Sundays with Michael Spencer: March 22, 2015

086Note from CM: We are drawing near to the fifth anniversary of Michael Spencer’s death. Each Sunday this year we are re-posting some of his encouraging, challenging words. The following is excerpted from a piece he wrote in March 2008.

• • •

I’m not a literature scholar, but I play one in the classroom several hours a week. That is, when I’m not teaching the Bible to kids from all over America and the world, I teach AP English. Mostly Shakespeare and poetry. The interaction of the two brings some stimulating questions to my mind from time to time.

For example, can you study a text too much?

Let’s say that you came to my house and I had 1500 volumes of books, almost all on Hamlet and related subjects. Extensive reference materials. Everything ever written about the play. Interpretations and commentaries and more interpretations. A small ocean of Hamlet.

You noted that I read Hamlet systematically every day. You noticed that I gave talks on Hamlet and wrote may pages of articles and comments of my own on Hamlet.

One day you begin reading some of my work on Hamlet, and after a while, a thought crosses your mind. Eventually, you look me up to ask me the question that’s presented itself.

Do I believe that everything I see in Hamlet is really there? Or, by studying Hamlet to the extent that I have, do I run the risk of having a lot more to say about Hamlet than is actually in Hamlet? Have I studied a text to the point I’ve lost the perspective of simple, direct meaning in pursuit of what only scholars can know?

In other words, if Shakespeare came into my library, read my articles and listened to my lectures, would he say “Spot on. Keep at it?” Or would he say “Huh? You’ve got to be kidding? Where did you come up with this?”

044Can you study a text too much? Too deeply? With too much background? Too much insight? Finding way more than is actually there in the text?

. . . Now I have as much admiration for lifelong Bible study as you can have. I’ve given the study of the Bible years of my life and the major portion of my education and energies.

I know it has riches and transforming power. I know it is a full library of doctrine and a wonderful collection of law, literature and liturgy.

I believe it is God’s inspired word. It’s authoritative for me and my faith.

But I suspect we’ve looked too closely, and seen a lot that’s not there. I believe we find, arrange, display, demonstrate and defend a lot that isn’t really plainly taught in scripture. I am afraid the Bible is a Rorschach test for many people, and what they see isn’t clouds. It’s rabbits and a train and. . . .

I believe that if we take the Bible as literature, we would be able to say something like this:

The Bible is an extensive collection of literature that, when taken together, presents the story Christians call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians believe this book is inspired by God and interpreted by the Spirit of God, but it remains a book written by human authors and understood primarily in the obvious ways we approach any literature. The message of the Bible answers the biggest, most important and most vital of life’s questions and proclaims God’s saving message to all persons. The rich literary contents of the Bible can occupy anyone with much study, but in its basic message- its essential, Christ-centered message- there is a remarkable directness and brevity. You do not have to be an expert on first century Judaism or the sociology of sacrificial systems to understand the Bible. The message is ably summarized in the Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament. Even a child can understand it, believe it and live it.

If we leave the impression that the Bible needs an army of Ph.ds, thousands of brilliant preachers with 3 degrees each or a library of commentaries to be understood, proclaimed and applied, we’re distorting the truth.

Thank God for all the knowledge we have about the Bible, but we’re not gnostics looking for the “secret message” in between the lines. It’s a book, with a plot, a story and characters. Read it — or skim it with some help — get the New Testament message clear, and you are good to go, grow and live.

In fact, what we need is more reminding, recollecting and repeating of the Bible’s message, and less addition to that message.

Study it less? Maybe. Maybe live it, live out of it, communicate it and teach it more. But what we’re looking for in the Bible is fully and completely there in the one Paul said he always preached: Christ Jesus: the crucified Lord.

