This month: 193 - All Things New
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Archives for April, 2019

Canoeing or Hiking? The Face of the Future for Church Leaders

Last month, I offered some initial insights into the changing contexts of congregations in North America. Before pursuing those insights more fully, I want to offer a metaphor that might be useful for the season that Christian leaders currently face. The metaphor is not my own. Rather it comes from a recent book by Tod Bolsinger entitled Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory1.

Bolsinger draws from the story of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who led the Corps of Discovery to find a way to the Pacific. The stated plan was to navigate to the headwaters of the Missouri River by canoe (actually, a keelboat and two pirogues). The assumption widely held by people in 1804 was that they would simply pull their canoes out of the water of the Missouri, portage them across a hill or two, and then drop them into a river that would take them all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The Rocky Mountains changed that plan entirely! With no Northwest Passage and no navigable river, the Corps of Discovery came to a screeching halt. Lewis and Clark had to adapt. Setting aside their canoes and boats, they became mountaineers and hikers. The new reality of their path changed the way they understood their journey. The mission was still the Pacific, but the way they were to achieve that mission took on a completely different form.

Bolsinger suggests that this metaphor serves well the reality that many congregations face. Built to canoe well in river waterways, churches have carried out their life and mission. But more churches now are reaching headwater regions – the terrain is shifting, and staying on the river is no longer a viable option. There is too little water to keep things afloat!

Increasing numbers of congregations are reporting that we are moving into contexts that reflect what futurist Bob Johansen calls VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This emerging environment will require leaders to remain attentive, learn new skills and find new ways of being.

I don’t share this to alarm anyone. For generations, the people of God have encountered changing contexts and have adapted by abandoning one form of travel to lace up their hiking boots for a different form of travel. However, this reality does call for faith and prayer, and it will require us to learn humility again.

As explorers in new territory, we will need to rely on other explorers as we learn to follow well the presence of God’s Spirit. When there are no well-defined roads or markers, explorers, from Lewis and Clark to you and me, must rely on what we discover along the way.

More next month!


Carson 1. Intervarsity Press, 2018.

Simple children’s ministry
In her current Mosaic series, Amy Bost Henegar, a minister with the Manhattan (New York) Church of Christ, is sharing ways churches can lovingly and intentionally minister to children. She writes with a specific emphasis on smaller churches who have neither a large children’s ministry budget nor a staff minister dedicated to children’s ministry. Henegar’s first post focuses on how the church is positioned to offer hope and belonging to children, and the second explores advantages of intergenerational ministry.
Save the date: Summer Seminar with Randy Harris, Aug. 9-10

Join Randy Harris, ACU Bible instructor and spiritual director for the College of Biblical Studies and the Siburt Institute, for this year’s Summer Seminar. Harris will lead this year’s exploration of the topic, “Rich Heritage, Unfolding Future: Renewing Churches for God’s Mission.” In light of the rapidly changing religious landscape and sobering reports of church decline, Harris and other colleagues will tackle important questions, such as, “What can we learn from the past?” and “What are some signs of vitality in congregations today?” – while challenging us to catch a renewed vision of God’s preferred future.

The seminar will take place in ACU’s Hunter Welcome Center from 1 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 9, to 11:45 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 10. The seminar costs $60 per person, which covers meals, snacks and handout materials. Registration opens May 3 via the Siburt Institute’s website.

Register for the Dallas Racial Unity Leadership Summit
Registration is open for the upcoming Dallas Racial Unity Leadership Summit (RULS), May 15-18, at the West Dallas Church of Christ. Designed to enhance spiritual unity across racial lines among individuals and organizations, RULS is sponsored by ACU’s Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action. The event will feature presentations, panel discussions and concerts, including a performance by United Voice Worship (pictured). Registration is free with an optional, but highly encouraged, tour of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, for which there is a small fee. Register today. Biblical Storytelling Pathway at Summit 2019

Imagine hearing Jesus give the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine receiving a letter from Paul at church and hearing those precious words read over you. We treat those experiences as if they are lost to time, but thanks to people like Dr. Cliff Barbarick and the Network of Biblical Storytellers, the tradition lives on.

This year at Summit, Barbarick, assistant professor of New Testament at ACU, will host an all-day Biblical Storytelling Pathway and will perform Monday evening.

Long before the narratives of the Bible became formalized written Scripture, they existed in oral form as stories shared in the faith community and were passed down from generation to generation. Using their gifts as natural storytellers, pathway leaders will tell the stories of the Bible with emotion and excitement, capturing the feeling of the original text and allowing people to truly hear the Word. Join us on Monday, Sept. 16, for this exciting pathway as we explore sorrow, hope and joy in the Psalms at Summit 2019!

