Saturday, May 21, 2005

Bad Theology...

Melinda Penner has a post titled, The Study of God, which addresses the all too prevalent phenomenon in which Christians (in this case, a pastor) seem to think that theological study is relatively unimportant (when compared to more experiential activities, such as ministering to people). Let’s take it one step further, though, Melinda. How about when theology is used, but it is bad theology? For instance, how many times have you heard Jeremiah 29:11 quoted as indicative of the blessings God is just waiting to bestow upon us? I’ve argued before that one must at least read Jeremiah 29:10-14, which is the paragraph that contains verse 11. This is an application of the Never Read a Bible Verse tactic that Greg Koukl, among others, teaches. When this approach is used on the paragraph just mentioned it should become clearly evident that the two sentences which bookend the paragraph, verses 10 and 14, indicate that the blessings mentioned were time, place, and recipient specific. But don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself:
29:10 "For the Lord says, ‘Only when the seventy years of Babylonian rule are over will I again take up consideration for you. Then I will fulfill my gracious promise to you and restore you to your homeland. 29:11 For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope. 29:12 When you call out to me and come to me in prayer, I will hear your prayers. 29:13 When you seek me in prayer and worship, you will find me available to you. If you seek me with all your heart and soul, 29:14 I will make myself available to you,’ says the Lord. ‘Then I will reverse your fortunes and will regather you from all the nations and all the places where I have exiled you,’ says the Lord. ‘I will bring you back to the place from which I exiled you.’ - NET
Only when one ignores verses 10 and 14, and reads verse 11 as a standalone passage, does the idea emerge that God has plans of prosperity for us, here and now. In fact, if one really wanted to push their “imminent prosperity” claims, they should go the whole nine yards and butcher the entire paragraph, taking not just verse 11 but verses 12 and 13 as well. That’s exactly what I heard recently; Jeremiah 29:11-13 referenced as a foundation for the blessings God desires for us. Excised were verses 10 and 14 – key verses if one wishes to understand the meaning of the paragraph, let alone chapter 29, and let alone the book of Jeremiah. Now while it is certainly possible that God knows our plans, and has prosperity waiting for us, this passage of text is not telling us that. Melinda states,
…how can you minister to people without doing theology? You need to have a view of man before you can help someone in order to accurately diagnose their spiritual condition. You have to have a view of God and Jesus before you know how God might help the person in need.
I would also argue that, while limited theology could hinder effective ministry, bad theology hijacks it.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rusty,

I appreciate what you're saying. I don't care a whit for the prosperity gospel--it seems obviously phony and evil to me.

However...

What if one is reading this passage in a translation where the promise that seems to be to the individual now is consistent with what God really promises us? For example, the ESV:

"For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart, 14I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

I read verse 11 and I say, Yes, that's what God has done for me through Jesus: he has made (and implemented) a plan for my wholeness. He has given me a future and a hope. Meaning, primarily, the forgiveness of my sins and the hope of heaven, and secondarily, joy in this life based not on material things (I understand I could get persecuted for believing in him) but on serving him and on the assurance of my salvation. And I'm so grateful.

Is that a harmful way to read the passage? Isn't it possible that the Holy Spirit is leading me to feel and understand what I described above as I pray and conduct my daily Bible readings?

But if I am doing something legitimate in feeling this way while I read, what is it? Am I simply noticing a similarity between how good God was to Israel and how good he has been to me (and the world) through Jesus? Am I simply being reminded of God's gracious plans for me by his gracious plans for Israel?

Does this passage, in any way, look forward to Jesus? (Isn't Jesus what ultimately brings Israel -- and all of us -- out of exile?) Are all applications of this passage only limited to one particular historical circumstance?

Let me say again that I don't mean to diminish the truth of what you wrote in your post. I found it valuable.

Ed Jordan

Rusty said...

Ed,

Thanks for your comments.

I suggest you read Never Read a Bible Verse (linked to in the post) by Greg Koukl.

