Lighting a Flame
The first serious Christian book I ever read was John Stott’s The Contemporary Christian. In it, Stott argued that Christians had a responsibility to bridge the gap between the Word of God and the contemporary world. It probably sounds basic to you, but for a teenage boy in rural Arkansas who had never heard of such a thing before, the idea was revolutionary. Indeed, it forever altered the course of my life.
As you have probably figured out by now, this is not your typical biblical studies blog. I don’t report the latest archeological discoveries; I don’t discuss the latest debates over the historical Jesus or Paul and the law. I don’t pass on the latest gossip from the Society of Biblical Literature or the Evangelical Theology Society. These are not bad things for blogs to do (with the exception of the gossip). They just aren’t what I am most interested in as a blogger.
Moving from Scripture to the World
My interest lies in helping people make the connection between the Bible and their everyday life—hence the title of the blog. I want people to see that the Bible isn’t just an old book full of outdated ideas, and I want them to see that serious study of the bible isn’t just for nerdy intellectuals. The Bible is (and/or contains, depending on your doctrinal persuasion) the Word of God, and, as such, it speaks to our world in ways that nothing else can.
But how do we get from the Bible to the world? How do we bridge the gap between ancient text and modern life? When I teach on this subject in churches, I divide the work into three “tasks.” Each task corresponds with a stage in the process of moving from the Bible to the present situation.
In the first stage, readers attend to what is called the exegetical task. They look at a particular text in order to understand what that specific text has to say about God, Jesus, humanity, or other important issues. The discipline of biblical studies normally takes the lead in getting this task accomplished.
In the second stage of the process, readers focus on the integrative task. They take the various claims made by different biblical texts and place them side-by-side with one another in order to determine if there is a coherent biblical message on a given topic. They also correlate what the Bible has to say about a given topic with what it has to say about other, related topics. The idea is to construct a comprehensive accounting of the Bible’s message within its own context. This is the domain of biblical theology.
In the third stage of the process, readers attend to the constructive task. This is where people articulate a reasonable, relevant presentation of the gospel—one that is intelligible to contemporary persons and that addresses contemporary issues. This is the domain of constructive or systematic theology.
Making the Process Work
Three observations need to be made at this point about how this process works. First, it is something that all of us who read the Bible do on a regular basis. We wonder what a particular text means and how it fits into the larger message of Scripture. We make claims about what the gospel really is and how it applies to whatever political, social, economic, or other issue we want to address. This is how it should be; biblical interpretation cannot be outsourced to intellectual elites. Certainly, the nerd class has some important contributions to make to the conversations, but so do diesel mechanics and dental assistants.
Second, even though we have discussed three distinct tasks and have enumerated separate disciplines that are associated with each task, we are describing what is essentially a single process. We get into trouble when we try to skip a step. Doing integration and construction without exegesis is like building a house without a foundation. All subsequent conclusions are suspect, because the raw materials for those conclusions have not been properly analyzed. Moving straight from exegesis to application without any attention to the larger message of Scripture can lead to an imbalanced understanding of a particular topic. Doing exegesis and integration without giving proper attention to application can leave our gospel stale and irrelevant.
Third, the constructive task is the part of the process that people care about the most. After all, it is the one that most directly affects their lives. It is also the one that can create the most trouble. In bringing the gospel forward out of its world and into ours, it is easy to lose important features of the message along the way. They get lost in translation, so to speak. It is also easy to read back into the Scriptures aspects of our own culture and ideology. Religion is a powerful motivator, and finding religious justification for things that matter to us can aide us greatly in accomplishing our goals. The problem is that we are not the ultimate measure of truth. We must always seek to apply the Scriptures first to ourselves before we use it as a weapon to overthrow the supposed heresy that we see in others.
What This Blog Is About
This blog is not really about any one stage in the process. Rather, it seeks to model the process as a whole. I do not intend to spend a lot of time discussing exegetical details; most of the folks reading this blog will be pastors and lay leaders, and they may not have the time or the patience for scholarly minutia. I will, however, mention details when I think that they can help us understand what the Bible is trying to say, and you are always welcome to question the exegetical foundations for the arguments I present.
Likewise, I am not a systematic theologian. A lot of things are happening in contemporary philosophy, economics, political science, etc. that I am not qualified to address. Nevertheless, I do think that it is important for me to suggest some ways in which the Bible might address specific phenomena in today’s world. I hope to do this with a solid exegetical foundation and with the larger message of Scripture always in view. And I hope that you will join me on this adventure—asking questions, making suggestions, and sharing your insights along the way.