Three Words that Can Improve Your Bible Study Immediately

I was wrong.

Regardless of context, this is one of the most difficult statements for anyone to make. Whether you’re having a conversation at the church, at home, or even in the coffee shop, these three words come with such difficulty.

And yet, those committed to the authority of Scripture live with this possibility on a daily basis. We are called, each of us, to be submitted to God’s Word. As eighteenth-century Lutheran scholar Johann Albrecht Bengel has been quoted, each of us has the responsibility to “Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the text wholly to yourself.” This is the task we face daily in our efforts to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2).

And in order to be transformed—in order to be conformed to Scripture—we must say those three words with far more regularity than any of us would desire. Each time we approach Scripture, we bring a load a theological baggage to the task of interpretation. And we have a responsibility to let the text speak and allow it to have an affect upon our theology.

And this is so difficult, isn’t it? Even as born-again, Bible-thumping Christians who champion sola scriptura, again and again we are tempted to bring our theology and our experiences and the mounds of books we’ve read to the exegetical task and interpret Scripture in such a way as to accord with our pre-conceived notions. This proclivity seems so evident when we see it in someone else (who clearly can’t conceive of their bias), but we are then challenged to consider the other theological arenas in which we may blind to our own (unnoticed) biases which we carry into the exegetical task.

It is much more natural, when faced with teaching that opposes our thought, to reject it outright—to declare that our views are inherently right and correct. It is far more difficult to acknowledge the possibility that we might actually be wrong. In my reading of God’s Word, I am perpetually amazed at the number of scribes and Pharisees whose interpretations of Scripture were shaken by the Incarnation of Christ. Over and over again, Jesus’s actions undermined their entire framework of understanding. And while it is common to read their reactions in the Gospels as absurd, as a theologian and student of God’s Word, I become fearful of the possibility that my interpretations—as well-intentioned as I believe them to be—as much study as I have committed to the task—could be wrong (or at least fallible).

And in my brief experience training men and women to rightly divide the Word of God, I’ve taught them to ask an important question when faced with a difficult text that doesn’t necessarily correspond with their pre-determined theological position.

Rather than asking them how they might redefine or re-interpret a verse in order to make it align more closely with their position, I challenge them to ask, “How has that verse or passage affected my theological views—how has it shaped what I had already believed?”

Why is that important?

Because if we’re genuinely submitted to the authority of God’s Word, our task is to conform our thought to his Word; not to conform his Word to our thought.

Is that uncomfortable?
Yes.

Is that difficult?
You bet.

Does that require us to consistently face the possibility that our theological framework may be out of alignment with Scripture?
It does.

But, if we genuinely prize God’s Word, we are given no other option.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Eugene Peterson and the Pastoral Heart behind The Message

Yesterday morning, Eugene Peterson—famed author and pastor—entered into his heavenly reward. In his honor, then, I think it reasonable to reflect on his pastoral heart as reflected in The Message.

The Message is described by many as a paraphrase, and we who describe it as such are quick to clarify its categorization as a paraphrase and not a translation. In many ways, I wonder if in our concern to protect the words of God, we failed to appreciate that which Peterson sought to provide in The Message—an accurate presentation of the “heart” of the Word of God.

The Story behind The Message

In his description of the events that led up to his paraphrase, he wrote of a time in the early 1980s when a financial downturn sparked heightened anxieties (especially concerning race) among those in the church he pastored and in his community. He recalled the dismay he felt as a pastor who, for twenty years had preached “the good news that Jesus had overcome the world, [defined] their neighbor with Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, [defended] them against the status quo with Jesus’ story of the cautious servant who buried his talent. [He] had led them in Bible studies that [he] supposed were grounding them in the freedom for which Christ had set [them] free, keeping their feet firmly in, ‘but not of,’ the world around [them] for which Christ died. And here they were, before [his] eyes, paralyzed by fear and ‘anxious for the morrow.”

In light of his realization and as the result of his pastoral concern, Peterson began “plotting a pastoral strategy” to help them understand their identity “as free people in Christ, a people not ‘conformed to the world’ but living robustly and spontaneously in the Spirit.” So, Galatians seemed the right place to begin. After all, Peterson was angry and Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is Paul’s angriest letter.

His plan was simple. He would teach through the book of Galatians in an adult class over the course of a year and then to preach through the same book the next.

His described his goal: “I was going to soak them in Galatians. They were going to have Galatians coming out of their pores. After two years they wouldn’t know whether they were living in Galatia or America. But they were going to know something about freedom, the freedom for which Christ set them free.”

He arrived the next Sunday morning, brewed the coffee, laid out the Bibles, and awaited the arrival of his church members. They trickled in, grabbed their coffee, and opened up to Paul’s Angry Epistle and sat there, smiling sweetly.

The fireworks that Peterson anticipated never lit. They were completely disconnected from Paul’s emotional response in the text. He recalled “frustrating and fuming” to his wife later that afternoon. He thought he might teach them Greek—”if they read it in Greek, those sweet smiles will vanish soon enough. If they read it in Greek, Paul’s somersaulting, cartwheeling, freedom-trumpeting Greek, they’ll get it.”

His wife sweetly smiled and said “I can’t think of a better way to empty out the classroom.”

Peterson understood that a course on Koine Greek wasn’t the solution to his concern. So he took to the task himself. He read Paul’s letter in Greek and sought to translate it in a manner that, while taking some linguistic freedom, accurately communicated Paul’s emotional thrust from Galatians 1. He wrote, “I just wanted them to hear it the way I heard it, the way the Galatians heard it, the way Luther heard it, the way so many men and women through our Christian centuries have heard it and found themselves set free by and for God.”

