Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Book Review: Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God

Reading The Word of God In the Presence of God. Vern S. Poythress. 2016. Crossway. 464 pages. [Source: Review copy]
This book is a practical handbook to help people grow in skill in interpreting the Bible. It illustrates the process of interpretation by considering the stages through which a Bible student may travel in the course of studying a passage in the Bible. Even beginners can use the early stages of our approach (up through chapters 4-6), because we have designed the explanations to make sense to beginners and to be usable. In later chapters we add more complexity, so that beginners can continue to advance. As more details are added, pastors and advanced students may also find helpful insights. Our approach should also interest experts, because it differs from what has become standard among many biblical scholars. (opening paragraph from chapter one)
I have many reactions to this paragraph ranging from, "How courteous to write a book designed to make sense and be usable!" to "Well, at least the author is completely honest and transparent about how incomprehensible most of the book is going to be!" The truth is I do appreciate his honesty. It feels good to know that it isn't "just me" and that (probably) 90% of Christians (at least) would be equally at a loss to make sense of this one!

What I liked:

The Title and The Premise. It is a fantastic title. I do think Christians need reminders that when they read the Word of God they are in fact reading it in the very presence of God. Not only is God present with them. God is present IN them. Believers have an indwelling teacher and counselor that can and will illumine the Word of God as they read, study, and meditate. Believers can KNOW the author of the greatest book ever written. Believers can SPEAK to the author at any time, in any place.

The premise of this one is simpler than anything else about it. The premise is as follows:
If we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, we will be interested in learning more about him. And the Bible is the primary source for knowledge of God. Thus, loving God motivates serious study of the Bible. When we study the Bible, we should be loving God in the midst of our study. What implications does loving God have for the way we study the Bible? Amid our studying, we will be asking God to enliven our hearts, to enliven and clarify our minds, to sanctify our attitudes, to teach us, and to empower us to receive and obey what we study. We will also be praising him and loving him and enjoying him and marveling over who he is amid every aspect of our study. We will be repenting of sins when the Bible reveals how we have sinned.
I agree wholeheartedly with every word! Who wouldn't want to read such a book?!?!

By page eight, this premise has already become increasingly difficult to grasp in the details. The difficulty begins as soon as the author introduces the concept of PERSPECTIVAL TRIADS.

The Organization and the Outline. I may not have understood--comprehended--90% of the book's content. BUT. I do have to admit that it was well organized, well structured, and logically displayed. Comprehensible? Not really. But one could see how it was structured theoretically to make sense to the reader.

The Consistency in Examples. He uses the same passage of Scripture in nearly every chapter.

