Written by Dr. David Dunbar Monday, 13 February 2012 00:00

In a previous blog I introduced the recent book by Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible (Brazos, 2011). The book is a thorough critique of “Biblicism” as the author finds it practiced in much of the Evangelical world. One of the ten qualities of Biblicism he describes is “Solo Scriptura.”

This is an obvious play on the term sola Scriptura which was used by the Protestant Reformers to reference their understanding of the authority of the Bible. For the Reformers the Bible had a unique status as the touchstone of truth superior in authority to philosophy, tradition, or the church’s magisterium. This did not mean, however, that Scripture was their only authority. In varying degrees in the different wings of the Reformation the theological traditions of the church, particularly the patristic writers and the early creeds, were valued and acknowledged.

But this historically informed approach to the Bible has been lost to much of the Evangelical (and Fundamentalist) wing of the church. Sola Scriptura has become Solo Scriptura—only the Bible.  Christian Smith defines it this way:  “The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch” (p. 4).  This outlook fits nicely with another element of popular interpretive wisdom that Smith calls “Democratic Perspicuity.” According to this wisdom, “any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text” (p. 4).

In a previous post I discussed Smith’s central concern:  pervasive interpretive pluralism.  Evangelicals have a history of divisiveness, in part because they can’t agree on what the Bible says over a wide range of topics. Solo Scriptura contributes directly to this problem because it reinforces in the arena of biblical interpretation the individualistic tendencies of the wider culture.

I believe Smith has laid his finger on a sore spot in the Evangelical church. When Biblical’s faculty revised its doctrine statement in 2006, this was a concern we chose to address.  One of our four major “convictions” is “The indispensable significance of the Christian Tradition.”  We find this tradition summarized particularly in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed to which all of our faculty subscribe.  Here is our reasoning:  “We subscribe to these statements because we value the historical interpretive work of the church and wish to identify with the great cloud of witnesses upon whose work we are dependent. We believe that by embracing and functioning within these ancient guidelines we can create a safe place for faculty and students to explore the mission of God in relation to contemporary culture.”  Like the Reformers we want to practice a nuanced version of Sola Scriptura . . . not Solo Scriptura. 

If you wish to read our entire statement of Theological Convictions, look here:  http://biblical.edu/images/stories/admissions/convictions0808.pdf.

Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary.  He has been married to Sharon for 42 years.  They have four grown children and six grand children.



Written by Dr. David Dunbar Thursday, 09 February 2012 00:00

Good trees produce good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit. Jesus says this is true of human character (Matt. 12:33).  But is this principle applicable elsewhere?  Christian Smith has written a thoughtful and thought-provoking book [The Bible Made Impossible (Brazos, 2011)] to argue that this is precisely what we find with much of the Evangelical approach to interpreting Scripture—a bad theory of what the Bible is and how we should interpret it leads to deplorable results.

The bad theory Smith describes as “Biblicism” which actually turns out to be a complex of ten inter-related ideas about the nature of the Bible and the appropriate ways to discern its meaning. It is not my concern at this point to examine or even list those ten points although I will do a bit of this in some future posts. Suffice it to say that Smith has pretty accurately captured the shape of a broad swath of biblical interpretation as practiced by Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.

He is convinced that the Biblicism he describes is wrong because it doesn’t in reality produce the results that it claims for itself.  Not only does not, but cannot. According to Smith, “Biblicism does not live up to its own promises to produce an authoritative biblical teaching by which Christians can believe and live”(p. 173). What it produces instead is “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” In other words, a theory which says that the Bible is clear and easily understood by anyone who approaches it without preconceptions produces a myriad of competing and even contradictory exegetical positions. This in turn results in a sad history of sectarian division and denominational infighting, i.e., a bad tree produces bad fruit. Evangelicals are not particularly troubled by this, Smith believes, because they live in denial of the true state of affairs. I would add that we are not sufficiently troubled by this also because we value a certain understanding of “truth” above the teaching of Jesus that his followers need to be one in the unity of the Father and the Son (John 17:20-23)--which is another kind of truth!

