Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Those Pesky Arsenokoitai


Some commentators suggest that, because 1 Corinthians 6:9 is the earliest known use of arsenokoitai, Paul minted the word. Color me skeptical.

I assume that when the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he wanted to be understood by them. Including a newly coined word in list of those who “will not inherit the kingdom” is a poor way to be understood. It seems to me much more likely that Paul would use a word that he thought was in the Corinthians’ vocabulary. Probably the word arsenokoitai was in common, if infrequent, use.

Among the commentators who think that Paul minted the word arsenokoitai, there are some who suggest that he based it on Leviticus 20:13 in the Septuagint. (The Septuagint is an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. When Paul quotes the Old Testament, it is from the Septuagint). A New English Translation of the Septuagint (2007) renders Leviticus 20:13 as,

And he who lies with a male in a bed for a woman, both have committed an abomination; by death let them be put to death; they are liable.

It reads a little better in the Greek. Trust me. At any rate, the components of the word arsenokoitai, arsenos (“male”) and koiten (“bed”), occur together in this verse. Still it is highly conjectural to think that Paul had this verse in mind when he wrote 1 Corinthians 6:9. Again, assuming that Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand him, we would need some reason to think that the Corinthians, a Gentile congregation, would know this verse from Leviticus. It’s not impossible, of course, but it assumes a lot.

The fact is, we cannot know exactly what Paul was thinking when he used the word arsenokoitai. He apparently had something specific in mind, but it is beyond our ability to know just what that was. The variety of ways that English translations handle the word demonstrate this.

There are some things we can be sure Paul did not mean by arsenokoitai. He did not mean “homosexuals” that is, “people who have a same-sex attraction.” The concept of homosexuality did not exist in Paul’s day. Neither did he mean persons living in a committed, covenanted, publicly accountable same-sex relationship (“gay marriage”). That, too, is a new concept.

In short, Paul’s inclusion of arsenokoitai in the vice list of 1 Corinthians 6 cannot be taken as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality, homosexuals, or all homosexual acts. It cannot be taken as a condemnation of gay marriage.

This does not, however, mean that Paul would have approved of gay marriage. The truth is, he saw even straight marriage as a compromise for those who could not live in celibacy.

It would be nice to think that, if Paul knew what we know about homosexuality, he would have given the thumbs up to life-long, committed, publicly accountable same-sex relationships. Unfortunately, we cannot know what Paul would think.

For this post I cribbed another cool image of the Apostle Paul from

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The "Softs" and "Male-beds" in Translation

You may want to read my previous post before proceeding with this one. If you get bogged down in my discussion of various English versions of the Bible, you have my full permission to skip to the last paragraph of this post.

As noted in my last post, the dear old King James Version of the Bible (1611), at 1 Corinthians 6:9, translated the Greek word arsenokoitai as “abusers of themselves with mankind.” At 1 Timothy 1:10 arsenokoitai is translated “them who defile themselves with mankind.” I take both of these rather ungainly phrases to mean “men who have sex with men.” The KJV translated malakoi, a word also found in 1 Corinthians 6:9, as “effeminate.”

The 1952 Revised Standard Version translated both malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians with a single word, “homosexuals.” This seems to me a particularly unfortunate choice as it has the effect of condemning persons for who they are rather than what they do. I also think that this translation reflects the understanding and misconceptions of homosexuality that were current in 1952. At 1 Timothy 1:10, the RSV translated arsenokoitai with the word “sodomites.” This, too presents difficulties. Arsenokoitai in Greek would not have meant “sodomite” in the sense of a citizen of Sodom, though it might mean “a practitioner of sodomy.”

The widely used New International Version (1978) translated malakoi as “male prostitutes,” a translation that is followed by several other modern English translations including the New Living Translation (1996) and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004). The NIV translates arsenokoitai as “homosexual offenders” in 1 Corinthians. I find this translation rather egregious as the word “offenders” occurs nowhere in the Greek text. I also question exactly what a “homosexual offender” would be. The NIV is also inconsistent in that it translates arsenokoitai as “perverts” in 1 Timothy.

The New Revised Standard Version (1989) also translates malakoi as male prostitutes, and arsenokoitai as “sodomites” in both of its occurrences.