Mark your calendars to attend Summit at ACU, Sept. 15-18. MARK YOUR CALENDARS Dallas Racial Unity Leadership Summit, May 15-18Summer Seminar, Aug. 9-10Summit 2019, Sept. 15-18Minister Support Network Retreat, Sept. 19-22 THOUGHTS TO PONDER “The scriptural instruction, ‘confess your sins one to another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed’ (Jas. 5:16) is profoundly countercultural for most leadership settings. Instead, we are much more accustomed to putting our best and most polished foot forward. Confession runs counter to human nature as well and yet it is profoundly hopeful! If we are willing to engage in the practice of confession, it is possible for us to be healed in relation to one another and to limit the effects of sin in our gatherings so that Christ’s purposes can go forward unhindered.” – Dr. Ruth Haley Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups “Human beings are not built to be indifferent to the waves and pulses of their social world. For most of us the question is whether we have even the slightest reluctance to drift along with the flow. The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures … The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.” – Dr. Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The LORD’ I did not make myself known to them.” (Ex. 6:3)

Have you ever had an “ah-ha!” moment while reading Scripture? Something that let you know either that you had finally figured something out, or at least that you’ve been wrong in your thinking? Well a few years ago, this was it for me. I read Exodus 6:3 which seemed pretty straight forward: God was known as El Shaddai (God Almighty as it is rendered in most English Bibles) to the patriarchs but was not known as Yahweh (The LORD) until he revealed himself as such to Moses. But I remembered reading in Genesis the day before, and I could have sworn God was referred to as Yahweh. Sure enough, I turned back to Genesis 14 and Abram refers to God as Yahweh in 14:22. You see this frequently in the book of Genesis, even as early as the second creation account in Genesis 2-3.

It was at this point that, in my mind, I had one of two options: I could declare the Christian faith a hoax due to contradictions in certain parts of the Bible, or I could nuance my understanding of biblical inspiration and my expectations of the Bible. Unfortunately, some have chosen the former option. That was never really an option for me though. I chose to study further and eventually realized that my inerrantist paradigm of biblical inspiration was not only untenable, but also completely unnecessary. Instances in the Bible such as the one I have described are only problematic if our expectations of Scripture and our theological preconceptions are unfounded. Do we expect an ancient collection of documents written a thousand years apart in different cultures, circumstances and languages to contain perfectly cohesive ideas about God and the world? Should we expect absolute historical and scientific precision? Some say yes due to the Bible being God’s word, and as far as assertions go, I suppose that is a fair assertion. But assertions alone are just that-assertions. They need to be substantiated. And we must substantiate our assertions about biblical inspiration with critical study of the text itself.

Thus, I am proposing that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, can best be understood through a progressive revelation paradigm. As I wrote in the previous article, God progressively revealed himself to humankind throughout history, with that revelation ultimately culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This means that there is inevitably a human element to Scripture, and that we must look to Jesus Christ to see a perfect revelation of who God is. After all, it was the apostle John -a Jew- who dared to proclaim that no one had ever seen God but that it was Jesus Christ who had made the Father known (Jn. 1:18).

Understanding progressive revelation is essential, in my opinion, to understanding the nature and purpose of Scripture. So, what does progressive revelation tell us about the Bible and the nature of God’s revelation to humans? For starters, it means that God chose to reveal himself to ancient Israel in such ways that they would understand. At times, this meant he would have to accommodate their human nature and culture. This can easily be seen in several ways, not least of which is examining texts from surrounding civilizations in the ancient Near East.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, many significant archeological discoveries were made specifically pertaining to the fields of biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern history. In the 19th century, archeologists discovered thousands of clay tablets which had Akkadian markings on them. This is important as Akkadian was the predominant language used by many of the ancient Near Eastern cultures in the third, second and first millennia BC, including Assyria and Babylon.[1] What these tablets exposed to us is that some of the material contained in the Old Testament, particularly the Torah, was not wholly unique to ancient Israel. This was a problematic discovery for many because a good number of Christians implicitly expected for revelation from God to be wholly unique. After all, if the Bible in its entirety is direct revelation from God and is not itself human reflection on or interpretation of revelation, then we should not expect the Old Testament to look anything like documents from surrounding cultures, as those documents were of human origin while the Old Testament was of divine origin. Further, how could we logically say that Genesis was to be read as literal history when many of these Akkadian tablets had myths that were similar to the narratives found in Genesis? Or, so the reasoning went. “Liberals” reacted by saying the Old Testament could not be inspired by God in any way, while “Conservatives” attempted to distance the Old Testament texts from the Akkadian texts, often times blatantly ignoring clear parallels between the two. Both reactions were and are unhelpful, in my opinion. Nonetheless, it is important to point them out as they demonstrate inerrantist expectations of Scripture.

Now, you might be wondering if these Akkadian texts really are similar to the Old Testament texts or if some skeptical scholars are just trying to discredit the biblical accounts by any means necessary. To be fair, there is some debate concerning the Akkadian texts and how reliant, if at all, the Israelite texts are on them. For instance, though some similarities can be drawn between the Babylonian myth Enuma Elish and the Genesis creation accounts, it certainly cannot be said that the Genesis accounts are reliant upon Enuma Elish.