For now just a couple quick observations:  First, good teachers sometimes over-state their case to make a point.  Smith is no exception, but that is not a reason to ignore what he says. There is much here that can help us.  Second, Smith should not be read as a liberal Bible-basher.  He clearly distances himself from liberalism and reading him otherwise would not be fair to what he writes.  I would rather describe his approach with the proverb:  “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.”

Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary.  He has been married to Sharon for 42 years.  They have four grown children and six grandchildren


Written by Dr. Kyuboem Lee Wednesday, 08 February 2012 00:00

Ministry paradigm in the West is undergoing a massive shift today because of numerous forces at work in our global world. One of the paradigm shifts has to do with how ministry context has changed from a Christendom model (in which Christianity is the assumed predominant worldview) to a mission field model.

It's not just that the majority culture has changed--to be sure, younger generations of white Protestant descent (and the more privileged children of immigrants and minorities who go to colleges with them) now live in a thoroughly postmodern milieu, unlike most of their forebears. It is also that the Western urban world has become thoroughly pluralistic, largely through huge people movements that have swept across the globe. Our culture is no longer simply the product of a long history of "Western civilization"--it is also the product of African, Muslim, Indian, East Asian, South American, Eastern European...and other, civilizations. I am grossly generalizing here, of course--each of the categories mentioned hold multiple varieties that see themselves as quite distinct from other expressions. But you see my point. For today's pastor, the ministry context has transformed from one that could safely be assumed as fairly homogeneous (notable exception used to be the black-white divide, but not many crossed that) to one that is dizzying in its variety, and in which one cannot ever assume that Christianity is predominant or even understood. Indeed, the gospel has not reached many of the nooks and crannies cropping up in the Western world--and these nooks and crannies are growing rapidly.

This paradigm shift in our ministry context should signal a paradigm shift in how we train pastors. It is not enough to simply train the pastor for a postmodern audience. Our world is simply not that homogeneous. How will the church equip the next generation of leaders for the task of proclaiming the gospel in the global world that is even now upon us? A simple answer is: pastors in the West need to be trained more like missionaries.

In the Christendom paradigm, pastors have been trained mostly in systematic theology, biblical studies, (Western) church history, and homiletics. Other practical theology categories may have included church governance, prescribed by the seminary's denomination. However, foreign missionaries (even this is an outdated term in the new context, as is the term “home mission”) had more awareness of their need to understand different cultures and to communicate the gospel cross-culturally. They were trained to work outside Christendom and to be students of people who inhabit a world that is quite different from that of the missionaries', for the sake of the gospel mission.

Hence, there has been much attention paid to anthropology among missionaries. Pastors ministering in today's world will need to be diligent students of people groups and cultures. It is a dangerous thing to make assumptions about the people God has called ministers to--ministry can very easily backfire and ministers may find they have not been faithfully representing Christ to their people because of their misconceptions and unaddressed prejudices. Just as seeking to faithfully interpret Scriptures is a priority for pastoral ministry, faithfully interpreting people and their cultures is a priority--this has always been true, of course, but our new situation is forcing us to learn this lesson.

Missionaries have also been quite aware of their need to effectively engage in mercy ministry. Many missionaries have operated in contexts of physical need and simply sought to meet these needs in the name of Christ. Such proclamations of the kingdom in deed have brought credibility to the preached words of the gospel. As Christian developers have grown in understanding of their work, they have learned that indigenous leadership development was priority. More than simply addressing physical needs through relief efforts and giving money, they have come to recognize the importance of working with indigenous leaders, affirming their dignity, and developing local human resources for longterm development. As the old adage goes, "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man how to fish, feed him for life." (There is much to learn here for the work of discipleship--without minimizing the importance of preaching, a renewed emphasis must be placed on developing homegrown leadership who will take the ministry deeper into the culture and adapt it for the ever changing context.) The church in our global world needs to reclaim this calling to be ministers of mercy in a hurting world and become students in effective diaconal ministry.

