Tag Archives: sola scriptura

The Challies Chronicles: Summing It All Up, Part 2

strange-pyreIf you haven’t done so already, please read the first part of “Summing It All Up” before continuing here.

Part 2 of the interview between Tim Challies and John MacArthur was published a few days after the first installment, and Challies says that several weeks have passed since the end of the conference. When Challies wrote his blog post, MacArthur’s Strange Fire book was to be released the following day, so from a marketing standpoint, the Challies blog was quite timely.

Kicking off the interview, Challies asked:

There are many areas of doctrine in which well-respected, godly theologians hold opposing views, and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit are just one of them. Again, we are thinking here of the best and most gospel-centered of the continuationists. Why focus on this area now when it threatens to inhibit unity and further divide true believers? Why not focus on baptism or eschatology or another issue?

That’s a good question. There are probably thousands of different expressions or variations of Christianity worldwide, and they all disagree with each other about something. MacArthur comes across as completely sure of himself about everything, and completely sure he understands 100% of the content of the Bible (at least that’s the impression I get from what he says), in spite of the fact that there are numerous New Testament scholars in educational and research facilities across the globe who continuously are exploring new understandings about the apostolic era and what it means to Christians today. How can MacArthur believe he knows everything there is to know about a subject in the Bible and why does he choose to take this specific issue head on?

All true believers are unified at the core on those distinctives in the Spirit; but it takes time and study to experience that unity in our relationships. That’s why love must energize our quest for practical unity (Phil. 1:27)—love for God and His truth and love for one another. Even in 1 Corinthians 13:6, in the heart of Paul’s discussion about spiritual gifts, the apostle reminded his readers that “love rejoices in the truth.” So, drawing attention to serious error—error that’s being tolerated even in some of the otherwise-healthiest of churches—in order to recover and uphold the truth is a loving thing to do.

While it might be hard for some to understand, it was love that drove me to write this book and have this conference: love for God and His honor, love for His truth, love for His church and her purity, and, in the cases of the prosperity gospel that pervades the global movement, a love for the millions of souls who are trapped by some of the most deceitful false teaching that history has ever seen. It is my earnest desire and prayer to see the church unified. But a unity that knowingly tolerates error is not the unity that Scripture promotes. So, if we want to be truly unified, we have to be willing to confront error for the sake of the truth. And that might mean that superficial unity is disrupted.

MacArthur also said that he has taken on other issues in the past but, as you can read, both above, and by clicking the links to the interviews, he considers this particular problem vital in the world of Christian faith. I’ll take him at his word and believe he really does love the people he’s discussing, although from some of the responses I’ve read, his critics don’t feel loved. I’m no fan of the prosperity gospel, but again, that’s just one manifestation of the Charismatic movement, and I still think it could have been addressed in a more focused and measured way.

Challies asked:

We often hear today that many believers from a Muslim background—especially those from closed countries who do not have easy access to God’s Word—are claiming they had a vision of Christ and that in this vision he directed them to a place or person where they could hear the gospel. This proclamation of the gospel led to their conversion. Do you believe these stories? Do you consider such visions a valid means that God may work in our world today?

heavenly-manOh, that. Of course, MacArthur believes such events are completely bogus and not even a single supernatural event revealed Christ to a Muslim (or anyone else) apart from the Bible.

But that also contradicts much of what a Chinese evangelist named Brother Yun wrote in his book The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun. I reviewed this book nearly ten months ago (it was given to me by a friend), and Yun describes situations that occurred after China’s Communist Revolution, where Christ was supernaturally revealed to people who had absolutely no access to Bibles or Christian Missionaries. If you lock down a nation so tightly that no foreign Missionaries are allowed in and it’s nearly impossible to smuggle in even portions of a Bible, is God not going to act?

I can’t testify to the validity of any of these supernatural acts. I haven’t witnessed any of them. In reading Yun’s book, even I thought certain portions seemed exaggerated or fabricated. But then again, I can’t completely discount the possibility of God directly intervening in our universe, performing acts that defy the natural laws we are accustomed to in order accomplish His purposes.

According to what I’ve been told, MacArthur believes he was physically attacked, in front of witnesses, by a demon possessed woman but he doesn’t believe that even one person could have had a revelation of Jesus in a vision. Go figure.

Regarding the visions in question, it is important to recognize that those who have investigated such claims have found the evidence to be sorely lacking. For example, this article directly addresses the issue.

I suppose that brings us to the crux of the matter. Do I believe that people in the Muslim world are actually seeing Jesus Christ? No, I do not. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 15:8 that he was “the last of all” to see the risen Christ. So, I believe that precludes anyone outside of those listed in 1 Corinthians 15 of being able to claim legitimate visions of the resurrected Savior. (The apostle John, of course, was one of those included in 1 Corinthians 15. Accordingly, I don’t believe the book of Revelation sets a precedent for believers to expect genuine visions of Jesus to occur throughout church history.)

Furthermore, it is important to note that these individuals are still unbelievers when they reportedly have these experiences. Consequently, these experiences (whatever they are reported to be) cannot constitute examples of the charismatic gifts having continued, since spiritual gifts are only given to believers (1 Cor. 12:7)—and these people do not come to saving faith until later.

Finally, the New Testament clearly states that the way in which the gospel is spread in this age is through preaching.

Receiving the SpiritIf performing a supernatural act were the only way for God to communicate to a non-believer in order to further His plan, would God be inhibited because the person He was trying to reach was a non-believer? Good grief, God even revealed Himself to Laban in a dream (Genesis 31:24) and he spoke directly with the evil magician Baalam (see Numbers 22:9-12 for an example) when Balak, King of Moab, wanted the sorcerer to curse Israel.

It seems you don’t have to be a believer to hear from God.

No one comes to God as part of a rational process, it’s a leap of faith, and I believe God does make Himself known in some manner, in order to bring people to Him. No, I never had a dream, saw a vision, or heard a voice from Heaven, but a long series of extremely unlikely events happened in my life in a period of six months to a year which ultimately brought me to faith. The process wasn’t entirely intellectual. I didn’t read and study the Bible with the result that I believed and came to faith in Christ. God did something inside to bring me to Him. I can’t articulate it. I just know it happened.

And preaching was really only a very minor part in my finally professing faith.

I suppose John MacArthur would think I’m some kind of fruit loop.

Challies asked a number of other important questions, but the last one really got my attention:

The Strange Fire conference focused primarily on the worst examples of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements. While the charlatans rightfully need to be exposed and rebuked, there are also many godly Christians who feel like they have been unjustly tarnished with an overly broad generalization.

