines which help interpret the story for the reader.

Third, readers need to start asking the question: what is the form or structure of the story? Very often, stories can contain a great deal of content but the content of the story is not necessarily the main point of the story. The main point of the story is usually found in the form or structure of narrative. For instance, Genesis 1 is one of several versions of a creation account found in Scripture; however the form of the story draws attention to a very specific point. Genesis 1 primarily teaches that God is both creator and king of the universe, who sits enthroned in heavenly rest whereas Psalm 24, although it contains the same theological ideas of God as creator and king it is doing so in relation to the one who seeks to worship him as such. The structure of a narrative can be discerned once a reader has determined the function of individual line.

Finally, in most cases, pay careful attention to how the story is interpreted by characters of the story itself. Christians have been saying for ages that Scripture interpret Scripture. This is true because this is how Scripture itself is designed. I can't emphasize this point enough. If the reader is careful to listen to what the characters say about the meaning of the story itself, then generally speaking (even readers who are not competent in the original languages) are able to arrive at a fairly accurate interpretation of the narrative.

In conclusion, many contemporary readers tend to incorrectly read biblical narrative because they have failed to understand the nature of the media of Scripture, which does not convey its primary meeting through a sequence of images or actions rather through the words of the speakers themselves. If it is true of modern media that a picture is worth a thousand words, then for Scripture a word is worth a million words!

P.S--For an interesting analysis on how this reading deficiency affects the quality of the average preacher see: T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: the Media Have Shaped the Messengers, New Jersey: R & R Publishing, 2009.

P.P.S--Duane Garrett and Jason DeRouchie state that of the most important was thematically prominent information in a text is often not the mainline clause (any clause within the text that moves the story forward in terms of progression of the event). Off-line clauses (not exclusively but usually clauses found in amounts of speakers or narrators of the story) can be thought of as the Cline, or continuum, with some having high prominence and others low prominence, A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew, Nashville: B & H publishers, 2009, 291.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why the catechism all of a sudden?

Just in case you're wondering what has spurred on my sudden shift in topics from canonical criticism to the Westminster catechism is due to a sudden shift in priorities. Up until a couple of days ago, I was still on summer study mode. However, I am now registered for most of my classes that I need to take this semester. There is but one class that I have not registered for, which is a preaching class that requires that I have a working knowledge of the catechism starting from question 1 through 54. Needless to say, Childs has had to take a backseat to the Westminster divines for the moment.

I've actually wanted to have the opportunity to memorize the catechism for quite some time, but never actually had the necessary motivation to do so. Presently, it is a matter of life and death for me to enter into this preaching class. I'm doing pretty good so far and making good progress. My wife just tested me tonight and she found that I was able to spout off the first 20 answers with a relative accuracy "of about 98%" in her estimation. I was also able to roughly regurgitate the next five answers. I've got about 15 more days to go to make it all the way to my proficiency goal! Well, I am going to grind the coffee for tomorrow morning and then go to bed.

so you want to become a catechism teacher?

In my last entry, I attempted to answer the question: why should the catechism continued to be used as theological education? I advocated for its continued use because it is an extremely valuable piece of curriculum, which instills a basic theological framework for understanding biblical teaching and practice. In this entry, I would like to provide some basic guidelines and how to learn the catechism for yourself so that you can be in a position to use it as a teaching tool for others.

The Problem of Learning the Catechism

Before one can ever teach the catechism, one must first have it memorized but more fundamentally one must understand what is to be learned in the catechism. Memorization, without a doubt, is a difficult task in itself. (Believe me I am still in the process of memorizing the catechism myself). Indeed, there are many obstacles that stand in the wake of memorizing the catechism: word choice, syntax, the sheer number of questions, as well as a subtle variation in the wording of each question that can make several questions appear virtually indistinguishable. However, the difficulty in memorization can be greatly lessened if one understands the catechism before he begins to memorize it. The fundamental problem of learning the catechism is how one understands the catechism itself.

The Aspects Required to Understand the Catechism

So what does one need to understand? If one desires to have a basic understanding of the catechism, then one needs to understand: the subject, the genre, the form, and the structure. If one has a great basic grasp on these four aspects of the catechism, and the task of memorization is greatly lessened. In fact the act of memorization becomes quite enjoyable, and even rewarding. I will further all every of this at the end.

The Subject of the Catechism

The subject of the catechism is quite simple. The catechism basically teaches the student to things: (1) about God and (2) about how we are to respond to him. The catechism itself announces this topic in question 3, which asks: what descriptors principally teach? Answer: the Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

What is man to believe concerning God? First, that God is the only true and living God who created all things from nothing. Second, that God in Jesus Christ is the only Redeemer of God's people.