50 thoughts on “Sundays with Michael Spencer: March 22, 2015

  1. Thanks for responding. Your patience with my skepticism and doubt evidences the growth of that fruit in your life.


  2. I don’t say I believed in Jesus Christ at age four. But what I did believe that day was that if and when I did believe in Jesus Christ, who I had just heard about in that sermon, I would be saved and so would my whole family if they did the same. It just became fact in my young and obviously impressionable mind. It was a seed planted that later bore fruit.


  3. I’ll try not to be a cynic.

    Not many preconceived notions were in my head at that age, but the few that were there were planted by others.

    I wonder: when you say believed then and there, what did you believe? That Jesus was God? That you were a sinner? That God is a trinity? I mean, what was the content of faith for you, where did you get this content (directly from God?)? How did you know who and what Jesus was?


  4. Of course the Baptist preacher was “steeped in Baptist tradition” but my slate was pretty darn blank at age four. How many pre-conceived notions were in your head at four? Very few, I’d wager. In addition, neither my mother nor my father was “steeped in Baptist tradition.” My mother was Jewish (non-practicing) and my father was Methodist (long-lapsed). My dad and I walked to that Baptist church that day (my mother stayed home) because my parents didn’t own a car at that point. Somewhere in that scenario, if you look closely enough, you may discern the leading of the Holy Spirit. Don’t be such a cynic.


  5. bt,dt,
    The fact that you were sitting in a Baptist church, listening to a sermon no doubt given by a preacher steeped in Baptist tradition, asking for a “decision,” and who knows what else, means that you didn’t come to the texts as a blank slate. We are surrounded by traditions, sometimes in subtle ways. How is it that your mother gave you a Bible at seven, and not a Koran or Bhagavad Gita?


  6. Good point. And maybe it’s a bit clichéd, but the Holy Spirit, not a man or woman, should be everyone’s true guide.


  7. Robert F., regarding what would a child get out of reading the New Testament, I remember being four years old and sitting next to my father in Woodlawn Baptist Church in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and hearing the speaker say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house — Acts 16:31” — and I believed it then and there. I wasn’t in a church again for about three years. When I was seven and living in Texas, my mother gave me my first Bible. I found Acts 16:31 and underlined it. I had never heard of Enns or Scofield’s annotations or Barth (w) or The New Perspective On Paul or even John 3:16. Everything else came later.

    “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.”


  8. Everybody all the time is taking their stuff above scripture. It could be that we’ve been built upon it or it could be that we’re just a bunch of little Gods running around in our own worlds. Either way we are making judgements. Paul was saying something directly and everyone else makes a case for what it meant. I see women as being equal and just as worthy as men. When I throw 150 pounds on my shoulder and carried it up steps I know very few women that could do it but then again if childbearing up to me Jesus would have to come sooner or there wouldn’t be anyone left.


  9. “A dangerous precedent has been set in which the person makes himself or herself the authority over Scripture rather than Scripture being an authority over them.”

    This is the classic argument. It has some merit; yes, if you can cast doubt on one verse, no doubt the same trick can be performed a second time.

    But there is a danger, I think, going the other direction: there has to be some safeguard on people making bad decisions or holding bad ideas, and – believing them to be taught in Scripture, and the very voice of God – doing a crazy or evil thing, and failing to acknowledge any evidence of the craziness or evilness of the plan. After all, our madman will argue, for God to speak at all, “God” cannot be submitted to normal tests of morality, sanity, or coherence. By refusing to recognize that he is an interpreter and a moral actor, Madman will do whatever he has decided he will do – but of course he will only be following orders.


  10. I don’t place him above Jesus either, but that is not really what this is about. Let’s say two people were discussing Ephesians 5:21-33, and both agreed that Paul is saying that husbands are truly the head of the household and it is the duty of the wife to submit to the husband. They have no argument about the interpretation. Then one says, “I think Paul is wrong.” How do you make that judgment? A dangerous precedent has been set in which the person makes himself or herself the authority over Scripture rather than Scripture being an authority over them. So now if I don’t like something I can merely say, I think it is wrong, and dismiss it. And that doesn’t just apply to Paul’s letters, it applies to all of Scripture including the gospels. Jesus didn’t write the gospels. How do we know Matthew, Mark, Luke and John got it right? Maybe Jesus didn’t really say all those things. After all that is what the Jesus seminar has been doing for years, picking and choosing what Jesus “really” said and did. And somehow he always comes out looking like them.