Exactly! I think a lot of people feel unjustly targeted, insulted, and maligned by the multiple presentations at the “Strange Fire” conference.

MacArthur responded in part by saying:

First, I want to clearly state that I take no joy in being perceived as unloving or in hurting the feelings of fellow believers. My heart is deeply burdened by the errors and excesses that I have spoken out against in Strange Fire. I do not issue these criticisms flippantly. I would also direct readers to the first part of this interview, where I interact with the idea that I have made an overly broad generalization.

But for those who want to get angry at me, I would humbly suggest that such anger is misplaced.

Charismatic prayerMacArthur went on to say that after the conference, he read a blog post written by a Pentecostal named Josiah Batten called A Pentecostal in (General) Support of the Strange Fire Conference (Challies didn’t provide a link on his blog post but I’m inserting it here so you can read Batten’s content). In a nutshell, MacArthur was thrilled with this response because he had achieved his goal with the individual involved: MacArthur had gotten him to think, to consider MacArthur’s position without defensiveness.

Oh, MacArthur and Batten didn’t end up agreeing, but Batten did point out some of the obvious issues with the Pentecostal movement while also acknowledging that he thought MacArthur had made some mistakes in his theology.

The interview dribbled out and ended without much flourish. There were lots and lots of comments in response on both of the Challies blog posts (comments are now closed) which may add some dimension, but I don’t really want to read hundreds of these statements and then try to say something about them.

In trying to sum all this up in my head, it seems like the conference offered one general impression and these interviews presented a somewhat related or parallel process. I think the conference really did paint with an overly broad brush and depicted all or the vast majority of Charismatics everywhere are dangerous or potentially dangerous, rather than just “wrong.”

Given the opportunity, MacArthur (with a MacArthur-friendly interviewer) was able to add more details to his views and, in certain instances, soften them up a bit. He remains hard-line in the end that he’s right and that the people who disagree with him should change and join him. He bases this stance on the perception that his interpretation of the Bible must, because of his scholarship, be correct in an absolute or near-absolute sense, and that he cannot be wrong.

Granted, if he’s trying to convince people to change, he can’t actually admit that he could be capable of error in his interpretations and assumptions, so confidence (to the point of arrogance sometimes) is expected. On the other hand, John MacArthur is indeed human and as such, he is just as capable of being wrong as the next man, even a highly educated and well-read next man. A certain tradition drives MacArthur’s perception as much as a learned interpretation of scripture, although that tradition, by necessity, drives MacArthur to deny that tradition has anything to do with how he perceives the Bible.

I agree that the study and the quest for correctly understanding scripture is the first and best means of understanding the intent and will of God for our lives. I’m also aware that exactly how we go about it, what system we employ, and the set of traditions (whether we’re conscious of them or not) that filter our interpretations are going to result in different believers coming to different conclusions about what the Bible is saying to us.

Beyond all that, once we believe we have discovered “truth,” what we do about it is critical. We can choose to demonize those we disagree with or we can find another way to get our point across. Frankly, demonizing people is a better way to get attention. Holding a controversial conference will definitely draw a much bigger crowd than a less dramatic and perhaps more user-friendly approach.

And MacArthur wants to draw a big crowd. In fact, he wants to attract the estimated 500 million Charismatics in the world. Yes, he got his message across to a lot of people. The book, at least in the short run (once marketing runs out of steam, the popularity of the book will likely dwindle), will reach even more folks than the “buzz” about the conference.

MacArthurBad press is still press, so everyone who criticizes MacArthur, including little ol’ me, still makes sure that he’s not ignored. Being ignored is the worst possible outcome that could happen to MacArthur and the “Strange Fire” conference and book. If people just paid no attention to him or them (like they should have to the recent comments of Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame), then MacArthur and his views would have nowhere to go.

But MacArthur knows enough about human nature to make sure that he and “Strange Fire” would never be ignored and in fact, would grab lots and lots of attention and press in the Christian media space.

But as I said before, his entire goal wasn’t just to get attention, but to get Charismatics to think and even to change. Has he accomplished this? Making 500 million people feel insulted, abused, and harassed usually doesn’t get them to agree with you. I’m sure A&E’s banning Phil Robertson from being part of filming Duck Dynasty or GLAAD getting in Robertson’s face (figuratively) over their perceptions of his motives won’t elicit an apology and change of theological opinion from the Duck Dynasty patriarch anytime soon.

If MacArthur wants to transform even a non-trival number of Pentecostals into sola scriptura Fundamentalists, I don’t really know what he could have done differently to accomplish his task. I just don’t see what he actually did working, at least not for very many people. I think the audience that listened to him the most was the one that was already convinced. I think he was “preaching to the choir.”

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The Challies Chronicles: Summing It All Up, Part 1

John MacArthurJohn MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference has come and gone and the book will be shipping next week. Whatever you felt about the conference, there is little doubt that a lot of work and a lot of discussion remain as we, the church, consider the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the aftermath of the event, and with the book on its way, I think we all have questions we’d like to ask Dr. MacArthur. A week ago I asked for your questions and sent them through to him. Here are his answers to the first batch of questions. I anticipate adding a second part to this interview within the week.

What was the purpose of such a controversial conference like Strange Fire? Why did you choose not to invite one of the best of the reformed continuationists to speak at your event and to defend his position? Wouldn’t that have strengthened the cessationist arguments while also showing an earnest desire for unity?

-from an interview of John MacArthur by Tim Challies:
“John MacArthur Answers His Critics,” November 4, 2013
Challies.com

This, and the second part of the dialog between MacArthur and Challies is a forum for Pastor MacArthur to respond to the criticism he received as a result of his Strange Fire conference. I’m going to put my impressions into two blog posts as well (a single blog post would be over 4,000 words) and afterward, there are no more Tim Challies articles for me to read about Strange Fire. It probably won’t be the end of what I have to say about the conflict between sola scriptura Christianity and spiritual Christianity, though.

You can follow the links I’ve provided to read the full content of both parts of the interview. I just want to draw attention to some of the highlights, so to speak.

In response to a question of Challies’ in the first part of the interview, MacArthur states:

On the one hand, I would agree that this is a second-level doctrinal issue—meaning that someone can be either a continuationist or a cessationist and still be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. I have always maintained that position, and I reiterated that point several times during the conference. I have good friends who consider themselves continuationists, and I am confident that these men are fellow brothers in Christ. But that doesn’t excuse the seriousness of the error. In fact, I would appeal to my continuationist brethren to reconsider their views in light of what Scripture teaches.

