04 January 2012

Literately

by Frank Turk


This is a reprint from 2010, and back then, I tweeted the following:


Of course, my iPod corrects a lot of typos (whether they need it or not), but it didn't catch that one. So much for actually-literate. But some have asked, “well, what do you mean by that?” That’s a reasonable question, and I have a reasonable answer.

The biggest book in the Bible is the book of Psalms, yes? It’s huge. Nothing compares to it as a feat of literature, or, if I may be so bold, as a feat of theological exposition. And you would think that, for the latter to be true, it would have to be rote seminarian essays in somewhat-bloodless prose. But instead we get stuff like this in Psalms:
    Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!
    Let Israel say, "His steadfast love endures forever."
    Let the house of Aaron say, "His steadfast love endures forever."
    Let those who fear the LORD say, "His steadfast love endures forever."
    Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free.
    The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?
    The LORD is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
    It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.
    It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.
    All nations surrounded me; in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
    They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
    They surrounded me like bees; they went out like a fire among thorns;
    in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
    I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the LORD helped me. [Ps 118:1-16]
That’s not an essay. That’s not a book report. That’s not “exposition” in the sense that it has a topic sentence, three examples and a summary statement. It’s a poem about the grace of God.

Now, that should be enough to run after the idea of literate reading – for example, is this poem about a promise being made or a promise being kept? Why is that distinction necessary to comprehend and therefore interpret the meaning of the Psalmist’s thanks to YHVH? A literate person would grasp this immediately and know it’s part of what we’re getting ourselves into here.

But there’s more to it than that. This poem occurs in the Old Testament, and speaks to both some event in the history of Israel, and ultimately to the victory of Christ. Therefore the literate reader sees this psalm occurring in the narrative of the Gospel; that is, somehow the story of which it is a part is necessary and meaningful for the reader who is actually reading the psalm. The ESV study Bible tells us that this is the Psalm the crowds sang as Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph, and that Christ intimated it would be sung at his second coming.

Now seriously: so what? Is this just another kind of internet snobbery about to make the rounds? Is this just another way to look down the nose at other people and dismiss their use of Scripture and their kind of faith in Christ?

It could be. In fact, I would say that in some circles it is. For me, I bring it up for one reason only.

We love the Bible: all you readers and me love the Bible. Let’s not love it like we love Ice Cream – that is, for the short and self-centered moment in which it tastes sweet and cold. Let’s love it like a living and active thing which will cut us meat from bone, and also equip us, and inform us – if we treat it like what it is.

But this was said to me yesterday, also via Twitter:
I agree. It's most common to tell stories in Scripture. But it is not the way the apostles taught the Church ab Christ.
There are at least three things wrong with this view of the NT which point to a deficiency in having or showing knowledge of literature, writing, etc.:

[1] The apostles preached the Gospel, but they aren’t hardly the only place where Christ is expounded and extolled. For example, the letter to the Hebrews is almost entirely a book about Christ fulfilling the Old Covenant – which is a narrative point, requiring all the types and symbols, and yields a rich theology of salvation in the Bible.

[2] This completely overlooks the role of the four Gospels in presenting the Gospel, and neglects the book of Acts as a book which informs us on everything from soteriology to evangelism to ecclesiology.

[3] This denigrates the Old Testament in an entirely unacceptable way because it ignores the apostolic use of the OT, and it ignores the nearly-complete apostolic reliance on it as the firm foundation of scripture.

The bottom line is that the Bible – not our doctrines of the Bible – will do more to help us reform ourselves and evangelize and inform others than our cultural pup tents set up for a short time in the changing world will do. We have to read it as if it was literature and not as if it was merely the annotated and unabridged version of the reformed confessions.




12 comments:

Robert said...

I've been working through "What is Faith?", by J. Gresham Machen, and I love how he always comes back to the point that the Bible tells us about historical events that actuially happened and matter to us today. It is amazing that the problems he saw about 100 years ago have taken off and we can see the manifestation of things that he was concerned about.

We shouldn't contextualize the Bible to suit our times...the Bible has plenty of historical context of its own, but people are too lazy or not interested enough to find that out for themselevs. Although I know that it is only the work of the Holy Spirit that pushes me to learn more so that I can know our great God and Savior even better.

John Dunn said...

Worth the price of admission . . .
We have to read it as if it was literature and not as if it was merely the annotated and unabridged version of the reformed confessions.

It's sad that many of us miss the drama of the Scriptures and the rich unfolding of redemptive history because of this (often idolatrous) exaltation of the confessions as if they were the infallible "final word". Such lazy thinking is terribly short-sighted and betrays a lack of Biblical literacy.

michaelrjones said...

This post could have only been one sentence long:

We have to read it as if it was literature and not as if it was merely the annotated and unabridged version of the reformed confessions.