The Occasional Comprehensible Insight. Chapter Two entitled "Principles for Interpreting the Bible" is a great example that the book has good intent.
We can love God only if God himself empowers us. This empowerment begins when we are born again through the Holy Spirit. 
Precisely because we do not have a simple, fail-safe “recipe” for interpretation, a recipe that would work independently of our religious commitment and our spiritual health and our moral obedience, it is all the more important that we affirm that Christ is the way. He is the way to eternal life, the way to understanding God. We may add that he is also the way to understanding Scripture, because we need him and the power of his Spirit to arrive. We can never reduce any human person, let alone Christ, to a list of steps. Personal interaction creates rich relationships, including surprises.
The Bible is God’s speech in written form. So we should think about what it means for God to speak. God’s speech has several forms. 1. God speaks eternally in the Word, the second person of the Trinity (John 1: 1). 2. God speaks to create and to govern the world. 3. God spoke orally to human beings, in theophanies (Gen. 17: 1; Ex. 20: 18– 19) and through prophets as his spokesmen (Ex. 20: 19, 21). 4. God wrote his word. He did so directly with the tablets at Mount Sinai, which were “written with the finger of God” (Ex. 31: 18). Later, he committed his word to writing through human spokesmen who did the actual writing (Deut. 31: 24– 26). 5. Finally, at the climax of history, God spoke through the incarnate Son (Heb. 1: 1– 2). 6. God now speaks to us through the Bible, which God has given us as the permanent deposit of his word.
If we are going to appreciate what God says, we must know God and grow in knowing him. What we know about him feeds into our understanding of what he says. 1. God is Lord over all things. So we must take into account his lordship as we study. 2. God is Creator, while we and everything else in the world are creatures. The Bible makes a distinction between the Creator and his creatures. God as Creator is Lord, while his creatures are subjects and ought to submit to his lordship. This distinction implies that we must listen to God when we read the Bible, and not imagine that we can listen merely to our own ideas that arise while reading. 3. God is immanent. He is present in the whole world. He is also especially present, with his offer of redemption in Christ, as we read Scripture. 4. God has planned history and brings about his plan in time (Eph. 1: 11). History has purpose, and God has designed in particular that our study of the Bible should have a purpose. The Bible serves his goals, not whatever goals we may devise out of our own hearts. In particular, we are not supposed to be studying the Bible merely to acquire information, but for our spiritual good— for our salvation.
Now let us consider some basic principles about the Bible. 1. The Bible is God’s own word, so that what the Bible says, God says. 2. God governs the whole world through his divine speech, which specifies and controls what happens (Heb. 1: 3). The Bible, by contrast, is the word of God, designed by God to speak specifically to us as human beings. All divine speech, whether directed toward governing the world in general or directed toward us as human beings, has divine character. 3. God speaks his words to us in covenants (Gen. 9: 9; 15: 18; 17: 7; Ex. 19: 5; etc.). A “covenant” is a solemn, legally binding agreement between two parties. In this case, the two parties are God and human beings. 4. All the Bible is the covenantal word of God. That is, the idea of covenant offers us one perspective on the Bible. 5. The Bible is a single book, with God as its author. It does of course have multiple human authors. But its unity according to the divine author implies that we should see it as a single unified message, and should use each passage and each book to help us in understanding others. 6. The Bible is God-centered. It not only has God as its author, but in a fundamental way it speaks about God as its principal subject. It does so even in historical passages that do not directly mention God, because the history it recounts is history governed by God. 7. The Bible is Christ-centered. 7 Covenants mediate God’s presence to us, and at the heart of the covenants is Christ, who is the one mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2: 5). 8. The Bible is oriented to the history of redemption. God caused the Bible’s individual books to be written over a period of centuries. God’s later speech builds on earlier speech, and further unfolds the significance of his plan for history. God’s redemption takes place in history. Christianity is not merely a religious philosophy, a set of general truths about God and the world. 9. Christ’s first and second coming are central to history. God’s work of redemption came to a climax in the work of Christ on earth, especially in his crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension. Christ now reigns at the right hand of the Father (Eph. 1: 20– 21). We look forward to the future consummation of redemption when Christ returns. 10. God’s work of redemption interweaves word and deed.
When we encounter God, we are never in charge. We never master a passage. All its aspects interlock, and all the questions that we can ask interlock. We never get to the bottom, to a place where we can make perfectly transparent to ourselves how the pieces get sorted out, each into its appropriate bin. The use of a “method,” even as simple a method as three steps of questions, can tempt us to think that we have a guarantee: we tell ourselves that, if we use the method properly, we will achieve our goal. And the goal in this case is to know the meaning of the passage. We think we can master meaning, if we succeed in staying loyal to the method. Over against this reliance on “method,” I propose reliance on God and his mercy. In this, I aim to call us toward a fuller rather than a lesser engagement of our minds— with our hearts and souls.
The basic problem is the human problem of sin. We have deceitful hearts. People inject into the Bible the meanings that they want to hear. They thereby show their pride. In effect, they are telling God what he ought to say, rather than humbly seeking him. How will we ever root out pride unless we come to God himself, through Christ, to receive spiritual healing? The remedy is not the human author! It is communion with God. The typical advice from many modern scholars goes in exactly the opposite direction from what it needs to be. They are saying, go to the human author. God in Scripture says to go to God, through Christ who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14: 6).
We must love God with all our mind. We must serve and worship him. He is present and comes to us when we read Scripture. To try to forget or suppress his presence is to twist the purpose of Scripture, to express ingratitude, and to turn away from life to death. How can we expect to understand Scripture if, at the beginning, we insist on treating Scripture as something that it is not, namely a merely human document from a merely human author? It is regrettable and dangerous that we live in a time and at a cultural moment when most of Western scholarly study of the Bible follows the route of virtually exclusive focus on human authors. The mainstream of biblical scholarship does not believe in divine authorship at all. Many scholars outside of the mainstream still believe in divine authorship somewhere in the back of their minds, but they may nevertheless partly lay aside what they believe for the sake of a method that takes human authorship in isolation.