Both Genesis and Enuma Elish share ancient cosmology. For example, both have light existing before the sun, and both have the waters being separated above and below the firmament. The creative sequence of days is also similar. There are, however, some major differences, as Enuma Elish says the god Marduk had to fight and kill the goddess Tiamat, and from her dead corpse he created the universe. The point of the story is likely to justify the worship of Marduk as the head of the Babylonian pantheon.[2] Of course in Genesis, God simply speaks the world into existence without having to struggle against any other deities. The Genesis creation accounts could be a reaction against stories like Enuma Elish; their purpose could very well be to demonstrate the sovereignty of Yahweh over the universe. At the same time, it is also possible that the authors of the Genesis creation accounts could have been completely unaware of Enuma Elish (though I don’t think this to be the case for various reasons). We do not know with certainty. The point is, while there are similarities between the Genesis creation accounts and Enuma Elish, there are differences as well.

There are various other ancient Near Eastern documents that share as much or more in common with the Old Testament. I would like to briefly look at two: the epic Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi. Gilgamesh is one of several flood myths from the ancient Near East. See if this looks familiar:

The ship which you shall build,

Let her dimensions be measured off.

Let her width and length be equal.

What living creatures I had I loaded upon her.

I made go aboard all my family and kin,

Beasts of the steppe, wild animals of the steppe.

The sea grew calm, the tempest grew still, the deluge ceased.

I looked at the weather, stillness reigned,

And all of mankind had turned to clay.

The boat rested on Mount Nimush,

Mount Nimush held the boat fast, not allowing it to move…

When the seventh day arrives,

I released a dove to go free,

The dove went and returned,

No landing place came to view, it turned back.

I released a swallow to go free,

The swallow went and returned,

No landing place came to view, it turned back.

I sent a raven to go free,

The raven went forth, saw the ebbing of the waters,

It ate, circled, left droppings, did not turn back.[3]

Compare some of those relevant lines of Gilgamesh with Genesis 6-8, and you will see the striking similarities. Now, for the Code of Hammurabi.[4] It is lengthy, so we will just look at a two exerts and compare them with some of the laws found in the book of Exodus:

Code of Hammurabi 195-97: “If a son has struck his father, they shall cut off his hand. If a nobleman has put out the eye of another nobleman, they shall put out his eye. If he has broken another nobleman’s bone, they shall break his bone.”

Exodus 21:23-25: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (NRSV)

Code of Hammurabi 209: “If a nobleman has struck another nobleman’s daughter and has caused her to have a miscarriage, he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fetus.”

Exodus 21:22: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.”

And yes, the Code of Hammurabi was written well before the Torah as we have it today. Hammurabi was a Babylonian king who ruled in the 18th century BC, while the earliest date anyone can conceive for any kind of biblical exodus is the 15th century BC. In actuality, the Israelite narratives, at least in the forms we have them in today, are much newer than their Akkadian counterparts. The Israelite stories could have existed earlier in oral form, and likely did in some capacity, though they would have undeniably been framed in an ancient Near Eastern worldview. But writing was reserved for established nations in the ancient world and Israel does not become that sort of established nation until roughly the kingdom monarchy. Not to mention, biblical Hebrew likely did not exist as a language before the 10th century BC. Nonetheless, scholarship has concluded that the Israelite narratives, as they are in their Hebrew forms, are very likely newer than the Akkadian myths.

From here, some may then ask how we are to understand some of the early Israelite narratives, particularly Genesis 1-11. That question will be addressed in a later article in this series. For now, it is safe to conclude that God was content to reveal himself to ancient Israel in ways they would understand. The ancient Near Eastern evidence suggests to us that the Old Testament is not some other-worldly book dropped out of heaven but is rather very much a part of the world in which it was produced. We should expect this, as even Joshua 24:2 says, “And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors-Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor-lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.” The ancient Israelites were a people who were deeply entrenched in a specific worldview and their Scriptures reflect that worldview. This means that God did not advance their scientific or historical knowledge in ways that would satisfy our post-Enlightenment minds. I mean, after God leads them out of Egypt, it’s not long before they are worshiping an inanimate object in the wilderness made out of gold. They clearly didn’t “get it” right away, as some might say. As Israel walked with God, they began to know him more and more. God gradually took Israel from their ancient Near Eastern roots and transformed them into a people who would eventually produce and embrace the Messiah who called them away from vengeance and to enemy love: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Mt. 5:38-39)

This leads us back to the questions concerning what we should expect of the Bible. Again, some Christians have expected absolute cohesiveness as well as scientific and historical accuracy. A man named Galileo, an Italian astronomer and devout Christian, once dared to question some of the cosmology found in the Bible. He agreed with a man born earlier named Copernicus, a Polish astronomer who had concluded that the earth revolved around the sun. This was, of course, a heretical view at the time because, well, the biblical authors thought otherwise. They thought that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth, as that was the prevailing consensus at the time. This can easily be seen in Joshua 10:12-14. The Israelites were in a battle with the Amorites and needed a bit more daylight. So, after Joshua prays to Yahweh for this additional daylight, 10:13-14 reads, “And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the LORD heeded a human voice; for the LORD fought for Israel.” Galileo’s assertion that it is actually the Earth that revolves around the sun got him imprisoned by the Catholic Church in 1633. Why? Because their expectations of Scripture were faulty. They did not recognize the aforementioned human element so evidentially present in Scripture. Thankfully, Christians eventually came to accept that the Earth revolved around the sun. However, some may still be troubled by examples such as the disagreement among Pentateuchal authors about when God became known as Yahweh. Perhaps we would be better off basing our beliefs about the doctrine of inspiration on all evidence available to us, including critical textual studies, as opposed to theological preconceptions and biblical expectations that some of us may have inherited.