What duty does God require a man? He requires absolute perfection. In fact, he requires absolute perfection without any room for error. Specifically, he requires perfection in the areas of knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. This means that he requires men to know is holy Word, make supplication to him, and practice every righteous act which is spelled out in the law. This entire relationship between God and man is referred to as the "covenant of life."

Now, obviously, the catechism has much more to teach about these subjects, and even has some qualifications regarding the subjects, however this is basically what the catechism teaches about the nature of God (creator, sovereign, and Redeemer) and about the various duties required of man (external ordinances, ethics, and sacraments).

Genre Classification the Catechism

Genre classification has to do with how any given text relates to reality. Specifically, what is the function of the text in relation to its audience. How is the text supposed to affect the mind of its readers? Overall, the catechism aims at providing religious instruction. Specifically, it aims at providing theological instruction from the reformed perspective as it is grounded in the Christian Bible (old and New Testaments).

However, there are two different types of knowledge that it seeks to convey: theoretical and practical knowledge. Theoretical knowledge teams at providing a picture of the world as it is (where the word "world" stands as a universal set or arena for a more specific subject). In this regard, the catechism teams at teaching the student about who God is. The catechism further elaborates that God is the creator and Redeemer of all creation. Practical knowledge aims at providing knowledge about the world as it should be. In this regard, the catechism aims at teaching the student how he should respond to God.

In summation, the student will be required to learn something about God as he is (theoretically) and how he should respond to God (practically). This means the test of a student competency should reveal what he's able to sing about God as creator and Redeemer and have his people to respond to God in his actual life.

Form of the Catechism

The catechism is put in a question-and-answer format. Now, the question-and-answer format is not to be read as a real-world script. My wife remarked the other day as we were going through the catechism that it seems very unlikely that anyone would ever ask her these questions on the street. In this regard, the catechism reads much like the writings of Plato. It's somewhat depicts a rather dry dramatic dialogue between student and teacher, where the student somehow is able to answer all of the teachers questioned with complete consistency and clarity. However, the purpose of the form is not necessarily to be likened to a script to be performed, rather it is to be likened to a guidebook with more general principles. It is true that the catechism does enable the student to provide a ready answer for his faith, however the question-and-answer format demonstrates the relationship between thought and theological formulation. In other words, the question shows the student what specific theological problem is being addressed so that he is able to understand the answer that he is memorizing. This enables the student to make use of the answer in a wide variety of thought and real-world circumstances. In other words, but one person in the real world may bombard with the questions as they are formulated within the catechism, however you may encounter the theological problem, which the question addresses in a wide variety of real world and thought world circumstances.

In addition, the form of the question is by its very nature and unsubstantiated claim. That is, nearly every answer contained in the catechism is a thesis claim that unapologetically fails to provide scriptural evidence for itself. This is intentionally built into the catechism. The catechism is an interpretive tool, which encourages the student to investigate its basic claims within the Scriptures themselves. The catechism by design encourages the student to enter into a dialogue with its own claims. The catechism itself is not the final word, rather the scripture is. It is the responsibility of the student to test the claims of the catechism in relation to the claims of Scripture.

In summation, the student should recognize that the question-and-answer format does not represent a real world drama, rather it is a representation of the relationship between theological problem and theological answer. This will enable the student to recognize the versatility of any given theological answer within the catechism to be used in a wide variety of circumstances (both real-world and thought world). Second, the form of the catechism is unsubstantiated by intentional design. Each answer is only a theological claim, which is in need of further scriptural evidence. If the student correctly understands this design of the catechism, he will demonstrate its understanding by his desire to test the claims of the catechism against the claims of Scripture to see if the two properly correspond.

The structure of the catechism

The catechism can be roughly outlined as such:

I. Introduction (Q. 1--3)

Theoretical knowledge -- teaching about God as he is

II. what man is to believe concerning God (4 -- 38)

a. Creator (4 --19)

b. Redeemer (20 -- 38)

Practical knowledge -- teaching about how we respond to God

III. duties that requires a man (39 -- 107)

a. Ethical Practice -- 10 Commandments (39 -- 87)

b. external ordinances and sacraments (88 -- 107)

i. Scripture reading (89 -- 90)

ii. baptism and Lord's supper (91 -- 97)

iii. prayer-Lord's prayer (98 -- 107)


So how does one begin to teach the catechism? One must both memorize the catechism and understand. The process of memorization can be extremely difficult for a wide variety of reasons, however if one has a basic understanding of the catechism in terms of its subject (doctrinal content), genre (how it is to affect the mind of the student), form (why it is written in a question-and-answer format and why the catechism by design fails to substantiate claims), as well as its basic structure; then one will be in a position to memorize it with greater ease.