Last example for this post--no doubt this is only a preliminary list we are making here: Missionaries have been students of contextual theology. Theology, many missionaries came to realize, is a human activity carried out within lived cultural contexts, not apart or above it, done within a purely theoretical realm. (You will notice the Platonic predominance over Western thought at work here.) Missionary history is replete with examples of missed opportunities and sometimes abject failures in communicating the gospel because of the missionaries' unexamined beliefs in their own received, Western, contextual theologies and faithfully seeking to reproduce these in non-Western, missionary contexts. Therefore, today’s minister must be a student in the art and science of contextualizing theology--faithful to the revelation of the gospel in the Word of God and faithful to human contexts this revelation comes to address. This has always been the case, but is especially so in our shifting and multifaceted cultural context.

In light of the current paradigm shift, there needs to be a corresponding paradigm shift in our training of pastors. Mission courses that have for long been treated as electives need to become required courses.

Many of you readers have no doubt come across situations that have needed the traditional roles of pastor and missionary to coexist. How have you seen this?

Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as a lecturer of Urban Mission at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission (http://jofum.com). 


Written by Dr. Justin Gohl Tuesday, 07 February 2012 00:00

In the thick of the political season as we are—and ever seem to be—it seems it might be cathartic (both for me and perhaps you) to reflect on the perennial tensions that I suspect most Christians face with respect to Christian identity and this-worldly political realities. And more specifically, to broach the question: what is particularly at stake when we set this tension within the frame of a missional understanding of theology and Church life?

The first and most logical place to start any reflection on this topic is the “in but not of” principle—that Christians live in and relate to this world as “sojourners,” as people who are defined primarily by both an eternal, vertical relationship with God and an eschatological, horizontal participation in the new creation God is bringing and will bring about, and only secondarily then by present material or historical realities (e.g., political, economic, geographical, etc.).

The perennial irony to such a self-understanding is that, refusing to be a full “participant” in the present state of affairs cannot help but be understood as a political posture, and one that usually brings charges of “misanthropy” and then persecution. If Jesus is Lord, as Christians confess, then Caesar is not! Much recent discussion of the Apostle Paul has been an unpacking of the implications of this very confession for Paul’s articulation of the gospel.

But what else is our mission as the Church but to bear witness to and embody this confession? The mission of the Church assumes the “otherness” of its identity and the reality which it confesses and seeks to embody. The Church’s life is its “politics,” then.

This is why, within a missional understanding of Church life/theology, it is essential to keep a clear formal and material distinction between who the Church is and what the Church does as the Church and what the Church or Christians might do, or who they might be, in connection with this-worldly, non-eschatological realities such as civic or political engagement. In practical terms, one important consequence of this should be a retrieval of the sacredness of Christian worship, especially on Sunday. This being a time when Christians, and any who might hear God’s call to assemble with the people of God (“seekers” perhaps), are brought into contact with transcendent reality, with the immanent/transcendent God and with a foretaste of the eschatological life to come with God’s redeemed people and renewed world.

It really is hard to fit much of any of this-worldly political discussion/reality into Christian worship without betraying the very essence of this worship, isn’t it? Of course, there is certainly room for Christian liberty here and for differences in traditions and their respective emphases. And yet there is probably a place for equal-opportunity criticism as well. On one end of the spectrum, perhaps we let nationalistic (perhaps even militaristic?) themes or “culture-war” issues crowd out or confuse the transcendent identity and reality our worship is to actualize. On another end of the spectrum, perhaps we sanction rhetoric that traffics in classism (of defining people in terms of socioeconomic status [as so perceived]) or that injects reductionistic interpretations of complex geopolitical realities (and of what Christians should supposedly think about them), turning the Church’s worship into an occasion to rhetorically separate ourselves from “those people”—indeed, “those Christians”—who just don’t “get it.”