What I Didn't Like:

Overly intellectual. I can appreciate complexity. I can. I can appreciate challenges. Pushing one's self further and further to grow and understand new things, new words, new concepts, new ideas. But this is like handing War and Peace to a kindergartner whose reading level might just be Go Dog Go. And some chapters may even be like handing War and Peace--in the Russian language--to a kindergartener. There are books that genuinely encourage in-depth study that are written to be practical and useful. 

Present-Time Approach: "This perspective leads to each person focusing on himself as a conscious receiver of the word of God. God is speaking to each person in the moment when he reads. God is speaking even if the person resists his word and does not profit from it." and "It reminds us that we cannot dispense with God or ignore his presence anywhere in the process of our study. If we follow a “method,” we can make the mistake of treating the method as if it worked “by itself.” We might begin to act as if we did not need to pay attention to our spiritual relationship to God— at least not until after we had finished using the method." and "The present-time approach uses a perspective, namely the existential perspective, that focuses on each reader as a recipient. So we expect that it will perspectivally include the other two approaches. That is to say, if we follow the approach properly, in obedience to God who is present with us, it should lead to and even include the other two approaches."
The totality of these resources within English make up what we might call a subsystem of meanings, or a semological subsystem or a referential subsystem. We call it a subsystem, rather than just a miscellaneous collection, because the resources have to provide a systematic range of resources for all kinds of things that we might want to say. The verb departed, when used to refer to movements in past time, has links with an analogous word depart, used to refer to movements in the present time or a general pattern of customary movement at various times. The word departed also has relationships to other verbs of motion, such as left, exited, went, ran, walked, traveled, rode, and so on. The word departed also has relationships to nouns such as departure, exit, journey, egress, and passage. (Semanticists have labeled a collection of words of related meaning a semantic domain or semantic field.)
All of the dozens of TRIADS and "foci". Also all the "particle, wave, and field" examples
We can further explore what it means to listen to Scripture by using a second triad of perspectives, namely the triad consisting in the normative, situational, and existential perspectives. John Frame has developed this second triad of perspectives for analyzing ethics. The normative perspective focuses on the norms for ethics, which are summarized in God’s commands. Parts of Scripture with explicit commands are further explained and deepened by the surrounding Scriptures that contain other kinds of communication. The situational perspective focuses on our situation, and asks how we may best promote the glory of God in our situation. Loving our neighbor offers one way of glorifying God. So as an aspect of the situational perspective, we may ask how we may best express love for our neighbors and how we may best help and bless them. Finally, the existential perspective focuses on the people in the situation and their motivations. The primary motivation should be love.
These three foci correspond respectively to the particle, field, and wave perspectives. The text is a single writing, which is like a particle. The text exists in a multitude of relationships with its social environment, and the study of relationships constitutes a field-like focus. Finally, the text exists as part of a sequence of events leading from the past history of David and the monarchy to the future, including the future promises of a Messiah. The sequence of events is wave-like in character.
© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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