Learning the subject of the catechism enables one to know what to expect to encounter as he/she moves through the catechism questioned by question.

Knowing the genres of the catechism enables one to know how to assimilate the kinds of knowledge one encounters within the catechism. The student can keep this question in his mind: if the catechism teaching me something about God or if it's teaching me how to respond to God?

Having a grasp on the why of the question-and-answer format enables the student to appreciate the relationship between the theological problem in the theological answer (whether that problem be practical for theoretical).

Knowing the fact that its claim in catechism is unsubstantiated should encourage the student to investigate the catechism and to enter into a dialogue with its relationship to Scripture. The catechism itself does not provide the final word, the student is the one who needs to make a judgment about the validity of each claim. Finally, knowing how the catechism is divided enables the student to know where to find the various doctrines taught within the catechism. It also allows the students to know how to access the catechism for further reference.

In the end, no understanding can completely overcome this difficulty in time that it will take for any student to learn how to master the catechism. However, every student should know that what he's learning is worthy to be learned for the glory of God. Ultimately, the student will learn to glorify God with his mind and actions. Not only their moral actions, but also their skills as a reader, Speaker, and listener because let's face it the catechism can be a tough read and a rough ride to recite but these actions increase the overall competency of the student that stretch will be on the areas of churchly knowledge and skill.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

what does the Talmud have to say about Presbyterianism?

There is a statement within the Talmud that says, “It is not enough to simply repeat the tradition, but the student must also understand it as well.” This being said, what then is the value of learning something like the Westminster shorter catechism? Aside from it being a requirement for students here at Reformed Theological Seminary, I would suggest that the shorter catechism is a ready-made discipleship curriculum, which provides a basic framework for understanding God and how people are to respond to him. This is true because the catechism provides the student with a basic summary of the twofold knowledge of God (i.e. God the Creator, God the Redeemer), which is taught in the Scriptures. In addition, it requires the students to memorize in full the 10 Commandments and the Lord's prayer, while providing a basic explanation of each portion of Scripture.

Now, I realize that there are many objections to the continued use of catechism, however, I would suggest that many of these objections either are outright agreements to the theological content of the catechism or simply fail to appreciate the value of catechism as a form of education that initiates one's understanding of Christianity not terminates. I think many people tend to object to catechism because they believe that it stagnates and future theological understanding or apprehension, however this is certainly not the case for two reasons.

First, the Catechism does not claim for itself absolute authority. The authority of the catechism is derived from Scripture. The catechism functions as a bullet point framework for understanding the teachings of Scripture. , it does not pretend to provide final answers for every interpretive problem found within the Scriptures themselves. At times, the catechism is room for discussion and ambiguity, which allows freedom to discuss theological matters outside of the catechism itself (e.g. question 9 states that God created all things "in the space of six days" what does that mean? Does the catechism authoritatively claim a literal six day creationism?) This means any student of the catechism does not rely on the catechism to answer every one of his questions because (1) the catechism itself teaches that the Scripture itself is the only rule to direct any Christian how to enjoy and glorify God, (2) the catechism itself does not attempt provide clarity on every one of its answers.

It also does not claim to be exhaustive. That is, it does not intend to be a full encyclopedia of theological knowledge. There are many theological areas which remain outside of the scope of the catechism. This means that the student will leave his time with the catechism with many more questions than when he first began. The catechism initiates the student into the subject matter of the Bible, which in turn further generates more questions about the Scriptures, which in turn encourages any "graduate" of the catechism to more closely engage the Scriptures themselves. This then becomes the testing grounds for what the student has learned from catechism. This means that the student can then test the accuracy of the catechism against his reading of Scripture.

The bottom line is I believe many people object to the continued use of catechism because they assume that the goal of such learning is simply rote memorization of 107 questions. There are several assumptions behind this objection, which simply failed to understand the function and limits of the catechism. I have argued that the catechism does not claim absolute authority within the church community, rather functions as a framework for understanding the teachings of Scripture (i.e. knowledge of God (questions 1 -- 38) and how we respond to him (39 -- 107). I have contended that the goal of this framework initiates an understanding of the Scripture, which generates questions about the Scriptures itself and encourages further engagement with the Scriptures. This is true because the form of each answer on the catechism is simply a summary or thesis statement concerning doctrine, which does not substantiate itself within the catechism, rather it encourages the student to provide evidence for the claims that it makes. If it is true that even a student of tradition should not simply repeat the tradition itself without first understanding it, then it is equally true that the one whom rejects the tradition must also understand the tradition before he rejects it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


The other day, my wife Emily noticed that I was reading a book entitled "Introduction to the Old Testament As Scripture." She laughed at the title, especially after I tried to explain that the book was quite revolutionary in the field of Old Testament studies.