  11. This post seems to contradict much of what we are taught here at iMonk about the difficulty of interpreting the scriptures on a merely personal reading.

    Yes, I thought the same thing when reading the post. Based on what I’ve seen in previous reposts of Michael’s posts, I just can’t imagine that I’m reading his thoughts here correctly. The “plain reading”, biblicism, multivocality, the complexities of language, the “humanity” of scripture, etc have all been addressed by him in a way that some of his thoughts in this post seem out of place.

    Particularly in this time and place where truth = facts/math truth, I’d expect some of what he’s suggesting to lead to an ultra literalism. At least for me, I’m not well trained in seeing meaning in a way that gets beyond literalism – I most definitely need scholars and theologians and gifted spiritual writers for that. And that adds complexity.

    Given some of Michael’s other posts, maybe he’s talking about demanding too much from scripture. One example of this might be a tendency to overanalyze every little detail in a parable – too much dissecting effectively sucks the life of it and kills the powerful effect that the genre has.


  12. I was just wondering how one truly engages scripture without a guide or for that matter the guide who inspired it. I love when someone condescendingly calls someone a newbie as to their guru status coming shining through. The man at the bottom of the mountain yesterday pointed out after he accepted Christ into his life the scriptures opened to him. If God talks to us through something “out of context” it was probably meant for us and might be something He is building on but it doesn’t mean it should be drilled into others he working with in a different way. Too many times scholars like to point out how so many are wrong but for themselves it might be that they are when it comes to how God will handle it. I do like reading in context though but sometimes it turns me off to someones point because all I can see is out of context thanks to someones ability to point that out. I prefer a freedom within with what God is doing and have faith that he is handling it.

    So if it is God’s will to have someone pouring themselves over books day in and day out then that is for them. One would hope it wouldn’t turn out all Pink and all.


  13. ” Even a child can understand it, believe it and live it.”

    Let me ask: Would a child reading the New Testament get either what Enns or the Scofield annotations get out of it?

    Let me hazard an answer: I think not.

    And I don’t think that a child reading the New Testament without any background of understanding based in some tradition of interpretation could derive a coherent set of beliefs that she could live from her reading. None of us came to the texts of the Bible in that way, whether as children or adults. We all first read the Bible in the context of some tradition that provided a preexisting understanding.


  14. I don’t see the disconnect all that much. There’s a difference between studying the Bible deeply and learning it, versus crafting a system of doctrine ala dispensationalism out of it.

    Enns > Scofield, I guess, lol.


  15. What if it’s not so much Paul got something wrong, but Paul got something right for the time, and the Holy Spirit has been subtly or not so subtly guiding and correcting and improving us all ever since?

    Why stop at Paul? Why do we assume truth and morality was flash frozen at the closing of the canon?


  16. I love Paul, too. His story is amazing, his conversion is amazing, his walk in Christ is amazing. Philemon…one of my favorite books of the Bible. I don’t place him above Jesus, though.


  17. “Centering prayer entails great discipline in shutting down all the noise of learning to just ‘be’ with God.”

    Chris, I regard this as perhaps the most important key into the 21st century church.


  18. Core beliefs! Yes. One’s that we may not know we have until BOOM…they appear. Yep, got ya!


  19. Ah, but what if our guides are wrong?

    Anyone ever seen the movie The Grey? I absolutely hated it as I walked out of the theater, but within two days I began to see the message (perhaps intended, perhaps not) of the danger of following a person who THINKS they know what’s right, the danger of following a person who APPEARS wise and like they know what they’re doing, only to find out they’re all f-ed up.


  20. It might be possible to “study the text too much” but has an American Christian ever gotten within light years of that point?”