Yet, while there is a danger in confusion and/or reductionism in worship, there is also, in a broader perspective, the danger of dualism—of pitting Christian existence altogether against that which is “secular” or this-worldly. While the Church’s life should be formally and materially distinct from “the world”—something that Christian worship is specifically fashioned to do—the Church’s life should also have an impact in this world, should it not? And moreover, while this-worldly realities are not ultimate, this does not mean that they are not good.

Just like the tension of the “in but not of” principle, the NT presents a complex picture that enshrines this tension: on the one hand, the present “world,” its system, its inhabitants, are under the power of the Evil One (Eph 2.2; 1 Jn 5.19), and on the other hand, creation is intrinsically good (1 Tim 4.4) and Christians are to submit to every “governing power” that exists as coming from God (Rom 13.1ff; Col 1.16; Titus 3.1).

What is interesting, then, is that Paul, for example, who can write eloquently about the influence of malevolent spiritual forces in the world, refuses to buy into either an ontological or a functional dualism that removes the Christian from this-worldly forms of accountability. Now, at least, this means that Christian involvement in this-worldly political realities—to the extent that Christians believe they are called to such—cannot legitimately proceed as if it is not accountable to the systems/realities it seeks to be involved in. But, on the other side of the tension, it also means that Christian involvement in this-worldly political realities is involvement in systems/realities that, as all things “under the sun,” are tinged with human weakness and sinfulness, and even cosmic malevolence. That is, with the capacity to effect harm and evil in the world, as well as goodness and order.

As is evident, there is no “solution” to these tensions, but it is good to recognize them, be humbled by them, and corrected by them as might be necessary. In fact, a few questions present themselves as possible continuations of this discussion:

  • To what or to whom are Christians accountable as they seek to “have an impact” in the world? In short, what does this accountability look like?
  • And what happens when Christians themselves disagree on whether or not a particular “impact” is good?
  • And perhaps the most poignant question: What would the Apostles think of, and how would they operate within, Enlightenment participatory/representative democracies such as America?

Justin Gohl is an adjunct professor of theology at Biblical. He is married to Kate, his wife of 7 years, and is a full-time stay-at-home dad with two kids, Caleb (2) and Phoebe (1). He is ABD at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia where he is in the latter stages of writing his dissertation on the early church’s use of the Book of Proverbs.


Written by Mrs. Susan Disston Monday, 06 February 2012 00:00

Ctrl-Alt-Delete has been an actual word in the English language since 1980, so says my fave website Word Spy: The Word Lover’s Guide to New Words. Webmaster Paul McFedries defines Ctrl-Alt-Delete as “a metaphoric mechanism with which one can reset, restart, or rethink something.”

Ctrl-Alt-Delete. Reset-Restart-Rethink.

In Biblical’s classrooms, there’s some Ctrl-Alt-Deleting going on. Professors and students are wrestling with the challenges of being the church in a secular society where there are a lot of systemic problems and injustices which the church gets associated with because of its longstanding identification with American culture. At Biblical’s most recent Conversations in Christianity and Culture, Dr. James Davison Hunter presented material from his latest book To Change the World. His premise is that Christians’ faithful presence in their situations should take the form of relationships and institutions that demonstrate God’s love and support the claims of the gospel message. These relationships and institutions should differ from secular or capitalistic enterprises in that their ends are in line with Scripture and God’s character. They are to be covenantal in character, that is, “fostering meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness—not just for Christians but for everyone.” To Change the World, p.263

In an earlier post, Professor Derek Cooper offered five features of a missional reading of Scripture which included this point #5: The church as an incarnation of God’s coming kingdom, its proclamation of the gospel, and its engagement with the culture. Proclamation of the gospel is a prominent feature of a missional reading [and application] of Scripture, but not the only one. Also included are “incarnation” and “engagement.” Both are to occur, along with proclamation, in missional reading and practice.

A missional reading of Scripture leads to the kind of relationships and institutional ethos that Dr. Hunter advocates for in his vision for Christians’ faithful presence. Here is a story that Dr. Hunter told to the audience of students, faculty, alumni, and ministry leaders gathered at Conversations in Christianity and Culture. It shows how one Christian business took a missional reading of Scripture and made it come alive in the work place.