Here, MacArthur states that although he believes the continuationists are in serious error, they are still his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Except that directly contradicts something MacArthur said in his closing statement at the conference in response to seven points of criticism. In response to point 6, “They are attacking brothers,” MacArthur said:

MacArthur wishes he could affirm this. From his vantage point, this is a movement made up largely of non-Christians that lacks accountability. No one polices this movement. Every faithfully reformed elder, pastor, scholar and teacher of the word should bear the responsibility of policing this movement. People accuse MacArthur of being fixated on this issue, yet in 45 years of ministry he has only held one 3-day conference on this matter. Rather he has devoted his time to preaching the New Testament verse by verse and exalting Christ.

Tim ChalliesEither MacArthur is separating the continuationists he speaks of in part one of the interview from whoever he was discussing on the last day of the conference, or he contradicted himself. You can’t have it both ways. Either the continuationists / Pentecostals / Evangelicals are considered faithful Christians by MacArthur or not.

The only other response he could make would be to say that he believes some of the people in these categories are not believers while others are, but then he would have to describe his criteria for telling the difference. MacArthur goes on to say:

On the other hand, I am firmly convinced that this secondary issue has the very real potential to taint a person’s understanding of the gospel itself. In such cases, it becomes a primary issue. For example, charismatic theology does corrupt the gospel when it expresses itself in the form of the prosperity gospel. Moreover, the global charismatic movement happily shelters other heretical movements—such as Catholic Charismatics and Oneness Pentecostals. Taken together, the number of charismatics who hold to a false form of the gospel (whether it is a gospel of health and wealth or a gospel of works righteousness) number in the hundreds of millions, which means they actually represent the majority of the global charismatic movement. That is why we took such a strong stand both at the conference and in the book.

So apparently there is, as far as MacArthur believes, a line to be crossed within the Charismatic movement. On one side of the line, you are a believer, and on the other, having gone too far, you’re not.

Challies asked:

You acknowledge, of course, that many godly, respected theologians are continuationists. How would you explain the continuationist theology of faithful men like John Piper, D.A. Carson, and Wayne Grudem if the cessationist position is so clearly taught in the Bible?

In part, MacArthur responded:

As I noted at the conference, I believe their openness to modern charismatic gifts is an anomaly. Obviously, I cannot read minds nor do I desire to judge motives. But I do wonder if perhaps their positions are evidence of either the influence of personal relationships with charismatic friends and family members, or the pervasive impact charismatic theology has had on the wider culture.

Wayne Grudem, as I mentioned earlier, openly acknowledges that there are no apostles in the church today. John Piper says that he does not speak in tongues. And I’m fairly confident that D. A. Carson does not personally practice any of the charismatic gifts. In that sense, then, I think they may be more cessationist (in terms of their personal practice) than their published positions would suggest.

If I’m reading MacArthur correctly, his understanding of Charismatics may be more “nuanced” than the conference made it seem. He may recognize more variability of belief and variability of practice among individuals and groups of individuals to identify with the Charismatic movement than he previously presented. It’s easy to say for most of us, given how MacArthur speaks and presents himself, that he’s a really “black and white” type of guy, that there are no colors in his universe, especially when quoting Thabiti Anyabwile, he states:

He wrote, “First, we have to admit that there’s a correct and an incorrect position on this issue. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong… . Second, we have to admit that how we view this issue substantially impacts the nature of the Christian life. It matters. It’s not an inconsequential idea. Someone worships God appropriately, someone doesn’t… . Third, we have to admit that this issue practically impacts Christian worship and fellowship. It’s not only a private matter, but a corporate one as well.”

I agree with all of that. This is an issue of critical importance because it affects our view of God as well as our understanding of how to live out the Christian life, both individually and corporately.

But hopefully, no one is quite as rigid and uncompromising as we make them out to be during a disagreement.

Finally, I think those who accuse me of using too broad of a brush are being naïve about the actual composition of the global charismatic movement.

I’m among those who have accused MacArthur and other presenters at the conference of painting with too broad a brush. That’s certainly how I read them on Challies’ blog posts. Of course, these presenters are speaking to a large audience and this is a one-on-one interview, so MacArthur has the opportunity to answer specific questions, when, at the conference, he and the others were “preaching” not discussing.

Our decision not to host a debate at the Strange Fire Conference was intentional. Debates are rarely effective in truly helping people think carefully through the issues, since they can easily be reduced to sound bites and talking points.

There’s both good and bad in what MacArthur said. It’s true that debates, if not properly moderated, degrade into name calling sessions and nothing gets resolved. On the other hand, during Presidential elections, the opponents present multiple public debates for the purpose of clearly offering American voters a (hopefully) clear understanding of the different platforms of each candidate.

Strange FireMacArthur did not escape these debates entirely. The rebuttals were simply managed in the blogosphere, in social media, and other venues rather than personally at the conference.

MacArthur ended the first part of the interview this way:

So, coming back to your question, I understand that some reviewers will find my tone too harsh and my brush too broad. But I think the problem is a whole lot bigger than anyone realizes. And it breaks my heart to think that hundreds of millions of souls are being caught up into a movement where they are being seduced by false forms of the gospel.

That is why I wanted to sound such a strong warning. And I’m willing to be accused of broad-brushing in order to get that message out.

I don’t doubt that he’s sincere in his belief and desire that he’s doing the right thing and that he’s doing it the right way, and I’m not commenting today to come out as pro-cessationists or pro-continuist. I’m stepping outside the narrow corridor of that argument and trying to understand how MacArthur sees himself and if what he did will have the response he desires. Only MacArthur can explain himself (well, God can explain him too, and probably better than MacArthur can), and I want to hear what he has to say.

For the sake of length, I’ll conclude my summation of the Challies Chronicles in Part 2.

Is Sola Scriptura Enough to Understand Paul?

Apostle-PaulIs the Torah to be considered as a dead husband that nobody liked anyway? This is the way many Christians interpret Romans 7:1-6: “For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies she is released from the law of her husband” (verse 2 of Romans 7:1-6). Paul refers to an ancient halachah (principle of the law) to illustrate his new relationship to the Torah because of his faith in Jesus. But one question is never asked when studying Romans 7:1-6. And it is only when the full impact of Paul’s Jewish heritage is understood in light of his entire teaching concerning the believer’s response to the Torah that this question can be carefully considered. Nonetheless, we must ask: Was Paul speaking about the death of the Torah or was he referring to the death of the flesh? Is the Torah, for Paul, a dead husband?

Brad H. Young
“Is Paul Against the Law?”
Biblescholars.org

Dr. Roy Blizzard promoted this article on his Facebook page, and since I’ve read both Blizzard and Young in the past, I was interested in seeing how their perspectives have developed.