    Perhaps what’s happening is that Americans are studying their own preferred hermeneutic too much and calling that the study of Scripture. I agree, there’s no way to be seriously engaged with Scripture without a guide.

    For a time I was involved in a Christ-centered mediation group that used passages of Scripture and did not attempt to “exegete” the text or anything like that (And of course the liturgy is in part designed for that purpose). Perhaps something like that is a practice that would begin to balance the problem Michael was seeing.


  21. Actually, I had a little of the same reaction to this post that you did, Stephen. At iMonk, we are often reminded that there is no “plain reading” of a text written two-thousand years ago, in a vastly different culture, by people for whom the language we encounter in our translations was filled with meanings and echoes of meanings we cannot even imagine without the help of other resources. If there was such a plain and undeniable reading, there wouldn’t be so many different denominations and interpreters claiming contrary things about the text. This post seems to contradict much of what we are taught here at iMonk about the difficulty of interpreting the scriptures on a merely personal reading.


  22. If the point is that we don’t need tenure in New Testament studies at a major academic institution to read the Bible I would certainly agree.

    But ask yourself, can you read Chaucer or Shakespeare or Homer or Dante without notes? Most of us need a guide. Why would we think the Bible would be any different? It might be possible to “study the text too much” but has an American Christian ever gotten within light years of that point?

    The last thing we need to do is encourage Christians to know even less about the Bible than they already do. The ignorance of the scriptures in our church communities is a scandal.


  23. Let me try again: Belief is far deeper than the conscious mind, and sometimes, perhaps often, what is in the deep and hidden parts of our soul is really what we believe, and is other than our conscious beliefs.



  24. It’s quite apparent that not everything is right even in the four Gospels and because of this that makes it more believable to me. Maybe the word reliable suits. I wonder if we all held to the standard of perfection how many of us would get frustrated in such a way that we would just walk away. Instead we have accounts that in themselves don’t necessarily agree. In God we find paradoxes all the time. I am sorry these humans divinely inspired were on a journey too and that is reflected in the writing and I for one am glad it is. I can take one account and it speak to me a certain way and someone else can see it differently. I’m okay with that. All those questions everyone says we can ask when we get there will be answered in an instant as soon as we see and there will be no need for them. I thank God for Paul the one I could never understand and said no one can be like this. Then I realized through love someone can and I started to understand Him.


  25. The older I get
    the closer & brighter
    the stars look
    in the night sky

    When I was a child
    the world was wide
    & I believed that
    I could never reach its end

    Now I imagine a time
    when everything narrows down
    to a white hot point
    of exploding light


  26. ->”This rides on the heels of Mike Bell’s curse of knowledge last week.”

    I thought it dove-tailed nicely with Mike’s post from last week, too.


  27. I’m not saying you have to put my opinion above Paul’s. I’m not even saying you need to believe me above Paul. I’m saying that there are times when I wonder if Paul got it wrong.


  28. What we believe shapes who we become and how we you interact with others, but what we say, and even what we think, we believe is not necessarily what we actually believe.


  29. Paul did get some things wrong. He was right in admitting it. He said one thing I do is push on toward the prize he has in Christ. He set a pattern for us and walked humbly in it. We all get things wrong. Paul shows us he got mad at times. Do you think Camel knees wasn’t asking for mercy because he got everything right. No the reason why we don’t have manuscripts by Jesus himself is barely any if all could ever love in such a way that HE did. We only see one side of a letter about women and we don’t know what the questions were. I guarantee you that their are a lot of scholars that won’t hesitate to tell you what. Frankly most are full of hot air and a lot of what they say doesn’t affect everyday living. My thoughts are and have always been God created the best for last of course I am male and am highly attracted to women. So I might be biased but my wife is really the best thing that has happened to me inspite of her ability to aggravate me so easily.