The English Standard Version, an Evangelical revision of the RSV published in 2001, follows the RSV by combining malakoi and arsenokoitai into a single term “men who practice homosexuality.” It translates arsenokoitai alone with the same phrase in 1 Timothy 1:10. Since Paul used two distinct words in Greek, I question the validity of translating the two with a single term.

Curiously, the New King James Version (1982) translates malakoi as “homosexuals.” It translates arsenokoitai, in both of its occurrences, as “sodomites.”

The New English Translation (2005) translates malakoi into “passive homosexual partners” and arsenokoitai as “practicing homosexuals.” A footnote points out that the emphasis is on “actual behavior, not orientation.” This understanding seems to underlie the translation of arsenokoitai in several other recent versions, such as the NLT and the ESV.

Dr. Ann Nyland, translator of The Source New Testament (2004), has an interesting translation for arsenokoitai: “anal penetrators.” In her footnote to 1 Corinthians 6:9, she says that the word “appears to include rape” and “does not apply exclusively to males as receptors as it was also said for anal penetration of a woman.” She translates malakoi as "receptive male homosexual cross-dressers" which may (or may not) be accurate, but is even more awkward than the KJV's "them who defile themselves with mankind" for arsenokoitai.

So in translation the malakoi are treated as "effeminate," "male prostitutes," "homosexuals," "passive homosexual partners," or "receptive male homosexual cross dressers." The arsenokoitai may be "abusers of themselves with mankind," "sodomites," "homosexual offenders," "perverts," "practicing homosexuals," or "anal pentrators."

Obviously, the words malakoi and, especially arsenokoitai pose challenges for translators. The various versions largely agree that they represent practitioners of some homosexual act or acts. Recent translations are rightly careful to distinguish between acts and orientation. (The concept of sexual orientation did not exist in the time of the Apostle Paul). In my next post or two I want to examine whether Paul’s use of these terms in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 constitute a universal condemnation of all homosexual acts.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Paul's Weird Word


There is a vice list in 1 Corinthians 6:8b-10, a list of several types of people who will not “inherit the kingdom of God.” The Apostle Paul uses a weird word in the original Greek of this passage. I quote it here from the King James Version of the Bible, emphasizing the phrase used to translate Paul’s unusual word. I am using the KJV intentionally because it was made before the word “homosexual” came into use.

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

Paul’s unusual Greek word was arsenokoitai. It is a plural compound noun made from the words arsen which means “male” and koitai meaning “beds.” What makes it strange is that 1 Corinthians 6:9 is the earliest known use of this word. The same word occurs in a vice list of those who are “under the law” in 1 Timothy 1:10. This is its only other use in the New Testament and is most likely derived from its earlier use in 1 Corinthians.

A word’s meaning is not determined by its etymology. In English, we can understand a thing without actually standing under it. Knowing that arsenokoitai is literally “male-beds” obviously does not define the word. Meaning is derived from context and usage. Since 1 Corinthians 6:9 is the first known use of arsenokoitai context becomes key. From the context of the New Testament vice lists, it is safe to say that being one of the arseonkoitai is not a good thing. Saying exactly who the arsenokoitai are is more difficult.

In my next post, I’ll look at the ways various English translations have treated the word. I should point out first that some translators couple the word arsenokoitai with the word preceding it, which the KJV translated as “effeminate.” That word (which does not occur in the 1 Timothy vice list) is malakoi, a plural noun that could be translated literally as “softs.” In New Testament era Greek it had a range of meaning that spanned from “cowards” to “catamites” and “cross-dressers.” It occurs to me that the derogatory English word "sissy" carries much the same range of meaning.

The picture of St. Paul in prison was taken from Cool website!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Blessed Christmas!

I'm taking a break from the discussion of Scripture and homosexuality to wish anyone who might read this blog a blessed and merry Christmas!

"Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:11)

Fra Angelico's painting of the Adoration of the Magi was borrowed from Wikipedia. Click here see the picture in much greater detail.

Monday, December 21, 2009



The book of Leviticus is a collection of laws, reportedly given by God to the Israelites through Moses. Its contents include instructions for offering sacrifices, dietary regulations, a version of the Ten Commandments, detailed descriptions of various forms of leprosy, and laws concerning a variety of sex acts. Chapter 18 of Leviticus specifically prohibits incest in several degrees, bestiality and, in verse 22, male homosexual relations: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

The penalties for infraction of the sex laws are specified in Leviticus chapter 20. At verse 13, we read: “ If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

Sometimes commentators divide the Levitical laws into categories of moral, ethical and civil regulations. These categories are of limited usefulness. First, Leviticus itself makes no such distinctions. The laws are simply the laws for the people of Israel. Second, it is not always clear which category a particular law fits. For example, is the prohibition against murder a civil or a moral law?