What I read made me think of how I recently brought up the issue of sola scriptura in relation to a presentation given by Pastor Steve Lawson at John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference last October.

I found myself wondering if sola scriptura as offered by Lawson would match up with how Young is interpreting Paul in Romans 7.

To interpret Paul correctly on this passage, it is first imperative to recognize that the saying, “when a person dies he is free from the law and the commandments” (kivan shemet adam naaseh chofshi men hatorah vehamitzvot), was a well-known concept in halachah, which probably was almost proverbial in ancient Jewish thought (b. Nidah 61b and parallels). When Paul says that he is writing to those who know the law (Romans 7:1), it is clear that he speaks concerning a practice of halachah with which the Jews in the congregation of Rome would be quite familiar. The marriage laws concerning a woman and her husband would also be fairly well known. Of interest to the issue is the fact that Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, who according to Luke was the teacher of Paul in his early days as a student in Jerusalem, addressed questions relating to these laws in the Mishnah. Gamaliel the Elder taught that a woman is free to remarry even if only one witness gives testimony that her husband had died (m.Yeb. 16:7). Scholars have noted that the passage in Romans 7:1-6 might well betray the influence of Paul’s teacher Gamaliel. While the similarity between Paul and Gamaliel on this point of halachah should not be denied, it is also true that such teachings were probably common knowledge to Jewish men and women who lived pious lives according to their devout faith. Paul could have been acquainted with this principle from many sources, including Gamaliel the Elder.

-Young, ibid

sola scripturaI tried to choose the most representative paragraph in Young’s brief article to illustrate that a thorough understanding of not only scripture but of Judaism (or the various Judaisms) as it (they) existed during Paul’s lifetime is absolutely essential to correctly understanding Paul. Without addressing the complete social, religious, historical, national context in which Paul was writing, plus his education and as much of his “psychology” as we can apprehend after all this time, we are quite likely to get Paul wrong and, as a result, construct completely erroneous theologies, doctrines, and dogmas based on our misunderstanding, all the while believing we are standing on the rock-solid foundation of “sola scriptura.”

But am I being unfair? After all, I do believe the Bible (correctly understood) is the basis for a life of faith. I just think it’s more complicated than reading the Bible and taking the text (especially in English) at face value.

I recalled that a gentleman named Tim Hegg, who is well-known in Hebrew Roots circles, took exception to another criticism of sola scriptura, written by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) author, Pastor Jacob Fronczak for Messiah Journal issue 111 (Fall 2012).

The full text of Hegg’s rebuttal can be found at TorahTalkOnline.com (PDF) but I’ll take the liberty of inserting the relevant quotes here.

According to Hegg, Fronczak asserted “it (the Bible) needs no outside help to be correctly interpreted”as a tenet of sola scriptura. Hegg responded:

Wrong!

Sola Scriptura holds that the Bible must be interpreted according to its historical, grammatical sense. This means that knowing the history, culture, and language in which the inspired word is given is necessary for receiving its divinely intended message. But Sola Scriptura also states that the Bible is self-interpreting, meaning that since it is God’s inspired word as a whole, it is never self-contradictory. Therefore, the truth of the Scriptures is found in the whole of the Bible’s message, allowing the whole to interpret the parts

The first part of Hegg’s response sounds good, but it is dependent upon how well the interpreter knows the “historical grammatical sense” and how much they’re willing to take into account the “history, culture, and language in which the inspired word” was given. In other words, would the interpreter who is an adherent of sola scriptura take into consideration ancient Jewish thought and Paul’s relationship with Rabban Gamaliel the Elder when attempting to understand Paul’s relationship with and description of the function of Torah in the community of first century Jewish believers?

Also, when Hegg says that “the Bible is self-interpreting, meaning that since it is God’s inspired word as a whole, it is never self-contradictory. Therefore, the truth of the Scriptures is found in the whole of the Bible’s message, allowing the whole to interpret the parts,” he seems to be leaving out the necessity of understanding the context to its fullest degree.

By that, I mean in order to resolve those areas of the Bible that seem internally inconsistent (how Paul in some parts of the Bible seems pro-Torah and in other parts seems anti-Torah), we have to employ a much wider net of information gathering than I think Christian interpretive tradition is willing to allow.

Here’s more about what I mean:

If Paul employs a known analogy from halachah in Romans 7:1-6, perhaps the Jewish tradition can throw light upon Paul’s message and the conclusion he desires to draw from the evidence he cites. The sage, R. Simeon ben Pazzi, taught “…and the servant is free from his master”(Job 3:19). A person, as long as he lives is a servant to two masters: the servant of his Creator and of his [evil] inclination. When he does the will of his Creator, he angers his inclination, and when he does the will of his inclination, he angers his Creator. When he dies, he is freed, ‘the servant is free from his master!’ (Ruth Rabbah 4:14, M. Lerner pp.78-80). Rabbi Simeon ben Pazzi’s saying, “When he dies, he is freed…” not only recalls Paul’s words in Romans 7:1-6, but also provides a clear parallel in thought to his discussion of the servant who either is enslaved to his evil inclination or to his Creator in the preceding chapter of Romans. In Romans chapter 6, Paul teaches that an individual is either a servant of sin to obey the flesh or a servant of righteousness to obey God.

-Young

In order to grasp the meaning of how Young is understanding Paul, not only is understanding other areas of scripture necessary, but understanding ancient, and to a certain degree, modern Judaism is required as well. If you had no idea Paul was employing “a known analogy from halachah in Romans 7:1-6,” you might not consider investigating Jewish tradition in order to “throw light upon Paul’s message.”

Rabban GamalielThe conclusion you draw about what Paul is saying can be dramatically altered by inserting or omitting the Jewishness of Paul’s thinking, education, life experience, personal history, and teachings. If Paul was a disciple of Rabban Gamaliel, we know, as a disciple, he would have memorized his Master’s teachings to the degree that he could teach from the same perspective and understanding. To the degree that Paul became a disciple of Jesus (although not in a traditional sense), Paul would also have studied and memorized all of the teachings of this Master. If we don’t understand the full impact of what that means in terms of the late Second Temple model of Jewish discipleship and look to the relevant sources that would support authentic comprehension of Paul’s letters, we’re going to miss the point of everything Paul wrote, and as a result, misunderstand the very fabric of what it means to be a Christian.

I encourage you to read the full content of Young’s commentary on Paul and Romans 7. It only takes a few minutes, but it may also open your eyes, not only to Paul as you’ve never seen him before, but to the level of complexity involved in approaching and interpreting the scriptures. Sola scriptura is a good, basic place upon which to stand, but if you aren’t employing the proper interpretive tools to correctly understand “scripture alone,” you aren’t going to have a very accurate view.