In the next article, we will focus generally on some of the ideas which progressed throughout Israel’s history to demonstrate their journey to know and understand who God is.

[1]. Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, second ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, an imprint of Baker Publishing Group, 2015), 14.

[2]. Ibid., 16.  

[3]. Citations of Gilgamesh are from Ibid., 18.  

[4]. Again, this is not to say that the Code of Hammurabi and the law of Moses can be said to be synonymous. There are differences between the two as well. The point here is simply to demonstrate a shared worldview between the two.

She is just like me, I heard myself say as I was describing my almost 2-year old daughter to a table full of male colleagues. She’s sassy and bossy and very opinionated. She runs the house. She tells her two older brothers what to do and I feel sure they will live their lives looking for her approval. She is also tender and nurturing. When my two boys (ages 6 and 4) have spent the last hour mimicking MMA fighters on the trampoline and the 4-year old comes in with a bloody nose because his older brother did a jack-hammer  on his face, she goes straight to him with deep concern on her little face and she gently kisses his cheeks and his hands. She tries desperately to stretch her tiny arms wide enough to embrace him, though he is three times her size. She loves people. She wants to take care of people. I went on describing the scene that I witness every morning to my table full of colleagues. The one where she comes in my bathroom and pulls open the drawers that contain my jewelry. There she stands and ponders the treasures before her for minutes on end, fingering every bead and mulling over each detailed strand of pearls. She carefully selects her earrings and necklace and bracelets. I have to explain to her every morning that she can’t wear mommy’s earrings, she doesn’t have her ears pierced yet.  My table crowd laughs jovially in response to my story and they begin to comment on the vast differences between boys and girls. There is just something innately different about those little girls, they say. It’s like they were made to be mamas. They are so “girly.” But I wonder if it is more than this. If you were to go to an orphanage or a group home in a third world country where little girls have been abused or neglected you don’t observe this kind of behavior. They don’t care for those around them with great compassion and empathy. They don’t naturally boss or sass their friends. And they don’t know to try on their mama’s jewelry set before them. These are not innately female qualities. It is my assessment rather, that this behavior is not so much natural as it is learned.

My daughter is not naturally “maternal” or naturally “girly.” She is mimicking the behavior of the parent that she sees herself in. That is me. She knows, even at her young pre-verbal age, that one of these humans giving me care and love is like me and one of them is not. She is identifying with me as a woman and dis-identifying with her dad as male. This is healthy and normal gender identification for her developmental stage.  She sees me and not her dad as the one she is to mimic. She sees me and she believes that this is who she is meant to be. She kisses the cheeks of her hurting brothers because she sees me do this. She bosses and sasses everyone because this is how I behave. She carefully selects her jewelry because she watches me get ready every day.

And this reality of my daughter mimicking me invites me to reflect on the Divine Feminine. The genesis account tells us that God created both male and female in the image of God. The fact that both male and female were created in the image of God means that when women look at God they should see their own unique female form. The Divine Feminine.[1]

In the evangelical church in the conservative South, there is a disconnect here. I don’t think most women see themselves in God. This could be for a variety of reasons but one is that we have been continually offered an image of God that doesn’t look anything like us. Our representations of God in the church, in art and music and stories are almost entirely male. Our church elder boards and ministry staffs and leadership teams who are making all the decisions are almost entirely male. Our religious leaders at nearly every level who represent God to the world are almost entirely male. And not just male. But white and old and male. As I look at this male image of God that I have been given I don’t see anything about myself. “He” doesn’t look like me, talk like me, or behave anything like me. “He” is something other than me. I don’t identify with this God.[2] And as a child who does not identify with the parent of the same gender as themselves will face developmental challenges, the same is true for Christian women who do not learn to identify themselves with the Divine.  They will face spiritual developmental challenges.

So I am inviting us, as Christians and as church leaders, to embrace the Divine Feminine. I am inviting us to look at God and see both man and woman. I am inviting us to look at God and see both mother and father. I am inviting us to look at God and to see both the lion and the lamb. I am inviting us to see God in our own reflection so that we begin to mimic and identify with this Divine Mystery of God. I am certain that this is essential for our own formation and for the formation of our churches.

Just like when my daughter looks at me, she can see herself, being created in the image of God invites me to look at God and see myself, one who is uniquely female.

Blessed is She who spoke and the world became. Blessed is She.

Blessed is She who in the beginning, gave birth.

Blessed is She who says and performs.

Blessed is She who declares and fulfills. …

[1] I am not defining “feminine” image in any particular way. I acknowledge that my experience with my daughter is not a universally female experience. Being female is entirely diverse based on one’s culture, geography, age, etc. Being female certainly does not mean we that all like to wear jewelry or we are all nurturing. I am simply reflecting on my own specific examples as a resource for theological reflection. I am  not saying that these characteristics are explicitly female. Instead my argument is that all females should see their own reflection in the Divine Feminine of God.

