14 July 2010

Small Handles for the Kids

by Frank Turk

Here's a little passage from Mark 4 (ESV), with the verse numbers left in to keep us all on the same sheet of music:
30 And he said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." 36And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" 39And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?" 41And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

And any person you meet except the really militantly self-absorbed would agree with the following statement:
The Gospel of Mark is a historical account of Jesus' life, and as such, this passage of Mark reports historical events in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Now, here's where many people will bail out of the discussion: How much time elapses between v. 32 and v. 35 in Mark 4?

I mean, this is a historical account, right? So it doesn’t seem very problematic to say, without being very cheeky, "The rest of the day, cent. Pay attention."

That's fine, I guess – no reason to argue about that. But what did Jesus say during the rest of the day? We know in general what Jesus said – Mark says, "With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything" – but we don't have any kind of a record of what Jesus said in the rest of the day.

Now, that's pretty much undeniable – we don't have any way to tell what Jesus said specifically the rest of that day. And worse still, when v. 35 begins, "on that day, when evening had come," Mark may also be saying "on that day when this next stuff happened", so it's another day entirely.

And I bring this up not to impugn the clarity of Scripture, but to instead ask what it means to have a class of literature which conveys historical facts. In the first place, we can see that not every minute detail has been included in Scripture – how often Jesus drank water, for example, is not included in the holy writ. In the second place, there are massive omissions of dates and time – so much so that there's no way to say that the "synoptic" Gospels actually list the events of Christ's life as if they were a travelogue.

But if this is so, how does the good Christian say that the Bible says things which are true, let alone that the Bible is truth? How do we trust them, for example, as history when these texts are practically date-free?

Well: we have to be better readers than my first-grader. We have to be somewhat literate readers who understand things like genre and type and authorial intent. Because it turns out that Scripture is clear, and is truth, but not in some wooden sense where words don’t do what they do in every other place we use them.

So on the one hand, to stick with my example of Mark, we can say that Mark wrote a historical account of the life of Christ. But on the other hand, he wasn't transcribing Jesus' diary of his 3-year ministry: Mark was ordering the events, or grouping them, or relating them, to underscore specific truths about the life of Christ – building contrasts and comparisons in the events in order to make what we can call expositional points.

That's going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, but who asked them? Here's what you can't do with the Bible: you can't demand that it be "narrative" and not define what kind of "narrative" it is, especially in its diversity of text types. But once you define its genre – its type by book and author – you then have the broad opportunity to read and receive what's written as it was intended to be received.

And I say all that to say this: we can't get all broken up when somebody comes to us and wants to tell us that the Bible is a shaky foundation for faith. For centuries – millennia almost – the Bible has been recognized as one of the great sets of literature man has available to read. And in that, we can’t read it like it's simple hack writing; we can't receive it as great literature but expect it to be easier to read than Milton or Shakespeare or Spencer. The Bible is a beautiful thing, and in that it has all the attributes of beauty: simplicity and complexity, accessibility and incomprehensibility, small handles that even a kid can grasp but massive weight that grown men will strain at to carry.

We have a beautiful thing in the Bible and we can't let someone scare us off that just because they don’t really understand how beauty works. There's more to be said about this, but I have run out of daylight today, so think about that and we'll come back to it eventually.


Will Marks said...

Just as I was starting to wonder where on earth you were going with this, you absolutely nailed your point in the second half of the post. Great writing as usual.

Maybe it's one of my own issues, but I have a problem when some of the 'paint by numbers' translations of the bible become the primary teaching and study bible in some churches.

It's God's word. God's pretty complex. Yes it's going to be difficult to understand in places, because we are not that intelligent.

Thanks again Frank.

donsands said...

"The Bible is a beautiful thing.."


Good thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. My opinion is that we as believers sometimes read the Bible far too casually; at least I am guilty of this. We expect to see the same logical conformity of Biblical accounts as we have in other familiar literature. God is not bounded by logic or the laws of nature as we are. ("His ways are NOT our ways." Isaiah 55:8) So we can expect a book inspired by His Holy Spirit to have unexpected turns here and there. Casual readers will either not notice or be dismissive of such things.

God, I believe, wants to retain some measure of instructional dependency in us so that we look to Him for interpretational assistance rather than relying solely on our own reasoning abilities. Doing so prevents us from reading God's Word with the same attitude as we would a magazine article.