  30. This rides on the heels of Mike Bell’s curse of knowledge last week. A loving moment, an affectionate moment with the Lord, would require only the minimal knowledge of a child. It may require that at some point in one’s life there was sentience, maybe, and I really mean only maybe, but that’s it. Extensive learning is not even on the list, let alone low down on the list, of requirements for communion and relationship with God. Sometimes, in fact, it creates difficulties. A blessing and a curse if ever there was one. Centering prayer entails great discipline in shutting down all the noise of learning to just ‘be’ with God.


  31. There are some Catholic teachers, Richard Rohr comes to mind, who don’t hesitate to say things like, “it’s quite unfortunate that Matthew said…”, or, “Paul could have saved generations of heartache if he had not used the term…” I am always queasy when I read that sort of thing because I am suspicious of my Padres agenda to make one point while risking the loss of balance. Anyway, my qualms were not the point but simply that there are people around who are quite comfortable slicing and dicing if you will.


  32. And if he did whose to say? How do you make that judgment? I’m not going to argue with anyone over whether or not Scripture is inerrant, but if you think Paul, or Peter, or James, or whoever got something wrong regarding faith and morals, how do you judge that? I accept by faith that the ones Jesus entrusted to hand down the faith got it right, including their letters. There is no way I can prove it, but I accept it. And you can’t prove they got anything wrong. They are the ones who actually received it. They are the ones whom the church has always accepted as being trustworthy and having that authority. Apart from what they handed down to us, we have nothing. So if it comes down to a disagreement between Paul and Dr. Fundystan, or StuartB, or Rick Ro., I’m going with Paul every time. This whole “Paul got some things wrong” argument is a slippery slope greased with butter. As soon as I read something from Paul I don’t like all I have to say is, “Well, Paul got some things wrong.”


  33. Regarding the long list, I’m at the point where I regard most of those discussions as fan fiction arguments…they really don’t matter…even though, clearly, what you believe crafts who you become and how you interact with others.

    Guess, more specifically, I’m done arguing my way out from the inside. I don’t need to understand and comprehend and defend and debate. I can just walk away.


  34. “If you understood Him, it would not be God” (St. Augustine)

    perhaps those who are ‘so sure’ have forgotten their own human limitations . . .

    even what was revealed to us can be made clear only through Christ . . . a lot of the ‘interpretations’ of God’s will out there among fundamentalists are simply that: their interpretations, their analysis, and because of this, their human perspectives . . . limited, sometimes wrong, and seen ‘through a glass darkly’

    the only real exegesis of sacred Scripture is ‘the Word’, Christ Himself
    . . . the likes of Piper and MacArthur are their own ‘authorities’, and their followers have to lean on a very human understanding which, even if sounding ‘so sure’ in its own proclamation, comes up against the ineffable mystery of God and falls short of what is revealed through the Person of Christ


  35. On the one hand, precisely because the Bible comes from a different time and culture from ours we do need a lot of background material to grasp some of the meaning behind things we think we understand so well. We can’t just assume that the way we read things from our own POV is the right way to read it. What we take as the “plain meaning” is a misunderstanding of what the text actually says so I’m only too happy to have the other resources available to me.

    On the other hand, if you’ve adopted the attitude that says that everything requires some kind of deep analysis in order to understand it, you can run into problems pretty quickly (intellectual arrogance being one). A few years ago I wrote to a friend that I was having a problem reading the Bible (it was Jeremiah particularly) because I was reading in too literary a way rather than a spiritual way, if I can put it like that. Maybe because I took so many lit courses in university I had a mindset that made the text something to be analyzed as one might a novel. In a way I was seeing techniques and imagery instead of meaning. It wasn’t a conscious choice to read it that way and it was actually a barrier to accepting whatever the text was trying to say.


  36. Better yet, as Dr. Fundystan mentioned during yesterday’s ramblings, what if PAUL got some things wrong?


  37. Michael had such a great way of looking into the mirror and seeing where he might be a little “off,” and showing us why we should look in the mirror, too.