In fact, the Levitical code is not much concerned with morality. There is nothing particularly immoral about having sex during a woman’s menstrual period or eating shellfish, but Leviticus prohibits both of these things. Leviticus is much more concerned with holiness, purity or cleanliness. That is, the laws, even the sex laws of chapter 18, are intended to set the people of Israel apart as the Lord’s people, distinct from other peoples.

The rationale for the sex laws is stated in Leviticus 18:3, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes.” In other words, obedience to the sex laws of Leviticus 18 distinguishes the Israelites from their pagan neighbors.

So while Leviticus prohibits male homosexual relations, it does so only for the men of Israel, and this is not for purposes of morality, but to set them apart as the Lord’s people.

In the early days of Christianity, a controversy arose concerning whether gentile Christians were bound to keep the Jewish laws of cleanliness. According to the book of Acts, the apostles in Jerusalem laid aside the Levitical code and required gentile Christians “to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” This raises the question of whether homosexual behavior is necessarily considered “fornication.” But that is a topic for another post.

* The subtitle for this post comes from the Song “Sexx Laws” on the Midnite Vultures album by Beck. Scripture references are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version. The image of Michaelangelo’s Moses was lifted from Wikipedia and adapted.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Bible Doesn't Say What You Think It Does

At Synod Assembly last June the proposed Social Statement on Human Sexuality and the recommendations concerning ordained ministry were discussed. I am happy to say that, though the issues are contentious and feelings run high, the discussions were conducted with civility and charity.

During a break from the Assembly, I had a private conversation with a friend and colleague who holds a PhD in New Testament. I will not name him in case I quote him incorrectly. What I heard him say was, “The Bible doesn’t say what you think it does about homosexuality. No matter what side of the debate you’re on, the Bible doesn’t say what you think.” I believe my friend was right.

Arguably the Bible says nothing about homosexuality. If we understand homosexuality to be a sexual orientation, the concept did not even exist until the nineteenth century. Nor does the Bible speak to the subject of life-long, committed, covenanted same-sex unions, another concept that did not exist in Bible times.

What the Bible does address is certain homosexual behaviors. The five passages that speak to the subject are Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. I specifically omit the story of Sodom (Genesis 19) from this list as it deals with rape and not consensual sex. In each of the five passages listed the described behavior is judged negatively. In the next few posts I will examine each of the five passages. As I look at the Bible’s statements on homosexual behavior, I want to keep these questions in mind:

Do these Scriptures make a universal condemnation of all homosexual behavior?

Do the ancient condemnations still apply in the light of what we now know about homosexuality?

Do the Scriptures view homosexuality, or homosexual behavior, as “inherently sinful?”

There are more than 300 passages of Scripture that address our need to care for the poor. I'm only saying....

Friday, December 18, 2009



Issues surrounding homosexuality are hot-button topics in both the Church and society today. My beloved Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is currently dealing with the aftermath of a Churchwide Assembly that approved ordination for qualified individuals living in committed same-sex relationships. Some ELCA members find this intolerable and are leaving our church body. They say that the ELCA is going against both Scripture and tradition, that is, the Special Revelation.

It is true that the Christian Church has no tradition for same-sex marriage. It is also true that the Bible, in the five instances where it addresses homosexual behavior, is negative.

But, the best empirical evidence—reason and experience, that is, the General Revelation—has given us a new understanding of homosexuality. We have learned that same sex attraction is neither an illness nor a willful perversion. It is, rather, an innate orientation. Very simply, some people are born gay. In theological terms, God made them that way.

The examples of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin teach us that the Church gives privilege to the Special Revelation over the General Revelation at its own peril. Mistaking the content of the Special Revelation for the content of the General Revelation not only embarrasses the Church but also puts it at risk of denying the Truth.

I would suggest that, in light of our current best knowledge concerning homosexuality, the questions facing the Church are whether and how persons of homosexual orientation can ethically express their sexuality.