[2] My experience of God is as a Woman and a Mother. I am not reflecting on this here.

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27). Jesus looked at two people he dearly loved and said, “Friend, here’s someone who will love you through this. Sweet Woman, here’s someone to love you through this.”

Jesus is not only the Savior on a cross, the Messiah, the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the one who gave sight to the blind, and made a path for the lame but he was also the baby in the manger as the star shone above him, and the child of the mother who would treasure all these things in her heart.

As he looks down from the cross, I would venture to say the pain on his mother’s face hurt worse than the nails in his own body. Jesus shows us that even when we’re in the middle of our own pain, even when we’re in our darkest moments, even when we’re struggling and hurting, we are here to love others.

Maybe love came naturally to your parents. Maybe they were good at it. Maybe it didn’t and they weren’t. Maybe love comes naturally for you. Or not. The Apostle Paul tells us in Titus that we need to teach each other how to love our families (Titus 2:4). We need to do a better job at learning how to love. Thankfully, Calvary offers a place to lay down our frustrations, grief, and the cycle of not loving well, not only with the world and our daily struggles but the deep secret heartaches we may carry from childhood.

Children, love your parents. Love them regardless of their mistakes. Love them regardless of their brokenness. Love them in spite of the many things they got wrong while raising you. Love them even if you feel they didn’t love you well. Love them well.

Parents, love your children. Love your average children, your below average, and your above average children. Love your faithful child and your prodigal child. Love your easy child and your rebellious child. Love your straight children, your gay children, your loud fussy, temper tantrum, teenage children. Love your three year and your thirty-three year old. Love them regardless of what they look like or how they act. Love them even if you don’t agree with all of their choices. Jesus does.

Church, stop trying to love people into who we want them to be and start loving people for who they are. We have to start loving people the way Christ calls us to. Nobody else is going to do it.

In a few more days, Mary would begin to understand how much this cross matters. In a few more days she will see he didn’t die in vain. In a few more days, this will make a little more sense.

If you struggle with how to love those closest to you, look at the cross and see how Jesus loved those closest to him. Fearlessly. Fiercely. Faithfully.

For every grieving child and grieving parent who stands broken and weary in front of Jesus, just remember, he is returning in a few more days.

Let’s love each other through this while we wait.

There are a lot of daily devotional books on the market but nothing quite like Mark Lanier’s “Torah for Living.” When I heard Mark was coming out with a book on Torah I nerded out a bit and figured it would be something that would challenge my brain. What I got instead was a book that engaged my brain while challenging my heart and helping my prayer life.

If you aren’t familiar with Mark Lanier, he is a trial lawyer who lives near Houston. A few years ago he started the Lanier Theological Library in Houston where he houses a great collection of theological resources and hosts lectures by leading biblical scholars. You can learn more about that here – Lanier Theological Library. Mark isn’t an armchair theologian. He knows what he is talking about. I feel even more confident saying that after diving into this book.

The book has a reading for every day of the year including Feb 29 (he thought of everything) with one page of commentary and reflection each day. Every day ends with some application thoughts and a written prayer that reflects the content of the day’s reading.

I haven’t completed the book yet but I am up to date on 2019 and will finish the book out this year.

Although the readings are sequential through the Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy), this book is not a commentary. It has the feel of a devotional book that dives deeper into the text than your run of the mill devotional book. Mark pays attention to historical and cultural backgrounds in various places as they fit with his reflections and musings.

“Torah for Living” is also deeply personal. Mark offers a level of transparency and authenticity that is refreshing. I appreciate his willingness to let us listen in on these reflections. I also appreciate the prayers he has written at the end of each day’s reading. They are short and to the point. They are bold and flow out of the intersection of the text and Mark’s life.

If you are looking for a book to keep you in the Bible every single day, I hope you will consider this book. It has blessed me reading it and I am sure it will bless you as well.

Last, Mark has also written “Psalms for Living: Daily Prayers, Wisdom and Guidance.” I hope he will continue this work to cover more of the Bible in the coming years.

You are likely familiar with the relationship cliché when one person says to another, “I’m not a mind reader,” meaning, “You have to tell me what you are thinking rather than expecting me to just know.” Communication of expectations and desires is vital to healthy relationships. People might know one another so well that they can guess what the other is thinking, but it is still guess work. And it sure is nice to be told! Whether we are talking about marriage, work, or church relationships, clearly stated expectations provide a basis for partnership and accountability.

This brings us to torah. For ancient Israel, torah was beneficial teaching. It may originate with a person, such as the mother’s torah of Prov 1:8, but more typically it refers to divine instruction. “Torah” with a capital “T” refers either to the first five books of the Bible or to the particular teaching of expectations at Sinai. Israel received this Torah as a gift of divine expression. It set them apart as unique insofar as they had been given special insight into God’s will in the Sinai revelation. In Torah, God clearly states expectations that provide the basis of Israel’s relationship with the divine. Torah gives the answer to the human question, “What does God desire from us?”