The Church created a basic set of interpretations early on in order to foster separation between Gentile Christianity and Judaism, with Judaism and the Jewish people cast in the role of the villain. We like to think we’ve come a long way in revising our understanding of the Bible, but the deep core of those original interpretations lives on, underground, unseen, and most Christians are unconscious of how much they permeate their (our) Biblical thinking. We have it within ourselves to dismantle those ancient assumptions and to take a fresh look at Paul. Interestingly enough, we’ll have to go back even before the so-called “Church fathers” to our “Jewish fathers” and their fathers, to the Jewish Paul and the Jewish Gamaliel, to see a vision of Jesus and of Paul that has been lost since the time of the apostles.

Only with such a lens can we see not only what Paul wrote, but the intent, the thought, the heart he used to pen his letters and what he wanted his original audience and us to understand.

The Challies Chronicles: The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura

The Westminster DivinesThe final session on day two of the Strange Fire conference was led by Steven Lawson who spoke on “The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura.” This was another historical message meant to demonstrate how our forebears were committed to the doctrine of Scripture alone.

Tonight the focus of our study will be another historical theology overview of a critical issue that ties in wonderfully with this entire conference.

-Pastor Tim Challies liveblogging
Strange Fire Conference: Scripture Alone,” October 18, 2013
Challies.com

I have a strange relationship with Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) having written about it on a few occasions. My general understanding is when a Christian says “sola scriptura,” they mean “only scripture” in the sense that any contextual cues that the original audience may have had available to them that would have modified their understanding of scripture beyond the plain meaning of the text are never allowed for us in the 21st century. It would interfere with too much of our Protestant tradition if we had to read the various sections of the Bible in a manner consistent with the original authors and readers, that is to say, with a Jewish perspective.

So you can imagine as I approached this next “strange” and “fiery” presentation, I was a little hesitant. Nevertheless, I said I would see this project through to its end and so I shall.

Rome said “We accept Scripture, but also Church tradition, ecclesiastical hierarchies, etc.” But the Reformers said “No, it’s sola scriptura. If anything else is added to the foundation of the church, the foundation will be split and unable to hold the rest of the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If I’d been in the room when Lawson made that statement, I’d have had a terrifically difficult time keeping a straight face. Is Lawson actually suggesting that the Catholics view scripture through the lens of Church tradition but the Protestant Church in the modern age (inheritors of the “Reformers”) does not?

Upon the foundation of sola scripture are three massive pillars which frame and uphold the gospel in its most basic formulation—by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. And when this foundation and these pillars are in place, the crown can be erected across which is written soli Deo gloria.

And you don’t call that artificial structure a “tradition?” Where does it say such a thing in the Bible directly and how much inference and interpretation through the lens of tradition does it take to create this structure of pillars?

What are the distinguishing marks out of the Bible itself regarding sola scriptura?

Lawson then goes through a list of the “distinguishing marks” of sola scriptura as defined by the Westminster Divines, which according to Wikipedia, are “a synod composed of theologians (or “divines”) and members of Parliament appointed to restructure the Church of England…The Assembly met for ten years (1643–53), and in the process produced a new Form of Government, a Confession of Faith, two catechisms (Shorter and Larger), and a liturgical manual for the Churches of England and Scotland.”

bet_midrash_temaniI don’t suppose they consulted a more ancient Hebraic lens in looking at scripture before making such decisions. Probably not.

In that case, I have to believe they missed a step or two (or three or four).

You can read the Challies blog post to get the full list of “distinguishing marks,” but I think Lawson must have been building up to point number nine:

Ninth, and finally, sola scriptura implies the finality of Scripture. That there is no new revelation to be given to man after the close of the canon of Scripture, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

There is no adding to the Bible once canon is closed. I think most people can believe in that. We don’t see radically different versions of the Bible circling around different streams of Christianity and Judaism (keeping in mind Christianity has a whole section of the Bible that Judaism discounts).

Whenever God opens the heavens to bless his people, the devil opens his mouth to blast them. At the exact same time as the Westminster Divines were writing the Confession, the Quakers were forming. They claimed to be receiving new revelations and prophecies. They were lead by a man named George Fox. At the heart of their theology was this message, that one can be saved apart from the Scripture, that there is an inner light in all man, and this inner revelation makes salvation for all humanity possible. They called this light within the “indwelling spirit” which they claimed was even in unbelievers.

As they gathered together, the Quakers claimed that they had the Holy Spirit within them. Their worship services had no ordained pastors. They would all sit in a building like we’re sitting here and would be encouraged to meditate, and as you would feel prompted, you were encouraged to stand up and speak your thoughts to others. This commitment to be open and uncautious led them into all kinds of bizarre behaviors and beliefs, including going naked as a sign of judgment to others.

I’m telling you, if you take one step off of sola scriptura you have put your foot on a theological banana peel that will send you down till you hit bottom.

OK, I see where Lawson is going with this. The Puritans were giants for establishing sola scriptura but the Quakers undermined that principle by claiming direct (and new) revelation from the Holy Spirit detaching themselves from scripture entirely, thus Lawson draws a comparison between Christian Evangelicals (MacArthur, et al) and Pentecostals/Charismatics.

I like the banana peel analogy. I think it’s cute.

But let’s take a look at what else the “Divines” believed in:

While the issue of biblical inerrancy, the belief that there are no errors in the Bible, did not arise until the eighteenth century, the divines clearly did not believe the Bible to contain any errors. Many of the divines held a rather mechanical view of biblical inspiration, believing that not only the words but the letters and vowel points of the Hebrew text were inspired by God, while often acknowledging that the text was at the same time written by humans in their own styles. They did not make any distinction between essential and incidental matters with respect to biblical inspiration.

Source: Letham, Robert (2009). The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context. The Westminster Assembly and the Reformed Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing. ISBN 978-0-87552-612-6.

This doesn’t torpedo the “Divines” as a valid information source for Lawson’s presentation, but it does add an interesting bit of color to this assembly, or at least some of their members, since according to Jewish Virtual Library:

Because of this system of assigning numerical values to letters, every word has a numerical value. There is an entire discipline of Jewish mysticism known as Gematria that is devoted to finding hidden meanings in the numerical values of words. For example, the number 18 is very significant, because it is the numerical value of the word Chai, meaning life. Donations to Jewish charities are routinely made in denominations of 18 for that reason.

oral-tradition-talmudThe point I’m trying to make is that you can’t hand-pick the little bits and pieces of history that support an argument without dragging along the rest of the historical, cultural, and theological context to which those bits are attached. I seriously doubt that Lawson would take on board a belief that each letter and vowel point, or for that matter, the numerical value of each Hebrew letter, were particularly significant let alone inspired by God.