In the next several posts, I intend to examine some of the issues concerning homosexuality, beginning with an understanding of what the Bible says.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

At Play in the Oil Fields of the Lord


Some years ago I met a geologist who worked for a major oil company. At the time some conservative Christians were pushing to have “Creation Science” included in public school curricula. “Creation Science” is the attempt to prove the historical and factual nature of the biblical creation accounts with scientific evidence. A handmaiden of Creation Science is “Flood Geology” which tries to explain the earth’s natural features in light of the account of Noah’s flood in Genesis 6ff.

These things were all in the news. So, I asked the geologist what he thought of Creation Science and Flood Geology. His answer was succinct and pointed. “It doesn’t help me find oil,” he said.

In other words, the biblical accounts of creation and flood do not accurately describe the physical reality of our world. The truth of these stories is metaphoric and spiritual. To read them as factual accounts is a mistake.

Theologians speak of two kinds of revelation. The General Revelation is the knowledge of God that is available to all people through experience and reason. The Special Revelation is the knowledge of God that is available to the Church through Scripture and tradition. I will spell that out a little more fully below.

First let me note that my Methodist friends will recognize the Wesleyan quadrilateral of experience, reason, tradition and Scripture in the last paragraph. These are the four things that John Wesley taught must be considered in all theological reflection. To adapt from Wesley a little, I would say that both the General and Special Revelations must be considered in our discussion of God.

The General Revelation (reason and experience) can teach us a lot about God’s will and work. It can show us God’s existence and direct us in moral living. It can teach us how God ordered creation. The content of the General Revelation is broad.

The content of the Special Revelation (Scripture and tradition) is narrow. The Special Revelation teaches us about God’s saving work on behalf of humankind, first through his chosen people Israel, and then, through Jesus Christ, extending from Israel to all nations.

The Church gets itself into trouble when it mistakes the content of the Special Revelation for the content of the General Revelation. This was the mistake that Luther made in rejecting Copernicus out of hand. It was the mistake that the Roman Catholic Church made in condemning Galileo. It is the mistake that Creation Scientists and Flood Geologists have made in our own time.

Experience and reason teach us about God’s creation. Scripture and tradition teach us about salvation.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Poor Old Galileo...


Until the sixteenth century, the prevailing view of the universe held that the sun revolved around the earth. This is clearly the cosmology held by the writers of the Bible. In 1543, the year of his death, a Polish mathematician and astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory that the earth, in fact, revolved around the sun.

Four years earlier, in 1539, Copernicus’s unpublished theory became a topic of conversation at Martin Luther’s dinner table. As Anthony Lauterbach told it:

There was mention of a certain astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun, and the moon. This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving. [Luther remarked] “So it goes now. Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.” Source.

Other accounts of the conversation have Luther branding Copernicus as an “upstart” and a “fool.” Unfortunately for Luther, Copernicus was right.

It was almost 100 years later that an Italian astronomer named Galileo Galilei, with the aid of his telescope, proved Copernicus’s theory by empirical observation. When he published his findings in 1632, Galileo was found to be “vehemently suspected of heresy.” He was imprisoned by the Inquisition, and made to “abjure, curse and detest” his findings. He remained under house arrest until his death at age 77 in 1642.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II acknowledged the errors that the Church tribunal made in the trial of Galileo. Source.

Luther and the seventeenth century Roman Catholic Church were not the only ones to mistakenly condemn Copernicus and Galileo. I present them here as typical of what happens when the content of the special revelation is mistaken for the general revelation.

In my next post, I will explain what I mean by special and general Revelation.

The image of Galileo is, to the best of my knowledge, in the public domain.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Welcome to the Borg

Marcus Borg is brilliant and gentle. He is worth reading even when you disagree with him. I like the distinction he makes between the Word of God and the words of God in this quote from Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (The full citation is at the bottom of this post).

What then does it mean to call the Bible “the Word of God”? It is important to emphasize that the Christian tradition throughout its history has spoken of the Bible as the Word of God (capital W and singular), not as the words of God (lowercase w and plural). If it had used the latter phrase, then one might reasonably claim that believing the words of the Bible to be God’s words is intrinsic to being Christian.

But the use of a capital W and the singular suggests a different meaning. Namely, “Word” is being used in a metaphorical and nonliteral sense. As with metaphors generally, this one resonates with more than one nuance of meaning. A word is a means of communication, involving both speaking and hearing. A word is a means of disclosure; we disclose or reveal ourselves through words. Words bridge the distance between ourselves and others: we commune and become intimate through words.