That's one of the biggest problems facing our kind of evangelicalism and, while it is a big problem in the YRR movement, they're not the only ones who are guilty. Awesome post!

Rhology said...

Was this an open letter to literate people?

Frank Turk said...

For the record, I don't care much for heretics who can't read the word of God literately, either.

#JustSayin

Darlene said...

(First time poster here) I'm trying to figure out exactly what you're main point is. Perhaps it eludes me because I am not reformed as many who frequent this arena are. :-) With that said, I suggest that as Christians we look at all of Scripture in the light of Christ, that is through the lens of His incarnation, sinless life, crucifixion, descent into Hades, resurrection from the dead and His ascension. However, this is not "my" suggestion as if I apprehended it of my own, rather what I have been taught.

It seems quite a task to be able to read Scripture without a predisposition. How does one read Scripture as from a clean slate? Further, I've often wondered how one can know, as in ascertain, whether what one thinks a particular passage means is aligned with its actual meaning. All the more one can ponder this with regard to the copious interpretations of Scripture that exist. I wrestled with this predicament for a number of years. I'd like to think that the matter has been settled for me, however there are times...

The former was said especially in reference to those very difficult passages of Scripture. Oh, and the especially CONTROVERSIAL parts as well. :-)

Frank Turk said...

Darlene --

That a broad set of broad questions. I have a broad answer for you:

You read the text as the kind of text it is. Your don't read a poem like it's an essay, and you don't read a letter like it's a piece of fiction.

Does that help?

Darlene said...

Mr. Turk,

Ok, let's delve a bit deeper. How do you think one should approach reading the Scriptures? I have heard many answers to this question. Some say, just let the Holy Spirit speak to you when you read. Pray and ask Him what the passage means and he'll show you IF you have the right disposition. Others suggest a particular commentary. Others say there is a figure system that is inherent in the reading of Scripture, understand that system and you'll be able to figure out the book of Revelation and symbolism throughout the Bible. Others say the Scriptures cannot be understood apart from the teaching authority of the Church. Of course which church is alluded to is a matter of who happens to be making this particular point at the time. Still others say we cannot understand Scripture apart from the history of the Church and the history of Israel. So, we need to be informed by the consensus of the Church Fathers.

I could add to the above, but I think my point is clear: there are many suggestions out there as to what is the most proficient means to discern the meaning of Scripture. My question is a simple one. How can one know that they know, undeniably, absolutely, with certitude, confidence and conviction that the interpretation they embrace and affirm is the accurate, trustworthy and credible one?

I know, I didn't give any wiggle room there. :-)

Frank Turk said...

When they believe in Christ alone. When it is obvious that He is the center of the anthology and that all roads in the text lead to him.

Frank Turk said...

Maybe I think this goes without saying, but once one finds the center of the text, it doesn't abolish the rest of it -- it doesn't even overshadow the rest of it.

Let me give you an example:

Let's say there's a person who claims he has found Christ in the text, and believes in Christ alone -- but then, he can't wrap his arms around Romans 1 & 2 (meaning: he can't see that the Law still has consequences) or around the book of 1 Cor (in which Paul makes the resounding case for the necessity of the local church as a defined body with responsibilities utterly balanced on the back of Christ's work) or either Titus or the two letters to Timothy (in which the need for elders in the local church is so transparent, and so utterly associated with rightly making Christ known, that only someone with overtly-insidious motives could miss it).

A person like this cheering on the slogan "Christ alone" is simply missing the necessary consequences of Christ alone.

You know: I have spent almost 7 years blogging now, and almost all of them about the question of what we should do about the idea of orthodoxy -- how do we define the faith? What is and isn't Christian? Asking this question is really a redress of implied and overt post-modernism and the intentional and unintentional assault our culture (inside and outside the church) makes on definitions and meaning.

It's a kind of apologetics, but it rests on one thing: the belief that the definitions do exist, they do matter, they do separate (sometimes in more than just "in or out" binary ways) in order to clarify, and they expose the weaknesses of many allegedly-conservative approaches.

There are many allegedly-conservative cults out there today. There are many people out there who think they are discerning, but they are in fact blind as an eyeless mole in his burrow.

Beware of people who hide their gross errors under familiar slogans.

The only savior is Christ alone. The only salvation is found in His name. But there are necessary consequences of His salvation, and those who deny them are sunk -- they don't have faith in Christ at all, because they don't have faith in the things Christ really does.

Mark B. Hanson said...

Frank, the last paragraph in your response just above is gold, and addresses a large swath of the modern church.

We want a Christ that does not make demands, that does not judge, that does not save the people we think shouldn't be. And what we want hard enough, we come to believe.

Rachael Starke said...

One of my favorite Frank posts, and not just because I'm a fellow English major.