I certainly believe that the significance you describe for verse 11 could pertain to you. But, and here's the catch, it is a private application. What we should first seek out is the public meaning. In that context, the public meaning of the verse (and the passage) is not that we are to be expecting God's blessings through the plans he has for us. Note that, and this is an important point, simply because Jer. 29:11 doesn't tell us that God has specific plans for us doesn't mean that God really doesn't have specific plans for us... it's just that Jer. 29:11 isn't telling us that. It's a subtle but important distinction.

I'm positing that good Bible study approaches the text in larger chunks, avoiding pulling out a verse here and there. Also, our study should first focus on the public meaning of the passage way before the personal significance is sought. A large part of the problem, as I see it, is that Christians want to jump right into the personal significance of the verse - "What does it mean for me?!"

Unfortunately, when we view scripture this way we miss the meaning(s) that the author(s) intended to convey. I've written previously on the story of Pharaoh the 10 Plagues and how one Bible commentator interpreted it to mean that he was Pharaoh and the 10 plagues were things in his life that kept him from God. Well, that's not what the story is about, and one should first understand what the story is about and what it was intended to mean, before one seeks out the private significance of the story to his life.

So, while I believe that the Holy Spirit is capable of giving a verse special and personl significance to you, I also believe that the personal significance it has for you does not necessarily apply to me as well.

Ed Jordan said...

Thanks, Rusty.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous.

I would take heed that God is not a man that he should lie or change his mind. Whatever God felt for the Jewish people at the time of Abraham and Moses is the same way he felt during and after the captivity and even to this day.

It is in no way wrong to quote this verse outside the context of the captivity for Chrsitians. God loves us and wants to see us prosper and will see us prosper if we are obedient. I'll even go this far - it is impossible not to prosper if you are obedient to the commandments of Jesus Christ.

Don't be a Pharisee about this. When you make blanket accusations about prosperity preachers, you forget that God still teaches through precept and example. If one can exercise their faith in financial prosperity they can exercise that same faith to be healed, etc.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law and that curse included poverty. Show me a righteous man in the Word that God did not prosper eventually.

Be careful about what spirit you are of when you speak against something so foundational to the scriptures. I'll be praying for you on this one.

DS

Rusty said...

DS,

Thanks for stopping by.

The issue is not about God changing his mind. It's about how we properly read and interpret God's Word.

The account in Jeremiah, while inspired by God, was written by a human author, in a specific literary style, to a specific audience, with specific meaning. Our job, in interpreting the passage, is to first make an effort to understand what the text means - the public meaning. This meaning is static; it does not change depending on time or locale. Next, we should determine what application(s) there may be from the text. Lastly, we should seek out any significance that the text may have for us. Now, whereas the meaning of the text is public, the significance of the text is private. While a particular passage of scripture may have certain significance to you, it does not necessarily have to have the same significance to me. The meaning of the text, however, is public and, as such, must mean the same to you and to me.

If you re-read my post you will see that it is not an attack on prosperity preachers. I have no problem believing that God can take Jeremiah 29:11 and apply it in terms of significance to believers today. My point is that the meaning of the text is not that we are to expect prosperity from God anymore than we are to expect to receive it in 70 years.

Christ did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (if you believe what he said). Cherry-picking verses and then applying them out of context is not the stuff of good theology.

Anonymous said...

I realise I'm coming to this much later than it was written but I find this thinking so strange. While I fully understand where you are coming from: original meaning is essential to understanding any Biblical text. It is extremely important that we don't make something out of a passage of scripture that is not there. Taking verses out of context to make the Bible say what we want it to say is very wrong. However you seem to take this too far. If we only allow the text to speak to those it was originally written for then our faith is dead. But this is a living word and speaks to us today. Clearly Jeremiah's words have much to say to us today, both about the character of God and how he responds to us when we find ourselves in similar situations. Let the Holy Spirit speak to us through the text and let Him help us to share that with others. What is personal to me may be helpful for others. Who is to say what should or should not be shared publically. As long as what we say is not contrary to the Biblical message as a whole.