Micah 6:8 famously addresses the issue of the Lord’s desire:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (NRSV)

This text is the conclusion to a prophetic oracle on what is pleasing to God. The word translated “require” may also be translated as “desire” or “seek.” Rather than seeking an abundance of sacrifices, what God desires from humanity is acts of justice, a love for faithfulness, and a disposition of humility. So where does Torah fit into this picture? Some might say that Micah’s answer rejects the sacrificial system outlined in sections of Torah, for example, the Levitical sacrifices that are presented as a “pleasing odor to the Lord” (Leviticus 1-7). However, Micah’s point is not to dissuade people from sacrificing, but that the people misunderstand what truly pleases God if they ignore the basic tenets of Torah: justice, love, and humility. These three are the foundations of the Lord’s covenant with Israel.

The prophetic voice places a special focus on calling people back to the basics of faith and justice. But these principles are also the heart of Torah. Indeed, I would argue that the “He has told you” of Mic 6:8 refers to Torah, when God told Israel “what is good.” Deuteronomy 10:12 asks an almost identical question.

“So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?”

The answer is longer than that of Mic 6:8, but it is very similar.

“Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.” (NRSV)

In both Micah and Deuteronomy, the answer to God’s requirement for the people is to walk with God and to love God’s commandments, for God commands Israel to act with justice and mercy. Deuteronomy 10 goes on to talk about the circumcision of the heart, showing justice to the orphan and the widow, and loving the stranger. These are the foundations of Torah, spelled out in detail through the particular stipulations for particular times in the life of Israel (Deuteronomy 12-24).

Micah 6:8 is the John 3:16 of the Old Testament, and for good reason. But lest we think that the prophets are the sole proprietors of justice, love, and humility, we need to read the Torah. Perhaps, if Micah were holding up a sign at a local sporting event, his sign would read:

Deut 10:12-13
He has told you.

For years, I have endeavored to consult every lexicon, dictionary, and opinion about the term torah. The term is difficult to define for good reason. Sometimes torah is used for the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, or Pentateuch. Some define the writings from Genesis to Malachi as torah. Sometimes torah is a technical term for particular bodies of legal material that we read in Leviticus or Deuteronomy. In rabbinic literature, there were believed to be a written and oral torah which Moses received at Sinai. The written is mostly thought to be what we have in the Hebrew Bible. The oral was the interpretation and application of the written. We know from the Kings account that a torah scroll was found in the Temple during the reign of Josiah, which led to a major restoration campaign. Yet, we are not sure what was actually found—whether it was a copy of Deuteronomy or the Pentateuch.

The common definition of torah in Christian circles is “law,” most likely because torah was translated, nomos (“law”) in the Septuagint. Defining torah as law is certainly acceptable in many contexts, but understanding torah as law in every instance is too restrictive and does not allow for a full expression of the idea. There is no question that torah contained legal material but the bulk of torah is narrative and narrative can function just as much as a guide as laws. Some scholars have assumed a connection between the Hebrew word torah and the Hebrew verb yarah which means “to point the way” or “guide” and I would agree that the general idea of torah is a “guide” or “way of life.”

James Sanders in his book, From Sacred Story to Sacred Text, believes the multiple definitions of torah can be ranged under two rubrics: mythos (story or Haggadah) and ethos (laws or Halakah). His point is important because a healthy definition of torah is the balance between story and law. Overemphasizing law over story leads to a very poor understanding of Judaism and even Christianity. Further, the narrative seems to take precedent over the legal as some of the legal is bound to the context that the story tells.

Rather than taking you on a lexical journey of the multiple meanings of torah, I would rather show you an example of how the narrative parts of torah were used as a normative guide for the people. A couple of texts that might give us insight into how torah was used by Israelites are Pss 78, 105, 106, 135, and 136, but for time sake, we will look only at Ps 105. I would
argue that at least the last four of these texts were written after the Babylonian exile by Israelites trying to make sense of the loss of king, land, and temple.

Psalm 105 is a call to praise YHWH and remember the great wonders he has done for his people. The psalm retells much of the torah story from Abraham to the wilderness. However, the psalmist reshapes the story to make it relevant for the post-exilic community. The psalm is bookended with the “servant Abraham” and the land promise (6, 42). The historical
retelling follows Israel’s movement from Canaan (vv. 11-16), to Egypt (vv. 17-38), to the wilderness (vv. 39-44). The fortune of Israel changed with each location because YHWH was with his people in whatever “land” they resided. In addition to the “land” theme are two others motifs centered on the words, servant and chosen ones. Together, these three ideas work together to evidence YHWH’s provision—YHWH cared for Israel no matter what “land” they lived by electing certain “servants” and “chosen ones” to be his instrument for guiding Israel in these different locations.

At the end of the psalm, the psalmist tells us that YHWH gave land and possessions to his people in order that they might keep his statues and observe his torah(s). This is a torah psalm but not in the sense of rules, commands, or to-do’s. We can witness how the narrative of Abraham, Joseph, and Exodus functioned as a “guide” for the later community. For the postexilic community drew hope and peace from their past and found other times when Israel did not possess the land.