One “slippery slope” I think Lawson failed to take into account in his presentation was how difficult it would be to apply a “good guys” and “bad guys” paradigm to the current Evangelicalism vs. Pentecostalism debate using a historical precedence. While I certainly don’t support the historical Quaker’s method of worship and how they conceptualized theology (from what little I know about it), I can’t say that it directly speaks to the current debate, anymore than “the Divines” (and their views on the significance of the letters and vowel points of the Hebrew in the Bible) could be considered directly applicable to Lawson’s and MacArthur’s side of the conversation.

My conclusion is that, while Lawson’s presentation may have carried with it some interesting historical information, it contributed little if anything to the overall presentation of “Strange Fire” and their case against the Pentecostals/Charismatics. I know where he was going with this, but Church history has many strange and even cruel (and even murderous) aspects. One must take great care in summoning history into the present as if they are indistinguishable. They’re not, as I’m sure the apostle Paul could attest.

The Jewish Gospel, Part 1

620_moses-in-matthewLast night, the new MJTI Interfaith Center in Beverly Hills hosted a seminar on the Gospels with special guest, Boaz Michael, the founder and director of First Fruits of Zion.

The two-hour seminar introduced many of the typologies throughout Matthew to Yeshua’s “Moses-like” fulfillment. The Gospels are composed in a thoroughly Jewish manner and need to be understood within that context to fully see what and why things take place and are said. The Moses in Matthew seminars are currently being offered at various locations and if you have the opportunity to attend one of these seminars, definitely do it! I found myself not only intellectually engaged and enlightened, but spiritually encouraged by this discussion.

-Rabbi Joshua Brumbach
“Moses in Matthew”
Yinon Blog

I acquired an audio CD of this presentation from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) through the FFOZ Friends program and have been meaning to review it for awhile now. It’s hard for me to sit still and listen to a recorded audio lecture, but I took my wife’s portable CD player outside and, as I weeded in the back yard, allowed my mind to be illuminated by Boaz Michael’s teaching while my body took care of the home that God has graciously provided. I learned a few things. I’d like to pass them along to you (and I apologize if I got anything in Boaz’s presentation not quite right…it’s tough to take notes while weeding).

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

Deuteronomy 18:15 (NRSV)

According to Boaz’s teaching, the Gospel of Matthew was written specifically for a Jewish audience and was probably the only one of the Gospels originally written in Hebrew (although the Hebrew original is lost to us). The words of Moses quoted above foretell of a prophet greater than Moses who would one day rise up from among Israel. This prophet would be Messiah and he would also be a King and do many great signs and wonders. Messiah would be known by the prophesies he would tell and he would lead Israel back to faithfulness in the Torah.

In Matthew and the other synoptic gospels, it was asked if Yeshua (Jesus) was the prophet, but in John’s gospel, it was declared that he was (and is) the prophet.

Boaz tied his teaching to the release of the Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels (this was a few years back) and he described at length the history of Franz Delitzsch and his mission to “retro-translate” the Greek language of the Gospels back into Hebrew. This doesn’t restore the “Hebrew text” but it does provide the “original voice,” the Hebrew voice of the gospels and the gospel writers.

That’s an important point to get because the focus of Boaz’s “Moses in Matthew” teaching is to be able to read Matthew the way a Jewish person would have read it during the early days of the Jewish religious movement “the Way.”

Boaz said something I consider very important (paraphrasing): “Every translation is really a commentary.” I know my own Pastor has said that we need to be able to understand the Bible in its original languages and within its own context in order to gain an objective understanding of what God is trying to say. My counter argument is that any translation imposes a certain set of assumptions being made by the translator so that interpretation doesn’t begin after translation but during translation. It’s at this point when we also start making connections from one text in the Bible to another and deciding what those connections mean.

And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a twig shall grow forth out of his roots. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord; and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither decide after the hearing of his ears.

Isaiah 11:1-3 (JPS Tanakh)

The people of Nineveh will stand in judgment of this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the call of Yonah. But look! One greater than Yonah is here. The queen of Teiman will stand in judgment of this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Shlomoh. But look! One greater than Shlomoh is here.

Matthew 12:41-42 (DHE Gospels)

shlomo-hamelechThese verses tell a Jewish audience (and hopefully the rest of us) something about the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah tells us that the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon the Messiah, Son of David, and he shall be wise and understanding and knowledgeable, more so than Solomon. The idea is that Messiah isn’t just like Moses the Prophet, David the King, and Solomon the Wise, but he is greater than all of those. The Hebrew word translated as “delight” from the passage in Isaiah actually is better translated as “sense,” giving the idea of sense of smell, so it is like Messiah can sense, almost “smell out” the truth.

While a general audience can “get” the meaning of all this, it would, according to Boaz, have been quite a bit more obvious to a Jewish audience in the days of Matthew and in fact, it was Matthew’s intent to write in a manner that would demonstrate Messiah to them in a uniquely Jewish way. The gospels, and especially Matthew’s, are considered the greatest Jewish story ever told, if we just know how to properly read it.

Here’s another Jewish story:

During the fourth watch, Yeshua came to them, walking on the surface of the water. His disciples saw him walking on the surface of the sea and were terrified. They said, “It is the appearance of a spirit!” and they cried out in fright. Yeshua called to them, “Be strong, for it is I. Do not fear!”

Matthew 14:25-27 (DHE Gospels)

The full text of this event is in Matthew 14:22-33. You probably think you know everything there is to know about this story, including Peter’s brief ability to also walk as long as he kept his eyes on the Master.

But to an ancient Jewish audience, it says so much more.

When God began to create heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water…

Genesis 1:1-2 (JPS Tanakh)

The Hebrew word translated as “wind” can also be translated as “spirit,” thus we understand that it was the spirit from God that was hovering over the water.

This is the part where you have to “think Jewishly” and moreover, to have access to popular Jewish writings and teachings that are now collected in a large number of written works but at the time Matthew was writing his gospel, were more likely conveyed through oral tradition in less refined forms.

Boaz states in his presentation that according to Midrash Rabbah, it was the spirit of Moshiach (Messiah) that hovered over the waters. We know (and Matthew’s Jewish audience would have known) that from Isaiah 11:1-3 the spirit from God rested upon Moshiach. We know from Matthew 3:16-17 that the spirit came from God “like a dove” and rested on Jesus.