So the next Sunday, he arrived early again and brewed the coffee. But instead of laying out the Bibles, Peterson provided the first chapter of Galatians in his own words. And his class caught sight of Paul’s emotional response to the false teaching in Galatia. And over the course of the following months, week-after-week, his class gathered and read God’s Word afresh—not in a manner overly concerned with replicating each word in translation, but with communicating God’s heart and pathos as demonstrated in his words.

Peterson went to publish his studies on Galatians in Traveling Light: Modern Meditations on St. Paul’s Letter of Freedom in 1982. Years later, an editor wrote to him, explaining that he had photocopied the translation portions, “taped them together, and [had] been carrying them around ever since, reading them over and over and reading them to [his] friends.” He then encouraged him to translate the entire New Testament.

Thus began his work on The Message.

The Heart behind The Message

It began with a pastor’s concern that his congregation understand God’s Word. It wasn’t enough that they had his Word before their eyes and a pastor willing to teach them. They didn’t connect with God’s heart. Beginning with the Greek (and later, the Hebrew), Peterson carefully translated Scripture to English and then sought to depict New Testament images and metaphors into the twentieth century vernacular.

So, when we describe The Message, let us guard our own hearts from being unnecessarily dismissive. It is not a translation. It was never intended to convey God’s Word alone. It was intended to demonstrate his heart.

And for that, we can be truly thankful for the life of Eugene Peterson.


Source: “God’s Secretaries,” in Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006), 121–36.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Authority, Submission, and Scripture

Several years ago I found myself in a difficult conversation with some leaders in our church about women teaching and preaching in the church. Though I taught complementarianism, these men believed that the church should be more inclusive and cease its historic “oppression” against women.

I insisted that the offices of the church—elders and deacons—were restricted to men according to Scripture and that we, as believers and as a church, were called to submit ourselves to God’s Word. Each time I brought forward a passage of Scripture demonstrating my point, one of the men simply said, “I know that’s what it says. I just can’t go there. We have a difference of interpretation.”

He had fallen back on this “agree-to-disagree” mantra before. While his “agree-to-disagree” position seemed more tolerant at a surface-level, in actuality he used it in an attempt to press his own preference upon me (the pastor) and the church as a whole. So finally, I forced the issue.

“You keep saying, ‘We have a difference of interpretation,’” I said. “Can you show me what you mean? Would you read this?”

I then opened my Bible to 1 Timothy 2:12 and asked him to read through 1 Timothy 3:7.

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

I asked, “Do you agree that Paul is teaching that the teaching office is restricted to men?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Do you agree that Paul is teaching that a woman is not to hold a position of authority over a man in the church?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Do you agree that Paul is rooting his argument not in culture, but in creation? That he’s saying that this is not in response to what’s transpiring in Ephesus, but has roots as far back as Genesis and God’s created order?”

“I can see that,” he said. “But I just can’t go there.”

In that statement, he finally acknowledged the real problem.

“Then what we don’t have is a difference of interpretation,” I said.

It would be a difference of interpretation if he believed that I’ve misstated what Paul taught, or he believed that—despite Paul’s reference to Adam and Eve—Paul’s argument was based upon false teaching being spread by way of the women’s groups, or that the word for “authority” in that passage isn’t properly translated. All of these are different interpretations—even if wrong interpretations, in my opinion. But he agreed with every point in my interpretation of that passage. Whatever our difference was, it couldn’t be a difference of interpretation.

“This isn’t a matter of interpretation. This isn’t an interpretation issue. This is a submission issue.”

And this one moment of clarification—one of my last moments at this particular church—gave me a great concern for the state of the greater body of Christ. Far too often, we approach Holy Writ having already determined which areas of our lives it may and may not instruct us. Far too often, we position ourselves as the referees and feel free to blow the whistle whenever Scripture gets out of line with what we believe it to say or believe it should say.

Sure, we’ll let God’s Word give us hope in the midst of trials. We’ll let it promise us blessings. We take comfort in knowing that believers are safe and secure in the hand of God. But we’re so quick to throw our yellow flag when it speaks to issues near and dear to our own comfort. We’re not comfortable with the subject of the tithe, or the manner in which it reveals God as Father, or the notion that the Son of God was made to suffer in the place of sinners to satisfy God’s wrath. We’re prone to dismiss that as culturally-irrelevant or (though few would say it outright) simply wrong.

But we’re not given that option.

We’re called to search out the Scriptures honestly. We’re called to discern what God has said and is saying and to submit ourselves to that. God has spoken. Do we dare shake our fist at him and tell him which areas of our life are available to his instruction? We are not given the option to decide that simply because we don’t like a particular doctrine, we are not bound to submit ourselves to it.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). There is no asterisk to provide an “out” for cases in which we don’t like what those passages teach. There is no footnote that excuses those texts that expound doctrine contrary to our own preferences.

You may disagree with my interpretation of Scripture. You wouldn’t be the first. But, if you intend to do so, please do it because you are convinced that your interpretation is the most faithful to the Bible, not because you don’t like the conclusion of my interpretation.

If we are both attempting to be submitted to the Scriptures—rather than submitting those Scriptures to our own preferences and presuppositions—it changes our posture toward one another. Instead of being combative or viewing ourselves as different factions in a doctrinal dispute, we become fellow-pilgrims on the same path, encouraging one another to grow in our understanding of and obedience to God’s Word.

It all comes down to submission.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.