“An automotive company in the Southeast has organized its business model on the basis of a rethinking of capitalism. Instead of running the business purely on the model of exchange and contract, this company actually operates...on the premise of covenant; its core question being: ‘what do we owe our customers and employees?’ The result is a very different way of doing business....” For example, “as to employees [in the inner-city dealership], the leadership recognized that lower-level wage earners would not have the same life chances as management, so the business established a scholarship fund that pays the college tuition of all children of the company. The cost of the program is high, though the benefit to the business is the loyalty of its employees. In [this] situation, the guiding question has been, what does it mean to do good to the vulnerable?” To Change the World, p. 266-7

The business in the story above values people in a way that mirrors God’s valuing of people as intrinsically of greater value “than their tangible contribution as economic actors.” To Change the World, p. 265

That is a missional reading of Scripture in action, one that is engaged with the culture, that incarnates an intrinsic value found in the Scriptures (and the Trinity), and that resounds the plausibility of the Christian message among the employees, their families, and beyond. This story and Dr. Hunter’s thoughtful challenge to our thinking is what Biblical’s faculty wants our students to discuss today and to discuss with their leadership next week.

Ctrl-Alt-Delete in action. Reset-Restart-Rethink.

Susan Disston is the assistant dean of curriculum and assessment at Biblical Seminary. She teaches project courses in the doctor of ministry program and in ESLPLUS. http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/adjunct-faculty-theology



Written by Dr. Charles Zimmerman Thursday, 02 February 2012 00:00

Where have they gone & where are they now?  

I decided that for my blog entries, I would contact founding faculty members and provide an update on what they have been doing since they left Biblical and how they spend their time these days. 

If you missed the first two blog installments – “Doc” Newman and Gary Cohen – I encourage you to scroll back through Biblical’s faculty blog and check them out.  And while you’re at it, why not attach a comment and then drop them a note of encouragement and thanks. 

Today we will hear from Dr. Bob Vannoy.  Bob was the first to hold a chaired faculty position at the seminary, the Allan A. MacRae Chair of Biblical Studies and was the favorite professor of many students. 

What years did you teach at Biblical? 

I taught at Biblical from 1971 until 2005.  I had previously taught at Faith Theological Seminary from 1965 to 1971.  This involved forty years of teaching at two theological seminaries. 

Tell a favorite memory from your Biblical days. 

As you may suspect it is difficult to choose from the many memories of a lifetime of teaching.  As I reflect on my time at Biblical I think the strongest and most satisfying memories are connected with the early years of the founding of the Seminary.  This was an exciting time, but also one filled with a lot of uncertainty about what lay ahead.  It is not an easy thing to launch a new graduate school of theological education with little or no constituency and no guarantees of financial backing. 

When all but a few of the faculty members at Faith Theological Seminary resigned after the graduation exercises in May of 1965, and then announced the formation of Biblical, we were told by Faith Seminary that we needed to leave the premises of the Seminary by mid-August of that summer.   My wife, Kathe, and I and our three children lived in an apartment on the Seminary grounds.  Kathe was due to give birth to our fourth child in October.  My wife's parents from The Netherlands were planning to visit us there in September.  We did not know where the new Seminary was to be located because a search for a suitable location was just beginning.   Various sites were considered including one in the New Hope area and one in Hatfield.  My wife and I explored the surrounding communities and on a Saturday afternoon we happened to drive by Penn View Christian School then on Cowpath Road in Souderton. 

We had never heard of this Christian school and stopped in because they were having their spring country fair and auction, and we wanted to learn something about it.  We were impressed with what we saw and came back to speak further with school officials the next week.  Being committed to Christian education for our children we made the decision to look for a suitable home in the vicinity of Penn View Christian School.  Our decision was that we would locate near the school for our children and I could then commute to wherever the Seminary was finally located. (As it later turned out the Seminary was three miles down the road in Hatfield). 