According to midrash, whose spirit hovered over the water? The Spirit of Moshiach. Putting all this together, the Messiah “hovering” or “walking” over the water would have summoned an immediate connection between that event and Moshiach’s Spirit hovering over the waters at creation.

This is also an indication that Messiah is greater than Moses. Moses’s name indicates one who was saved or drawn from water. We also know of Moses, through the power of God, splitting the Reed Sea (yes, that’s “Reed Sea.” “Red Sea” is a poor translation) and walking at the bottom of the sea with the water over him. Yeshua is greater because he is over the water as was his spirit at creation.

Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.

Psalm 77:19 (NRSV)

walking_on_waterThis verse seems to reference Moses but it is also Messianic because footprints are “unseen” when someone is walking on top of water. Also water, in ancient Jewish thought, represents chaos. In the story of creation, God “binds” and limits the great waters with shores. Yeshua is above the chaos and Matthew telling this story as he does, is declaring to his Jewish audience that Jesus is the Messiah from creation. For the rest of us, his message is that the good news of Moshiach is “first to the Jews.” It is the story of Jewish good news.

But the way Boaz teaches this lesson teaches us something about Biblical sufficiency. The idea of sufficiency is that the Bible is all that we need to understand the Bible. That’s not exactly true. While the plain meaning of the text does teach us something about Jesus and who we are as Christians, an understanding of early Jewish thought, writings, and midrash, shows us that the text contains a deeper meaning, one that would elude us if we ignored the extra-Biblical understanding of how an early Jewish audience would have comprehended these verses and associated them with other parts of the Bible. Sola scriptura isn’t quite the beginning and end of how we can understand the Word of God.

There’s another message here according to Boaz. In his presentation, he was addressing a traditionally Christian audience, one who was just becoming involved in FFOZ’s HaYesod program. Historically in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements (and I can attest to this personally), there’s been a tendency for Gentile believers to become enamored with the Torah to the exclusion of the rest of the Bible. It has tended to “defocus” Gentile believers involved in either of these movements from the Gospels and from the Messiah. Just as the Gospels don’t replace Moses and the Torah, Moses and the Torah don’t replace Jesus and the Gospels. The Gospels require the Torah to illustrate and validate the message of Messiah but always remember, the Messiah is the Prophet, the one who is greater than Moses.

But there’s more in Matthew that teaches us about Messiah:

They remained there until the death of Hordos, fulfilling the word of HaShem through the prophet, sayings, “Out of Mitzrayim I called my son.”

Matthew 2:15 (DHE Gospels)

This is a direct reference to the following:

When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.

Hosea 11:1 (JPS Tanakh)

Modern Jewish commentators cry “foul” at Matthew’s application because Hosea is clearly referring to Israel the nation as God’s son, not the Messiah. But the heart of Jewish interpretation and application is taking scripture and applying it differently to other circumstances. This also does something special that I completely agree with. Matthew is creating a one-to-one equivalency between Israel and Messiah. Messiah is not only the Son of God, but the living embodiment of the nation of Israel; the Jewish people. Moshiach is Israel’s first-born son.

Yeshua spoke all these things in parables to the crowd of people, and other than parables, he did not speak to them at all, fulfilling what the prophet spoke, saying, “I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter riddles from ancient times.”

Matthew 13:34-35 (DHE Gospels)

This compares to the following:

I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old.

Psalm 78:2 (NRSV)

But here we learn something else. Typically, a Christian will understand that Matthew 13:34-35 is relating back to Psalm 78:2. In a Bible study on the verses from Matthew, a Christian teacher would probably include a reference specifically to Psalm 78:2 rather than the entire content of that Psalm. But from a Jewish writer’s point of view, he intends for his audience to read or hear that portion cited from Matthew and to recall all of the Psalm.

bet_midrash_temaniPsalm 78 as a whole, describes the repeating cycle of Jewish faithfulness and unfaithfulness, faithfulness and unfaithfulness to God. Matthew wants his audience to “get” this point and associate it with Yeshua as Messiah and that Messiah has come to restore Israel’s faithfulness to God.

Again, if we just isolate and link Matthew 13:34-35 and Psalm 78:2, we miss the larger message Matthew is transmitting to his Jewish readership. We may call the Bible “sufficient” and it is, but it can be more “complete” only when we reinsert the Jewishness of its overall context and include both Jewish perspective and Jewish midrashic thought into our understanding.

I’m going to split this teaching into two posts for the sake of length. There are other important parts to what Boaz Michael spoke that I don’t want to miss or gloss over. Part 2 will be in tomorrow’s “morning meditation.”

Chayei Sarah: Oil for the Lamp

“Now Avraham was zaken / old, well on in days, and Hashem had blessed Avraham bakol / with everything.”

Genesis 24:1

Why does our verse say that Avraham was “well on in days” rather than “well on in years”? R’ Yaakov Yosef Hakohen z”l (1710-1784; foremost disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov z”l; known by chassidim as “the Toldos” after one of his works) explains:

The Gemara (Shabbat 153a) teaches: Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before you die. But, since no one knows when he will die, repent every day.” King Shlomo likewise said (Kohelet 9:8), “At all times, let your clothes be white.” Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said: “This may be likened to a king who announced that he would hold a feast, but did not announce the time. The intelligent ones among his entourage dressed-up so as to be ready on a moment’s notice, while the fools did not prepare.” [Until here from the Gemara]

-Rabbi Shlomo Katz
“Beginnings and Endings”
Hamaayan, Volume 26, No. 5
Commentary for Torah Portion Chayei Sarah
Torah.org

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew 25:1-13 (ESV)

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…

-Pirkei Avot 4:1

Who is wise? The motto for the Boy Scouts is “Be prepared,” so, given the lessons we see above, it would seem that we would be wise if we learned from the sages who provided those teachings. We can learn from every person, but it is better to learn from those who have something useful and edifying to say.

And yet, how often do we ignore wise teachings until it is too late? How often do you put off changing the batteries in the smoke detectors in your home? How often do you let the needle on your car’s gas gauge get down to “E” before looking for a gas station? And while it’s impossible to predict an earthquake, if you knew a hurricane was coming, how long would you wait before trying to leave for a safer location or stocking up on food and water for yourself, and batteries for your radio, and then shuttering your windows against the coming storm?

No, I’m not taking a cheap shot at the victims of hurricane Sandy, but rather, I’m saying something about we Christians. How often do we take “being saved” for granted, even when we know that a “storm” is coming? How often do we take our relationship with God for granted and think we know everything we need to know about Him?