One of unique features of this psalm is the plague list. Psalm 105 lists the plagues in this order: darkness (9th according to Exodus), water to blood (1st), frogs (2nd), flies (4th), gnats (3rd), thunder, hail, and fire (7th), locusts (8th), and the death of the firstborn (completely omitting the 5th and 6th plagues). I find W. Dennis Tucker Jr. proposal the most persuasive explanation, believing the list can better be understood in light of the theme of “land.”[1] Tucker Jr. writes, “as the psalm progresses through its historical recital of key events within the history of ancient Israel, the emphasis on land remains steadily just beneath the surface.” In fact, Tucker’s observations provide perhaps the best explanation for the omission of the fifth and sixth plagues. The Hebrew word ארץ (“land”) occurs almost as a formulaic conclusion in eight of the ten plagues in the Exodus account.[2] He reasons that the emphasis on land in the psalm, coupled with the concluding formula that mentions “land” explains the omission of the fifth (livestock) and sixth (boils) plagues. His point is supported by the absence of ארץ in the fifth (Ex. 9:6) and the sixth plagues (Ex. 9:10): “Although the fifth and sixth plagues were no doubt horrific, for the psalmist, they were not about “land.”

Psalm 105 demonstrates how the narrative portions of torah functioned as a guide for the people. During this time in Israel’s history, the people knew the laws, they knew the covenant, and they knew they had broken both, but the legal portions of torah could not provide, in this instance, the much needed hope that the stories could. This instance gives us one of many insights into a broader understanding of what torah was to God’s ancient people and how it functioned for them.

As the biblical story unfolds, some of the specific laws were amended, reapplied, or eliminated altogether. One of our best sources for viewing the torah is the New Testament. The NT use of the OT suggests that NT authors saw the OT, in general, as a story of God’s great actions of creation, election, and redemption, and within that narrative, Torah is an expression of God’s will for how to live before him (Sanders 119). Does this mean that the narrative takes precedent or carries more weight than the specific laws? It appears so! This explains Paul’s appeal to Abraham in Galatians and Romans when explaining why circumcision is no longer the primary way to identify God’s people. Paul emphasized torah as a story of God choosing Abraham and his descendants and rescuing them in order to use them as his instrument for changing the world. Paul was thoroughly convinced that God’s work in Christ furthered the torah story and made that same election and redemption available to all humanity. Paul labored to preach this fulfilled torah story as he de-emphasized the specific rules (circumcision, dietary laws, etc) that were preventing the greater narrative from being accomplished. In other words, when Paul and the early church were faced with the Jew-Gentile crisis, they decided it was better to follow the greater ideal of the story (God would bless all nations through Abraham) won out over the specific rules (circumcision, dietary laws, etc).

Since I left full-time preaching for construction work, a tape measure, level, and string line have become my guides for work. It is of utmost importance that any project be level, plumb, and square. What I am arguing is that the torah narrative is a guide in and of itself. A healthy understanding of torah, as both law and story, is crucial for the church. Too many have either excused the relevance and importance of the torah in place of a skewed retirement sales pitch that is sold as the gospel message or have reduced all scripture to rules and the Christian goal is to follow them stringently. Our guide, or as some scholars would say our canon, for keeping us on track is the narrative of Scripture. When we read a specific passage, a rule, a poem, a psalm, a prophecy, etc, hold it against the story of Scripture to see where it fits into the greater scheme. When we learn to master this story, don’t be surprised if the story begins to master us!

[1] W. Dennis Tucker, “Revisiting the Plagues in Psalm CV,” VT LV, 3 (2005), 401-02.

[2] Exodus 10:22; 7:20-21; 8:6; 8:24; 8:17; 9:23 10:14-15 (all numbers from English texts. The MT numbering is different). Even the death of the firstborn contains the phrase “in the land” contra Psalm 78:51 which locates the plague “in Egypt.”

When modern disciples think of “the law,” or torah, we tend to think of complicated rules, regulations and arcane sentiments.  Many would probably express sentiments like the torah is the essence of legalism and ritualism.  What we modern disciples are likely not to think of is love, grace, joy, intimacy and prayer.

Love. Grace. Joy. Intimacy. Prayer. These powerful notions are, however, exactly what are found within the torah which is the Story of God’s love for the created world. The Story, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, is peppered with prayer and references to prayer.  In Jesus’s day the Pentateuch seems to have been divided up, and read beginning to end, in a three year cycle. It was a narrative.  The narrative ends with Deuteronomy, with Moses’s personal interpretation, and application, of the entire “law of Moses.” As Moses tells it, Yahweh expects Israel’s love to be directed exclusively toward him and expressed for neighbors.  Moses also indicates that prayer is the joyous blessing and foundation of Israel’s life with God. 

Yahweh Hears

Israel was surrounded by an ocean of pagan gods.  Gods from Egypt, the Hittite Empire, Ugarit, and Mesopotamia were established in Canaan long before Israel arrived. The tales of these gods are filled with epic battles, bloodshed, sex, and struggle for survival by both gods and humans. 