We had noticed some realtor signs in the area with the name Lapp and Alderfer.  We knew nothing about this realtor, but stopped at the office and were introduced to Wilbur Lapp, a fine Christian gentleman who was very helpful to us in our search for a suitable and affordable home.  We looked a number of properties, over the next week or so but did not find anything that we were comfortable with.  One afternoon we drove along West Walnut St. in Souderton, and commented to each other that it would be great if a home on that street was for sale.  But there were no "for sale" signs. 

The next day Wilbur Lapp phoned us and said a property had come on the market that he thought we might be interested in.  We drove up to Souderton and Mr. Lapp took us to a very nice home on West Walnut St.  It was about five years old, had been built for the pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Souderton, and included an office/library room in the smallest of the four bedrooms in the house.  The price appeared to be reasonable and we were excited about having found a place less than a 1/2 mile from Penn View School.  We told Mr. Lapp that we were interested in buying the house but that we needed to be able to move in the house by mid-August.  We were disappointed when he told us that it would not be available until late October, because the owner’s daughter was being married in mid- October, the invitations etc. had been printed and they did not want to move until after the wedding.   We needed to be out of Faith Seminary by mid-August, Kathe's parents were arriving for a visit in September, so this was a serious disappointment.  We told Mr. Lapp that we would pay the listed price for the house if they would vacate by mid-August.  He said he doubted they would accept that offer but would see if it could be done. 

To make a long story short, the owners of the home agreed to move by mid-August and we found ourselves in a very nice home by the end of the summer.  This was just one of many indications to us that God was guiding in the establishment of Biblical and that He would provide for the needs of the institution and the faculty.  This was seen time and time again in remarkable ways in the early years of the Seminary. 

It has been a great blessing to see how God has used that humble beginning to train a host of students who are now spreading the good news of the kingdom of God, not only in the USA, but in countries around the globe.  Praise be to God! 

I might add: We have lived in the same house (with two additions to its size) for the past 40 years and all four of our children graduated from Penn View Christian School and subsequently from Christopher Dock Mennonite High School.  All three of our local grandchildren are now attending Penn View and Christopher Dock as well.

What have you been doing since leaving Biblical? 

Since retirement I have been able to finish a commentary on 1, 2 Samuel that I had been working on for many years. It was published by Tyndale House Publishers, in the Cornerstone Commentary Series in December of 2009.  Through contacts with former students at BTS who are now ministering in Singapore, Kathe and I have had the opportunity to visit Asia two times on teaching ministries, in both Singapore itself  as well as in Malaysia and the Philippines.   A third trip is in the planning stage that will involve teaching in three seminaries in India along with other engagements in Singapore.  These travels have been very enriching to us as we are exposed to the dynamic ministry of several Singapore churches that have extensive missionary outreaches to many of the more impoverished countries in South East Asia.  Also on the drawing board is a book on the Theology of 1, 2 Samuel that I have been asked to write for a series of books on Biblical Theology being published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.  Not all of our time is taken by ministry opportunities.  We try to keep connected with our four children and their families that are spread from Maine to Pennsylvania to Georgia and Florida.  We now have the joy of fifteen grandchildren ranging in age from 18 to less than 1 year old.  

Give a brief update you your family

Kathe continues to work part time at Dock Woods Community as a Care Coordinator and Infection Preventionist.  Her income helps to keep us afloat financially.  In addition she is active in a number of church functions, and keeps in touch with the extended family.  She has recently returned from her own trip to Malaysia, where she volunteered for doing child care at a regional missionary conference sponsored by Mission to the World (the PCA missions organization) for their many missionaries in Asia. She was also able to spend a couple of days with our acquaintances in Singapore before returning home.

Our oldest child, Anna, lives close by in Morwood, PA.  She and her husband, Bob, attend Covenant Presbyterian Church in Harleysville, where Kathe and I also attend.  Bob is the sales manager for EDS a local water and smoke damage restoration business.  They have three children, Wes, a senior at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, Seth, a sophomore at Christopher Dock, and Kate, who is in the 5th grade at Penn View Christian School.