My wife's reaction to this book was one of incredulity and offence. For her, the title was incredulous because the idea of studying the Bible as Scripture seems to be part and parcel with how one approaches the Bible and yet for some reason it had not dawned on scholars to do so (apparently) until the 1970s with the pioneering work of Brevard Childs. The question that I could see encoded in her furloughed eyebrow was: why had he can scholars so long to learn how to read the Bible in a way as has been completely obvious to any regular practicing Christian or Jew? For her, the title of book was also offensive because it seemed to imply that scholars were trying to lay claim to something that they didn't really discover. To claim to try to understand Old Testament as Scripture seems to imply that scholars are going to be in to try to incorporate faith within their methodological approach. I don't think my wife would put it this way, but her emotional response to this book is grounded in a kind of unresolved hypocrisy within the very title. To talk about the Old Testament as Scripture is to separate the notion of the body of writings from their place of authority within the community of faith. The very title poses the question: what is the relationship between the Old Testament and Scripture? For her (and for me for that matter!) the body of writings is inseparably bound to its authority. What makes this title initially offensive is that the writer is presuming to make use of a notion that properly belongs to insiders but he will do so from a dispassionate/outsider perspective. In other words, the question Childs is asking is: what would the Old Testament look like if we (scholars) study did as if it were Scripture (i.e. a body of authoritative writings that forms and in forms the community of faith)? For the person of faith, this is an impossible task. One cannot study the Bible as if one believed it to be true and authoritative. Either one accepts it as true and authoritative or one does not.

Now, my wife did not realize that her emotional response to this volume is precisely the response that Childs wants from his readers. He maintains that scholars from both sides of the fence have missed the mark. Conservative scholars (i.e. those who approach the Bible as Scripture) have failed to acknowledge the many advances in our understanding of The Old Testament brought about by Historical Critical Research (i.e. those who approach the Bible exclusively as a historical religious document). He argues that both camps have failed to acquire and make use of a proper understanding of canon, which is historically grounded in an understanding of the shape of the text, which is not necessarily found in a reconstructed/conjectural understanding of the process of canonization but in the final form of the canon itself. This means that conservative scholars have tended to interpret the Scriptures with a concept of canon, which has been formulated philosophically and theologically without the aid of a historical understanding of canon. Critical scholars, on the other hand, have disregarded any concept of canon as the legitimate framework for interpreting Scripture. So Childs, although Childs is at some level intending an emotive response to his book, he is more explicitly criticizing the relative failure of both conservative and critical scholars in order that he may propose a new (not sense of invention but in the sense of discovery) hermeneutical approach to interpreting the Old Testament.

There is much that could be said about Childs canonical approach, but let me briefly summarize. He states that the goal of the canonical approach is to take seriously the significance of the canon as a crucial element in understanding the Hebrew Bible and yet at the same time understanding it in its true historical and theological dimensions. This means that he will attempt to explore the meaning of the shape or structure of the biblical texts, while at the same time make use of the tools of historical critical Research to supplement his understanding. He is not attempting to ignore historical credit research, rather he is proposing a shift in emphasis that focuses on providing a description of the final form of the biblical text. The shape of the text refers to the "interpretive structure which the biblical text has received from them to form and used it as sacred Scripture." Basically, my wife's response was basically correct. Childs does intend to study the Bible As If he were a believer. The difference between Childs and my wife at this point is that Childs is saying that he intends to study scripture as if he were a Christian or Jewish believer about 2000 years ago or so.

I would like to think that my wife refuses to read Childs because of her strong emotional response to the perplexing title of his book, however it probably has more to do with the Scholastic nature of the book itself. To be absolutely fair to my wife, she is actually a strong advocate of the canonical approach to Scripture. About a year ago, she had the privilege of taking a course here at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson with Miles Van Pelt. The course that she took was entitled "Joshua to Kings." The very title of the course suggested a canonical approach because it suggests that the scope of the survey class was to cover the former prophets. During the course, Dr. Van Pelt, stressed the importance of the original Hebrew order of the canon for understanding Scripture. After that class, my wife became so convinced of that importance that she told me she wanted to have an English Bible with the original canonical order. So, just as soon as I could, I purchased a "Complete Jewish Bible,"had it leather bound," and gave it to her as an anniversary present. So although I may never be able to get my wife to read Brevard Childs, I can at least be assured by the fact She understands the value of canonical criticism and to some extent even makes use of it when she picks up her "Hebrew" Bible (as she likes to refer to it).