    Frankly, whenever I see posts and comments here at iMonk that begin talking about exegisis and isogesis and endogesis and dispensationalism and dispositionalism and anthropomorphisms and eschatology and cardioradiology, my eyes begin to glaze over and I wonder if we’ve made reading the Bible more difficult than it should be.


  38. To quote L.P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” We don’t know how early hearers understood the Christian message–what was important to them, what resonated most with them, what made them change the ways they lived and believed–because we can’t get into their heads. Very much of what they knew is no longer available to us. Think of how much ordinary, daily knowledge of how to live in the world and what was going on in our grandparents lives we no longer know, and multiply by 2,000 years..

    What we know now about the Bible has been filtered through centuries of learned interpretation, choosing, explaining, translating, adding and leaving out texts until we have the Bible we have now, and the beliefs we now have about it. Yes, we are probably, perhaps certainly, missing a lot of what would have been obvious to early Christians. Despite our more dogmatic pundits, we might well be wrong. That ought to keep us humble, but . . .


  39. Great! I’ve been meditating on this very same thought for the past year. How do we know that we are understanding what is said in the same manner as that the early hearers understood it? Do some of the key words, the trigger words, for our doctrinal arguments carry the same freighted meaning that was intended by the original writers? Are we, as members of the Western Tradition of scholarship, actually MISSING the simple message that an near eastern person would see as so obvious?

    On doctrinal matters I am a bit less dogmatic and more open to the thought “Could I be mistaken?” John MacArthur, John Piper, etc,, are SO very sure, but what IF…?


  40. I write a lot. There are things I write that I wonder if someone would catch the thought that went through my head and words just couldn’t quite express it or I was trying to see if anyone was paying attention. I test some of it out sometimes. Mostly people just read and say that’s nice.

    I realize that as I go on many things that are deeper in His ways that were there all the time I couldn’t and wasn’t able to see it yet. For example, Just lately, the forgiveness of God and how I needed to do the same back to Him. I said to a man yesterday at the base of a mountain as we talked about Christ that all my life I’e been asking why did You put me here. He laughed and said that is the age old question of what is our purpose. I said no that isn’t what I mean. Since I could remember I have told Him this isn’t what I would choose. This isn’t a place where I would want to go. I said there are things here that are just plain mean. I said all the things that are so beautiful wear out and die. Not what I would choose. Then I realized inside forgiveness being relational like mercy and grace they must return to the throne as too love.

    When Robert said the other day Barth said and I paraphrase that Christ came and paid the price for God to be the God of a fallen world and also in that day that we need to forgive God. It started to come together. You see Jesus really loved Judas and the others. He spoke truth but that is only through other human eyes not His very own written word as in manuscripts He Himself had written. He loved Judas and even whispered to him to go and do what it is he must do. He truly mourned him. He loved Nicodemus, even the ones that drove the nails like me. He stood before authorities that really had nothing and kept silent because out of love He was going to break the enemy”s back. It is then He is worthy of my praise and to be worshiped. How simple and yet how long it took for me to understand it in the depth that I now do. The many layers of a life that brought me to where I am. Maybe this is the best possible choice after all and I just don’t know it because what have I to compare it to. Just like evil and good in this epic struggle. Then there is this “I will be their God and I will love them and be angry with them no more” I love You too God.

    I showed the man my hands all gnarled and dirty from work all day and said I hurt all day and we talked about God for an hour and the cats I feed at my feet wanting attention. I said these things around us I would not want to die they would live forever. That would be a choice I could live with and the bad and evil things here gone from us. It ended with testimony how we first met Him and his was so different than mine. He is the only man to ever walk up the mountain with me and we held hands kneeling and prayed for a city below. Harrisburg Pa. Somethings we never forget.


  41. I certainly felt this way about Hamlet in 11th grade English! I think there is some truth to what he’s saying about our study of the bible. All you have to do is walk thru a bible bookstore to confirm it for yourself.


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