I saw this yesterday on Facebook:

Going to be a very interesting year ahead. I started going to a Bible study with a friend of mine, yesterday was our first class and let me just say complete shock. They are studying B’RESHEET (Genesis) and in the new members class the leader was telling us how she has been a Christian for over 40 years, joined this Bible study 5 years ago and it was the first time she ever read the ‘Old Testament’. Many of the other women commented that they too had not read anything other than the Psalms and had no idea where this thought of ‘twelve’ tribes came from. How very ,very sad.

Isn’t that a little like waiting until the last minute before getting oil for your lamps, and then getting locked out of the “marriage feast?”

OK, a lot of Christians don’t really consider the Old Testament to be that important. A lot of churches bill themselves as “New Testament” churches and that’s pretty much all they feel they need. However, since all of Christ’s “source material” from Scripture was before the Gospel of Matthew, it might be wise to study what he must have studied (We sort of assume that Jesus just “knew” the Bible forward and backward, but as a child and young adult, no doubt like other Jews, he attended synagogue on Shabbos, heard the sacred texts being read, and studied as would be expected of a young Jewish lad from a humble family in the Galilee).

We do know that he knew a few things and learned a few things growing up.

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished.

Luke 2:46-48 (ESV)

It is true that studying does not automatically assure that a person will grow wise, but lack of study will almost certainly result in a person being ignorant. Christianity and Judaism have one core document that provides us with a connection to those who established our faith and who can tell us the story of man and God: the Bible (“Bible” has different definitions depending on whether you’re Christian or Jewish).

But it’s not that simple.

To define sola scriptura without academic terminology might sound something like this: The Bible is the only authority in the believer’s life; it is never wrong about anything; it touches on every aspect of life; it needs no outside help to be correctly interpreted; it never disagrees with itself; it can be understood by anyone of average intelligence; and it applies to everyone in every situation.

-Jacob Fronczak
“The Five Solas: Sola Scriptura”
Messiah Journal, Issue 111 (pg 47)

That sounds good as far as it goes, but let’s see what else Pastor Fronczak has to say.

I only use the example of translations to illustrate the fact that in a very practical sense, the Scriptures in their original languages are, for most Christians, not enough – tools such as translations, concordances, the Masoretic vowel points, and commentaries are required in order to understand the text. Of course, the goal is to understand the original text, which in itself is not an objection to the doctrine of sola scriptura – until one realizes that every translation, every commentary, and even the textual tradition itself are all based on traditions along with the divine written revelation. It is simply impossible to get away from these traditions and study the Bible in isolation. (Fronczak, pg 52)

It seems that studying the scriptures to acquire wisdom is getting harder or at least more complicated all the time.

I’ll probably write another “meditation” sometime soon expanding on other points in Fronczak’s article, but essentially, he is saying that we cannot study the Bible in any useful manner without employing (hold on to your hats) the “traditions of the (Christian) elders.”

“The traditions of the elders” has received a lot of “bad press” in Christianity because of the perception that both ancient and modern Jews allow “the traditions of men” to have authority equal to or even greater than the Bible. The Christian response, particularly among Protestants, is to say, “let scripture interpret scripture,” which is the short definition of sola scriptura. That means, “no traditions are allowed,” just the Bible itself. However, Fronczak’s article makes it abundantly clear that the early church fathers employed a great deal of tradition in even canonizing the books of the New Testament, and Catholicism, even to this day, states that the Bible can only be understood through its traditions.

Imagine the shock of realizing that the same is true among all modern-day Protestant churches as well. We just don’t choose to say it in those words.

Remember that quote from Pirkei Avot about a person being wise if they learn from everyone?

And what about the commentary on Abraham and its apparent companion lesson about the ten virgins? How can we learn from everyone and how can we be prepared to learn what we need to learn in order to comprehend what the Master is teaching us, and thus draw closer to God?

You must unlearn what you have learned.

-Yoda (Frank Oz – voice)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

In some sense, learning what’s important and what takes us on the path toward wisdom means “unlearning” concepts and doctrines that we discover aren’t useful in our lives. That isn’t always easy when such information is directly attached to words like “sacred” and “holy” and “divine revelation.” It would be like a person who learned as a child that God was a giant, old man with a long white beard who sits on a huge golden throne on a cloud in the sky. Now imagine that child is Jewish and then he grows up and learns that according to Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith, God doesn’t even have a body and is not to be considered a corporeal being? If the fellow was still young enough, that might come as quite a jolt.

Now imagine being a woman of middle age who has been a Christian for forty years reading from the book of Genesis for the first time. Taking it a step further, imagine the same woman in a group of women studying the Old Testament, accessing the classic interpretations for Genesis to try to understand anything at all about who Abraham was, where he came from, why God made a covenant with him, and what that covenant means to both Jews and Christians today.

If we are to take the lesson from Avot at face value, then our class of women might want to “unlearn” a few things about the Old Testament and learn, not only from extra-Biblical Christian commentaries about Genesis, but from a few Jewish ones as well.

Certainly Jesus understood Abraham from a completely Jewish context and framework. If we want to understand Jesus, we must understand what he understood.

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.

-Matsuo Basho

So we unlearn what is not useful to us and then start learning from a wide variety of sources, seeking to understand God (as best we can) and who we are in Him. How do we know when we’re “prepared enough?” Five of the ten virgins kept “flasks of oil” with them for their lamps so that when the bridegroom came, they were ready to light them, even if it was at midnight. How do we know when we’ve studied enough so that we have “flasks of oil” at hand?

Let’s look at it another way. Studying, learning, understanding, are all active processes. You can’t bottle the stuff and put it on a shelf for a rainy day. It’s like continually replenishing the oil in lamps that continually must be burning. This makes sense when compared to another parable of the Master about we Christians being the light of the world (see Matthew 5:14-16) and how our light must be placed where everyone can see it burning all the time.

Our “lamps” will never be filled to 100% capacity where we can then stop tending to them. We are prepared when we’re always preparing; when we’re always studying, and learning, and discussing, and pondering, and repenting, and praying, and…you get the idea.

In each journey of your life you must be where you are. You may only be passing through on your way to somewhere else seemingly more important—nevertheless, there is purpose in where you are right now.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Be There”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Or in the words of my generation, “Wherever you go there you are.” We should all consider ourselves “a work on progress.” We’ll never be complete. We’ll never be “finished” or “done” or “perfect.” As long as we live, we must move forward. As long as we’re breathing, there’s someplace else to go, something else to learn, another person we need to meet.

And God will always be with us, as long as we continually seek him, and walk by the light of our lamp.

Good Shabbos.