Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 2)

As I sit here, I have a group of workmen above me drilling and digging up part of the roof of the Vicarage. The roofs were redone a few years ago. During the rainy season some leaks appeared. Fortunately they are not serious and we still have a warranty for them. Now that the dry season has begun, they are being repaired. It is noisy, though. So if today's blog is not as clear as it should be, please blame the workmen.

The weather here is lovely at the moment. Not too humid, sunny, and warm without being hot. Someone said to me when I first came to Hong Kong that every summer they decided they could not take the heat any more and would leave. Then the 'winter' came and they decided it was worth staying another year - especially when they saw what the weather was like back in the UK! I know what they meant - at least about the heat. I do not like hot weather. The climate in Aberdeen in Scotland was perfect for me, even in winter, and I battle with the heat and humidity here. Sometimes, in the summer months, I feel that all energy has deserted me!

Now that the temperatures are in the low twenties rather than the high thirties, I feel human again! I just hope my work rate improves accordingly! This week, I have the Diocesan Synod to attend, which just goes to show that every silver lining has a cloud!

I hope your week is not too cloudy or too cold.

Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 2)

London Bible College, where I went to study after sixth form, was committed to evangelical scholarship and to engaging with modern theologians. I don’t think I am being unfair in saying that much evangelical scholarship at this time was defensive, that is, much time was spent in showing why liberal scholarship was wrong and why the Bible could be trusted. This is not necessarily a criticism. Some scholarship did seem more about trying to show why the Bible could not be trusted than about a serious engagement with the text.

The trouble was that it was about two sides attacking and defending positions, which had been taken on theological grounds. It did not always lead to a greater understanding of what the Bible actually said.

There was, though, a discernible shift taking place. Evangelicals were beginning to use the tools that scholarship gave us to understand the Bible in its own historical context. They were studying the Bible and engaging in academic research, not simply to be able to refute the liberals, but to interpret the Bible on its own terms. At London Bible College, this approach was best typified for me by Max Turner, Douglas de Lacey, and Tony Lane. Attending their lectures and listening to them, I came out of the defensive camp, and saw the value of studying the Bible historically. I found my study stimulating, liberating, and exciting. I have written in previous blogs about the effect this all had on me so I will not repeat myself here!

Suffice it to say that by the time I had completed my degree, I was convinced of the need to read and understand the Bible in context, asking what the original writers meant and intended by what they wrote, and how it would have been understood by the first readers. This sort of approach seemed so natural and obvious. It involved work, hard work, but it was work that was required by the nature of the Bible itself. This was how God had chosen to communicate his word: through people who lived and wrote at a particular time in a particular place.

The only way then to hear the Word of God now, to know what the text means for us now, was by understanding what it meant then.

This point is vital. Academic study of the Bible wasn’t academic. We – I – wasn’t doing this just out of historical interest, but because we believed that this was the way to hear God speaking now. This was what God wanted us to do. Studying to learn about the background to a passage, to put it in context, was a prerequisite for applying the text today. Such study was important for all Christians, it was of even greater importance for those who interpreted the text Sunday by Sunday in the pulpit.

Consequently, when I left Bible College, there could be no question of leaving studying the Bible behind, and I went on to study for a masters degree in Biblical Studies. Again, the motivation wasn’t simply to get another degree, but to understand the Word of God and so be better at applying it and preaching it. I know that I was not alone in feeling like this. There was a real flowering of evangelical scholarship at this time. Out of this desire to understand the Word of God as God had given it and out of this period came evangelical scholars such as N T Wright, Don Carson, Ben Witherington, and many more, whose writings have been very influential both within evangelicalism and outside of it.

Evangelicals were no longer a small group defending the Bible in private; they had won the right to be heard within the scholarly community itself. Their scholarship stood up to critical scrutiny, and they were able to set the agenda as well as follow it and react to it.

Evangelicals now take all this for granted. Of course, we must engage in academic and scholarly study of the Bible. Of course, we must read the Bible historically and in context. It wasn’t taken for granted 30 or so years ago and those evangelicals who engaged in scholarly study were often accused of selling out!

So when I entered the ministry thanks to my background in the House Church Movement and evangelicalism and out of my time at Bible College, I was convinced:

1. that the Bible is the Word of God and is as relevant today as the day God inspired it.

2. that to understand that Word and to be able to preach and apply it, it must first be understood and interpreted in its original and historical context.

These two convictions have stayed with me, even when I have failed to live up to them. I am as convinced of them today as ever I have been. It is because of them that I try to continue my study, keep abreast of scholarship, and invest in a personal library as a resource for preaching. There have been great gains as a result of our engagement in scholarly study.

However, as I will try to explain next time, I also believe there have been losses and that in stressing the second, we have come in danger of losing sight of the first.

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