To call the Bible the Word of God is to see it in all of these ways, and no doubt more. The Bible is a means of divine self-disclosure. The traditional theological phrase for this is “the Bible as the revelation of God.”

If I have any quibble with Borg here, it is that I prefer to reserve the capital W for references to Jesus as the Word of God.

Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally, 2001, HarperOne, NY. Quote is taken from pages33-4 of the Harper Collins first paperback edition, 2002

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Authority of Scripture


The many and various books of the Bible were written, redacted and collected over a long period of centuries. The Bible is not the product of a single author, but was written by many individuals, some of them anonymous. The canon of the Bible was not decided by a formal process, but came about by consensus and common usage.

Let’s face it, the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon have better origin stories.

Some Christians claim that the authority of the Bible is proven by its inerrancy. They say that the Bible contains no errors or contradictions. I find this idea untenable. The notion of inerrancy requires too much denial of fact, too many mental gymnastics for me to find convincing.

Some Christians claim that the authority of Scripture derives from its divine origin. Among these, some say that God dictated the Bible. If this is the case, God would have benefited from the services of a fact-checker. Others say that God used ghostwriters (that is, God told the scribes what to write but allowed them to use their own words, which God then approved). Surely God could have found a better ghostwriter than John of Patmos, whose command of Greek grammar was tenuous at best.

There are passages, especially in the prophetic writings, that claim to be direct words from God. Overall, though, the Bible makes no such claim for itself. It seems to me that most theories of direct inspiration overlook the fact that large portions of the Scriptures are words directed from humans to God (the book of Psalms, for instance) and not the other way around.

So on what can we base the authority of Scripture? How can we claim it as the ”word of God” and the sole “source and norm” of the Church’s doctrine? I would suggest that the Bible’s authority is three-fold.

First, it is the Church’s book. The Bible is that collection of writings that the Church found useful, beneficial, inspired and inspiring.

Second, the Bible has stood the test of time. The books that the Church recognizes as authoritative have been proven through centuries and millennia of use.

Third, the Bible is self-authenticating. In reading, contemplating and conversing with the Scriptures, people encounter God.

The image of Rembrandt's painting of St. Matthew and the Angel was copied from this website. I have no affiliation with Fine Art Prints on Demand and cannot vouch for their services.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Poor Old Judas...


I think I was a sophomore in high school when I realized that the New Testament contains two divergent accounts of the death of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus.

In Matthew 27:3-10 we read that Judas, filled with remorse, tried to return the money he had been paid to betray Jesus. The priests who had paid him were unsympathetic. So, Judas threw the money down in the temple. Then he went and hanged himself. The priests, unwilling put the blood money into the temple treasury, used it to buy a potter’s field, a place to bury foreigners. The field was then called Hakeldama, the “field of blood.”

The book of Acts, written by the author of the Gospel of Luke, tells a story that is similar, but different in a few key details. In Acts 1:15-20, we are told that Judas took his reward for betraying Jesus and spent it on a field. He then fell “headlong” and “burst open in the middle so that all of his bowels gushed out.” For this reason the field was called Hakeldama.

To summarize, Matthew and Luke differ on the details of who bought the field, how the field got its name, and how Judas died. When I discovered this, it made me wonder. Just how did Judas die?

At the time, I occasionally tuned into a radio station associated with a large Bible college. They had a “Bible Answers” type of program. So I called in and posed my question. The host explained that the two accounts can be harmonized. Judas, he said, hanged himself. After he had hung for a while, he swelled up like a dead raccoon on a hot day. Either the rope or Judas’s neck broke. His corpse fell and burst.

I have since found that this, with small variations, is a pretty standard explanation employed by inerrantists. By “inerrantist” I mean someone who holds that the Bible contains no errors or contradictions. The problem is, it did not add up for me then, and it still doesn’t now.

It violates the plain sense of Scripture.

If one reads Luke apart from Matthew, the clear meaning is that Judas died by falling and bursting. If one reads Matthew apart from Luke, the clear meaning is that Judas died by hanging himself. Reading these two passages according to their plain sense leads to the conclusion that Luke and Matthew contradict one another.