Rob, our oldest son, lives in Lookout Mountain, GA, with his wife, Liza and four children: Allison, Katherine, Bobby, and Kamp.  Rob is the owner of a construction firm that builds very high end houses.  He has been quite successful in business even during the economic downturn of the past few years. 

Mark our middle son, lives in Waldoboro, Maine with his wife Esther.  They have five children: Jane, Arie, Annie, Finley and Eva.  After graduating from the Naval Academy, Mark spent his required payback time on active duty in the Navy, but felt that he needed to return to the private sector in order to meet his family responsibilities.   He remains in the Naval Reserve.   Mark now works as a civil engineer with a Maine engineering firm although most of his work is for the Nestle Corporation and their many bottled water operations in various parts of the country.  Poland Springs water takes a lot of his time in Maine but he has also done work for Nestle in Colorado, Florida and other places.   Mark is an elder at the Lakeview Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Rockport, Maine.

Jonathan, our youngest son, lives with his wife Debby in Niceville, Florida.  They have three children: Sarah, Cora, and Andrew.   Jon is presently working in highway construction while completing a degree in civil engineering that he had begun while in college but not completed.  The completion of his degree will open up many opportunities for advancement with the large firm for which he is now working.   

As a family we have been blessed with the opportunity to gather as a whole family in Tenants Harbor, Maine, every summer for the past 35 years.  Coming together as a family in this beautiful spot has been a gift of God to our family, and has become one of the highlights of our year.

Contact information: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Charles Zimmerman is the Thomas V. Taylor Professor of Practical Theology.  He also serves as Teaching Pastor at Calvary Church in Souderton.  He is married to Kim and they have two daughters, Ashley and Megan.  See alsohttp://biblical.edu/index.php/charles-zimmerman


Written by Professor Steve Taylor Wednesday, 01 February 2012 00:00

Note to the reader: This is the third in a series of blogs on reading the Bible as a biblical theological unity. For context, readers should consult the prior posts.

The corny pun in the title (and you thought it was a typo!) is in honor of the man who almost single-handedly led the Church out of the biblical bafflement of the second century, Origen of Alexandria (185-254 CE). Although a card-carrying member of the suffering church—his father was martyred when Origen was but a youth and Origen himself died as a result of the bloody Decian persecution--, his achievements and impact mark him as one of the most brilliant men of antiquity. (Origen had the distinction, shared belatedly by Einstein, of being attended around the clock by a team of paid stenographers who were charged with preserving any pearls of wisdom that fell from his lips.)

An Inheritance Guarded

Origen inherited from the second-century church the twin commitment to the Bible (now clearly comprised of an Old and New Testament) and to the Rule of Faith (a summary of basic beliefs). Origen also understood the complex relationship of that Rule to the Bible and its reading: the Rule was not only derived from the Bible but was also the final arbiter of what the Bible could mean-proper reading of the Bible had to be a ruled reading. Origen also took it as axiomatic, that often the scriptures bore witness to the Rule of Faith only symbolically or by some kind of figurative reading.

A Faith Attacked

But Origen received this inheritance in perilous times. In the course of the second century, Jews had forcefully argued that Christians were unable to take the literal meaning of the Old Testament, which overwhelmingly focuses on Israel, seriously. Pagan authorities, on the other hand, noting the Christian movement’s permanent break with Judaism and its alarming growth among gentiles, instituted several waves of repression against Church; and pagan intellectuals launched increasingly informed and sophisticated attacks against the veracity and coherence of the Bible and the philosophical integrity of the Christian faith.

These external attacks simply emboldened the Gnostic wing of the Christian movement. On the one hand, the Gnostics conceded that pagan intellectuals had a point: Christian theology did need to be revised and systematized in ways more consistent with the philosophical (i.e., Neo-Platonic) givens of the day. On the other hand, the Gnostics argued, the Jews should be ceded both their scriptures and their commitment to literal meaning. The Christian faith was a spiritual movement and only needed those writings which communicated spiritual things. And of course it was the Apostle Paul who insisted that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6) and that he was “explaining spiritual things to spiritual people” (1 Cor 2:13).