DJP said...


Tom said...

Jeff wrote:

"God is not bounded by logic or the laws of nature as we are."

Don't get ahead of yourself there, Jeff. God is supremely logical.

lawrence said...

Well said, my man. And I echo my boy, DJP. Supremely logical indeed.

FX Turk said...

Jeff --


Here's what I would say instead to make the point I think you're trying to make:

God is the creator and sustainer of both math and poetry, both music and bird chirping (which are not the same thing), both the physical laws of the universe and the very notion of relationships between people both divine and not divine. So in that, God is great -- and we need to look for God's greatness rather than only receiving God in the little tiny thimbles we have in our own epistemological cupboards.

100 Mile Pants said...

This raises all sorts of issues that could derail a meta, so I just want to say, "Bravo", while I chew it over some more.

FX Turk said...

Unless you start talking about something not related to how to read like a human being, you will not be derailing the meta.

Anonymous said...

I'd just add to this, that it is an unbelievably arrogant thing to say (as many do) that this thing Frank is talking about is true, and if only those simpleton ancients understood this, they would never have taken Genesis 1-3, Jonah being in the fish's belly for 3 days and Elisha making an axehead float, as real events.

David Regier said...

Modernism tries to define the Bible down. Postmodernism tries to define up from what modernism defined down.

Neither of them heard the story, I don't think.

FX Turk said...

Daryl --

um. What?

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I believe that God wants us to be casual readers of His Word, when "casual" is defined as "suited for everyday wear or use". I know what you are saying.

Merrilee Stevenson said...


Great title. It made me chuckle after reading your post. I read the book of Proverbs every day to my kids over breakfast, and we talk about "what stood out to me" or "what was my favorite part." The older they get, the more interesting the conversation gets, and it is a beautiful thing. It motivated me to look up Matthew 18:1-7. (I was just thinking of verse 3, but read them all together, and wowe! Beautiful and brutal at the same time.)

OneBigHappy said...

My 3 cents: I think the Bible "works" just fine on a "casual" level for a person who is at that level but willing to approach the text with humility. There are things to be received at that level of approach. But we can never put away that humility, especially as we seek to understand clearly the implications of the complexities of the Bible. The thing is, the Bible is not history in the modern sense of the term, and neither is anything else written at that time except for a few things, like the writings of Josephus, that were just starting to align happenings and ideas into what we think of as modern history. The New Testament, and I would argue that the Bible as a whole, is a witness based argument that the God of Israel was and is the One True God, and that this God would and finally did provide a Messiah and that Jesus is that Messiah. It is historical in the sense that the witnesses of the text were real people in history writing about what was really happening to them (or, as some others might say, what they "believed" was happening to them). The Bible shows through history (though not specifically as modern history) how God worked through time to bring about this provision. The Bible should be treated as a gathering of these witness documents FROM history (and, from my perspective, as divinely inspired). Historical, but not necessarily history in the modern sense of the word. We like to use the word "stories," but the word "accounts" is more fitting to my way of thinking. And we have to be careful not to backwards read modern or simplistic notions of genre into the genre, etc, of the Bible. When it comes to genre, we have to be careful because, for instance, the Psalms are not just "poems" or "poetry." They are ancient Semitic poetry/verse/liturgical hymns, songs, etc. - I don't think having a deeper understanding of the complexities of the Bible requires massive intelligence, but it does require humility, patience and commitment over time. -- okay. I'll stop now. But this is a good discussion. Great blog here.

Anonymous said...


What I meant was how often have we heard that the Bible is to be understood as a narrative, in the way that ancients understood narratives, and so we need, somehow, to understand that those old guys never would've read the Bible to mean real events in real time (like Creation and floating axe-heads) and so we need to not think that way either.

Which is to say, I've read your very argument before, given by more liberal thinking people, as a reason to not believe that the Bible actually means what it actually says.

That's all.

I liked what you wrote, I've just in times past I've heard "it's a beautiful book, don't try to make it all about truth and real events."

Weeks said...

"The Bible is a beautiful thing, and in that it has all the attributes of beauty: simplicity and complexity, accessibility and incomprehensibility, small handles that even a kid can grasp but massive weight that grown men will strain at to carry."