Since I am not an inerrantist, I do not need to harmonize Matthew and Luke. The clearest explanation of their divergent accounts, to me, is simply that they disagree. Matthew and Luke probably had different sources for their accounts. They also had different theologies and wrote for different communities. They do not need to agree.

This forces the question, if the Bible contains errors and contradictions, if its writers hold diverse theologies, can it still be considered authoritative? Can the Bible still be the sole source and norm of the Church’s teaching?

I don't know the original source for the pictures attached to this post. I found them via Google image search and liberated them from this blog.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

How to Read the Bible Like a Lutheran. Part 5


“Sola Gratia. Sola Fide. Sola Scriptura” (Latin for “Grace Alone. Faith Alone. Scripture Alone”) was the great motto of the Lutheran Reformation in the sixteenth century. The first two of these “three solas” are taken from Ephesians 2:8–9

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (New Revised Standard Version)

Martin Luther set the course for Lutheran Christianity with his absolute commitment to the principle that we are made right with God only by grace through faith. Nothing else can save us. Nothing else is necessary.

The third sola—Sola Scriptura—signified that the Bible contains all that is necessary for the knowledge of salvation. Luther made the Bible the sole “source and norm” of Christian doctrine. That is, the Church’s teaching must be derived from the Bible. And every teaching of the Church must be compared to the Bible to determine its truth.

The principle of Sola Scriptura served a very practical purpose in the Reformation. It gave Luther a way out from under the authority of the Pope. It remains a valuable tool for Christians concerned about the things that are taught in the name of Christ.

From all of this it should be pretty clear that Lutherans hold the Bible in high regard. We read the Bible as the written word of God, both Law and Gospel, revealing Jesus to us. We understand the Bible according to its plain sense and allow the clear teachings of Scripture to illumine the difficult passages. We look to the Bible as the source of our teaching, and we compare our teachings against the Bible.

Because we hold the Bible in such high regard, I would suggest that we should we should use every tool available to understand the Scriptures.

We should also be very careful not to misuse the Bible.

Monday, December 7, 2009

How to Read the Bible Like a Lutheran. Part 4


So, here we are, reading the Bible like Lutherans. We expect to hear God’s word. We are prepared to encounter Jesus. We are keeping the distinction of Law and Gospel firmly in mind. We are reading the text for its plain meaning, and suddenly we hit a speed bump.

The meaning of the text sometimes is just not that plain.

It is for cases like this that Martin Luther formulated the Scripture Principle. In brief, the Scripture Principle means that when a passage of Scripture is difficult to understand, contradictory or confusing, we interpret it in the light of those parts of Scripture that are clear. Sometimes the Scripture Principle is stated thus: “Scripture interprets Scripture.”

Now many Christians proclaim the Scripture Principle but have gone beyond what Luther meant. For some Christians the idea that Scripture interprets Scripture is used to build elaborate schemes of interpretation that gloss over the differences between books of the Bible. Some have used the Scripture Principle to construct minutely detailed timetables for the end of the ages which are far from the original meaning of the texts.

What Luther had in mind was more along the lines of attending to the grand themes of Scripture. For Luther, the Scripture Principle meant that when we encounter a troubling verse like Psalm 137:9 “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” we should read it over and against Jesus' words in Matthew 5:44 “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Martin Luther was well aware of the inconsistencies in the Bible. Biblical authors do not always agree with one another. He also knew that there are some harsh passages in Scripture. Using the Scripture Principle, Lutherans are able to understand these difficult passages in the broader scope of God’s word.

Next time: Sola Scriptura.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

How to Read the Bible Like a Lutheran. Part 3


In Martin Luther’s day Scholastic theologians had devised some pretty fanciful, allegorical ways to interpret the Scripture. They sought to tease hidden meanings out of the text. Luther insisted that, for the Bible to be understood correctly, it should be read according to its plain meaning. The Bible says what it means and means what it says.

I think that when Luther spoke of the “plain sense” of Scripture, he meant that the Bible should be understood as any reasonably intelligent sixteenth century German peasant would understand it. That is just a little problematic. I would argue instead that the plain meaning of a biblical text is the meaning that its original audience would have understood. The Bible, after all, cannot mean what it never meant. For this reason it is important for those who wish to understand the Bible to use every tool at their disposal to understand the times and cultures in which the Scriptures were written.