A Rule of Faith Strengthen and Systematized

Origen realized that a two-pronged approach was needed. The Gnostics could be silenced and the external critics answered only if both the Rule of Faith and the Christian use of the Bible could be better articulated, with a more systematic rationale. This is precisely what Origen set out to do in his magnum opus, On First Principles. As inherited, the Rule of Faith was little more than a hodge-podge of reflections on the high points of the biblical story. There were so many ethical, logical, eternal, and spiritual questions left unanswered: how precisely was Jesus related to the Father, where did other spiritual being come from, what are human beings made for , what happens after death, and what is the ultimate end of all things—in short, what eternal truths did the time-bound biblical story point to. For all these questions and many more, Origen worked out answers he thought were both intellectually coherent and consistent with the apostolic faith. Origen now had a Rule of Faith that defined orthodox faith and practice over against the false theology of the Gnostic. He could now claim with confidence, “If however they interpret spiritually, even with this very spiritual understanding they do not hold to the rule of apostolic truth” [1](Homily on Psalm 36, 4.1).

Christian Biblical Interpretation Explained

Bound as he was to the entire Bible of his day, Origen now turned to the challenge of demonstrating just how that Bible bore a consistent and coherent witness to this Rule of Faith which now, in its improved form, addressed a rich range of important questions. Here, too, Origen sought to improve on what he had inherited. He explained that God’s word to human beings, who by God design were composed of body, soul, and spirit, had an analogous structure: 1) the meaning of a biblical text that was obvious to the casual reader, e.g., the actual story narrated or the literal meaning of a command, comprised the Body of the Bible; 2) the meaning that pointed to a fairly obvious application to the Christian reader (and Origen was very sketchy here) is the Soul of the Bible (e.g., the application of the law against muzzling working oxen to Christian workers [see 1 Cor 9:9-10]); and 3) the meaning that God himself had in mind and which simultaneously nurtures the Christian life and anchors the deepest theology of the church (i.e., the Rule of Faith) was the Spirit of the Bible.

In articulating this very first version of the three-fold interpretation of Scripture, Origen was not suggesting that one should generally go with the literal “bodily” meaning and only when necessary resort to the figurative “spiritual” meaning. No, a primary commitment to the literal meaning was a mark of Jewish interpretation, not Christian. Rather, Origen was claiming that, at every point, God had revealed the spiritual meaning to the inspired authors but had willed them to clothe, and sometimes disguise, that meaning in coarser stuff. The spiritual meaning was at every point primary and therefore the ultimate object of every true interpretation. This spiritual meaning could be discovered by intelligent and resourceful believers using allegorical interpretation, a method we will illustrate in the next post.

Biblical Bafflement Banished?

But why would God do it this way? Why would he inspire any obscurity in his revelation? Throughout his voluminous work (and most of it was devoted to scriptural exposition!), Origen offered many reasons: to protect Christian mysteries from hostile readers, to confound the unbelieving, to speak to all levels of Christian readers, and to illustrate the depth and riches of the Bible and of Christian truth. In the final analysis, the mysterious, spiritual meaning of the text was simply the necessary correlate of the Creator-creature distinction. How could divine revelation of the deepest and most sublime mysteries in the universe be anything but a stretch for sinful and finite human beings?

Thus Origen’s antidote for biblical bafflement wasn’t a doctrine of perspicuity (i.e., that the central message of the Bible is plain to the humblest reader) but rather the necessity of a strong theology and an unwavering and creative commitment to reading the Bible in a way consistent with it. Are you ok with this? If not, where did Origen (and the second century church?) go wrong?

[1] Translation by Peter Martens, Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 114.

Stephen Taylor is Associate Professor of New Testament. He is a missionary kid fascinated with the question of the relationship between culture and understanding the Bible. Steve is married to Terri, and together they have five kids. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/stephen-taylor. 


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