THAT is going on a note card and onto my wall at work. Holy crap, Frank, that is gorgeous.

FX Turk said...

I used to work for a greetiung card company, so you can imagine that I'm really good at the two-sentence sprint.

FX Turk said...


Aha. That's what I thought you said.

I admit it: it -is- what the more-liberal sometimes say. The problem is that this claim doesn't hold up under scrutiny for 5 minutes.

Rob Bailey said...

Missing the blog for a few hours, then reading some of the comments I am having trouble keeping my lunch down. I Cor 15:19 "If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied." Why even worry about it at all, except as a intellectual exercise, if you do not think it means what it says? It is a great narrative, it is a fantastic historical account, it is great poetry, it is great philosophy, it is instructionally sound for daily living. But it is also inspired, accurate, inerrant, and Holy. When you jack around with stupid definitions of backwards, hermeneutical gymnastic moves to come up with some kind of "reading" that suits your world, you are on very dangerous ground. And it REALLY makes me angry. In John 1, Jesus is called "The Word," when you pervert the Scripture you are perverting the very understanding of the nature of God. Come on you fly weight Philistines, Humble yourselves to His Word! The kind of thinking that says I can interpret Scripture anyway I want is nauseating. So sick of it.

Rob Bailey said...

Oh, and Frank, I have almost moved up to the Dixie cup from the thimble.

Rob Bailey said...

it is nice, cold well water.

donsands said...

"I used to work for a greeting card company" -Cent

Hey, that's what Maxwell Smart did: (But not really).
Are you a Control Agent, perhaps?

Anonymous said...


I agree the Bible does not need to be "defended," per se; at least when we are doing exegesis. Unfortunately this has so often characterized the way us "Evangelicals" have approached the text and our exegesis (through an apologetic lens).

Scripture is literature; made up of 3 different *Types* 7 different *Genres* and multiple different *Forms*. Pay attention to these carefully, and we get to see Jesus in all His beauty and splendor (Jn 5:39).

~Bobby Grow

Rachael Starke said...

Are you a Control Agent, perhaps?

Oh. Wow.

That makes so much sense on so many levels.

Rob Bailey said...


Unknown said...

I think you have misunderstood Professor Sparks in his BioLogos article. He does not propose that he is the one to "redeem scripture," but says that "redemption . . . is accomplished by the death, burial, resurrection, ascension and return of our savior, Jesus Christ." See http://www.biologos.org/blog/after-inerrancy-evangelicals-and-the-bible-in-a-postmodern-age-part-5

His examples from the Sermon on the Mount of specific cases in which Jesus corrected (redeemed) teachings of Moses show Christ redeeming scripture.

I think everything in the Bible must be read in terms of the person of Jesus Christ just as everything in our lives should be subject to the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus treated women as persons of worth and didn't distinguish between their gifts and value and those of men, so I don't think I should do so either. Jesus is my Savior and my role model. If anything in scripture appears to contradict the person of Jesus Christ, I feel that I must ask God for wisdom, rely on the Holy Spirit, and always be true to the person of Christ.

Love in Christ and for Christ

DJP said...

You're incorrect in the placement of your comment and, I think, in your reading of Sparks. From the article I linked to:

"And now my main point in this part of the paper. Just as we can maintain the created order is God’s good creation warped by the fall, in a similar way we can maintain that Scripture — given through and to a fallen world through fallen men — is both beautiful and broken. No less than the creation, Scripture’s human authors, and the book that they wrote, stands in need of redemption.

...Scripture is a casualty of the fallen cosmos. I have adduced evidence for this assertion by highlighting numerous tensions and contradictions in the Bible, including ethical tensions...."

Your talk about Jesus is very nice, as long as one immediately snaps in the undeniable truth that Jesus regarded the OT retrospectively, and His and His apostles' teaching prospectively, as true, sufficient, without error in all that they affirm, and wholly without need of human improvement of any sort.

Without that, nice talk about Jesus is just nice talk about "Jesus" — not the real Jesus.

Rob Bailey said...

" No less than the creation, Scripture’s human authors, and the book that they wrote, stands in need of redemption."

Why even bother to pretend? Everyone come over to my house, we will watch "The Last Temptation of Christ," curse the apostle Paul, and burn Genesis 1-3.