I would also point out that the Bible contains many different kinds of literature. There are letters, songs, apocalypses, parables, prophetic oracles, and even short novels. The reader should keep the type of literature they are reading in mind as this affects the plain meaning of the text. The plain meaning of a poem is poetic. The plain meaning of a parable is parabolic. The plain meaning of an apocalypse is apocalyptic.

You get the idea.

To sum up: Lutherans read the Bible as the word of God. We meet Jesus in the Scriptures. The Bible is both Law and Gospel, and the two should not be confused. Lutherans believe that the Bible is best interpreted by its plain sense, the sense that its original readers would have understood.

Next time: Scripture interprets Scripture.

Friday, December 4, 2009

How to Read the Bible Like a Lutheran. Part 2


For part one of this series, see the previous post below.

On Tuesday mornings, I study the Scripture readings assigned for the next Sunday with a group of pastors. All but one of us are Lutherans. The remaining member of our group is a pastor of the United Methodist Church. She finds it funny—both odd and amusing—that we Lutherans make such a big distinction between Law and Gospel. We can’t help it. We got it from Martin Luther.

Luther taught us that the word of God is both Law and Gospel and that these two categories should not be confused.

The Law is all of the musts and shalts and shalt-nots. It’s all of the demands and commands and precepts that God lays upon us. The Law serves two purposes. One: it gives order to our life together. Two: because we cannot live up to all of the Law’s demands, it convicts us of our sinfulness and drives us to seek God’s mercy.

The Gospel is the good news that, for Jesus’ sake, God forgives our sins and reconciles us to himself.

Law and Gospel are the bad cop and good cop of Scripture. The Law kills. The Gospel makes alive. The Law convicts. The Gospel justifies. The Law is bad news. The Gospel is good news.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Law is the Old Testament and the Gospel is the New Testament. Both Law and Gospel are found throughout all of Scripture. There is Law in the New Testament, and Gospel in the Old.

Sometimes the same passage of Scripture may be Law or Gospel depending upon who hears it, or even when they hear it. For example, Mary’s words in Luke 1:53, God, “has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty” is Gospel to the hungry and Law to the rich.

The reason that Lutherans are so adamant that the Law and Gospel must not be confused is because we, along with Luther and the Apostle Paul, believe that we are made right with God by grace, through faith, apart from works of the Law. Our salvation is God’s doing, and only God’s doing. When Law and Gospel are confused, we are given the mistaken idea that we can, in some way, save ourselves.

A friend of mine says, “If it doesn’t sound like good news, it’s not the Gospel.”

To review: Lutherans read the Bible through Jesus goggles. We expect to meet Jesus in the Scriptures. We understand the Scriptures to be both Law and Gospel, but we are careful not to confuse the two.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

How to Read the Bible Like a Lutheran. Part 1


Lutherans use a specific set of tools to interpret Scripture. We share some of those tools with other Christians. Some of them we use in a particularly Lutheran manner. Taken together, they add up to a uniquely Lutheran way of reading the Bible.

The constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) describes the Bible as "the written word of God." Written is an important modifier, because Lutherans use the phrase "word of God" to describe three separate but closely related things.

First, and most importantly, Jesus Christ is the eternal and incarnate Word of God. The Gospel of John describes Jesus as the Word which existed with God from eternity, and which was God. This Word entered human life at a particular time and place and lived among us, showing us the heart and mind of God.

Second, Lutherans call the Bible the word of God. The Bible is precious to us because in it we find the stories and teachings of Jesus. In the Bible, we meet Jesus. Martin Luther called the Bible "the cradle in which the Christ child is found." Lutherans read the Bible through a pair of Jesus goggles.

Third, Lutherans speak of the proclaimed word of God. That is, the Word (Jesus) expressed in sermon, hymn, liturgy, and in the lives and deeds of believers.

The heart of the matter is this: when Lutherans read the Bible, we do so expecting to hear God's word. We read the Bible expecting to meet Jesus.

If you would like to read the Bible like a Lutheran, I recommend two excellent resources, both published by Augsburg Fortress. First is Lutheran Study Bible, which is thick with introductory materials, footnotes and additional essays. (Don't confuse this book with Concordia's similarly titled The Lutheran Study Bible which I do not recommend). Second is a thin volume titled Opening the Book of Faith, by Diane L. Jacobson, Stanley N. Olson and Mark Allan Powell. Jacobson and Powell do an especially fine job of explaining how Lutherans read, interpret and understand the Bible.