But did the gods care? Years ago a clay tablet was unearthed from the remains of Ashurbanipal’s library which has since been called “Prayer to Every God.” The petitioner is in desperate agony. Some divine decree has been violated but the supplicant does not know what law nor whose anger she has violated. So every god is being passionately begged to hear and respond. As the psalmist put it about the pagan gods, “They have mouths but do not speak; eyes but do not see, They have ears but do not hear.”  But “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Ps 115.2-6).

But Moses proclaims to Israel that she has been amazingly graced.  Israel’s God especially loves the nobodies reflected in the Babylonian Prayer to Every God.

Yahweh is the God who hears.
Yahweh is the God who is intimate with the people. 

Even the pagan nations will know.  They will declare, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?” (Deut 4.6-8).

It was while they were helpless slaves, in an alien land, that Yahweh heard the cry of the Israelites (Ex 2.23-25). Moses drives home the point by warning Israel to never mistreat the poor.

Take care, lest you entertain a wicked thought and say,
‘The seventh year , the year of forgiveness is near,’
and you view your neighbor with hostility and give nothing.
Your neighbor might cry to Yahweh against you
(Deut 15.9; cf. 24.1)

In Israel one need not be a prophet, priest, a king, nor rich, nor powerful to be heard.  Yahweh especially hears the prayers of the powerless. Israel was a kingdom of nobodies. But she had a God who is near – intimacy – she had a God who hears.

Prayer & Grace

God is near. God hears. But does God care? Is Yahweh a technical god ensconced on a high and holy mountain dishing out automatic punishment – wrath – upon breaking of the law? Not technicalities of the law, but the very fabric of the law?

At the heart of Deuteronomy is a long narrative in the form of a speech by Moses. In this speech, Moses “points the way” (the most basic meaning of torah) of life with God.  Moses has reminded Israel that it is by God’s hesed alone they are in a covenant of love (7.7-9,12).  Moses has reminded Israel that she is not morally nor ritualistically more righteous than the Egyptians, Canaanites or anyone else. “Do not say to yourself, ‘It is because of my righteousness … you have been rebellious since the day you came out of Egypt” (9.4-7). 

Moses drives home the bitter truth of Israel’s faithlessness, even at the moment of her salvation and marriage to Yahweh.  He brings them to the “fall of Israel,” that is the Golden Calf.  Here at the end of the Story of the Torah, Moses reemphasizes the catastrophic event at the beginning of the history of Israel (and narratively the beginning in Exodus 32-33).  The Bible never lets Israel forget this event. The psalms put the tragedy this way,

They made a calf at Horeb
and worshiped a cast image.
They exchanged the glory of God
for the image of an ox that eats grass

And then in one of the saddest lines in Scripture, Israel is led to confess,

They forgot God, their Savior.” (Ps 106.19-21)

But the Psalm also remembers the majesty of God’s grace.  Yahweh did not destroy Israel anymore than Adam had been destroyed. Instead, God heard the prayer of Moses (Ps 106.23). 

In his narrative sermon, Moses brings these Israelites who were not personally present at Mt Sinai when their mothers and fathers forgot God, their Savior, back to the moment of what salvation looks like.  Deuteronomy 9 is calamitous and hauntingly beautiful at the same time. 

When there simply is no command we can precisely obey, when there is no sacrifice we can offer, when there is simply no hope … Yahweh’s hesed bursts all the brighter. Yahweh hears our prayers. 

Moses’ Torah of Prayer

Moses is teaching.  Moses is showing the way for Israel.  Moses already knows that Israel will continue to fail God and miserably so (4.25-31), what shall Israel do. They shall “seek the LORD” in prayer, in worship and with their whole heart.  Moses prays.

O LORD God, do not destroy your people and your possession, whom  you have redeemed through your greatness, whom you have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Disregard/pay no attention to the stubbornness of this people, or their wickedness or their sin … otherwise the land from which you brought us will say, ‘Because the LORD was unable to bring them into the land he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to slaughter them in the desert.’ After all, they are your people and your possession, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm.” (Deuteronomy 9.26-29).

This remarkable and daring prayer by Moses has three fundamental petitions.

Do not destroy your people” (v.26)
Remember your servants, the patriarchs” (v.27)
Pay not attention/disregard wickedness and sin” (v.27)

That this generation of Israelites is alive to hear the gruesome tale of their parents sin, is proof that Yahweh heard Moses prayer.  Moses has already used our verb translated as “destroy” in his interpretation of the law for Israel. “The LORD your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget his covenant with your ancestors” (4.31).

But Moses’ prayer stresses “your people.”  Israel is God’s people by God’s doing, they are not God’s people by Israel’s doing. Israel is Yahweh’s “possession” which every hearer of the Story of God’s love in the torah recognizes the echo of Exodus 19. “I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to myself … you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples” (19.4f).  

This is a direct appeal to God grace, his infinite hesed.  This relationship has never depended Israel’s doing but on Yahweh redeeming.  In fact Yahweh expended extraordinary effort to acquire Israel as his possession since it was by his “mighty hand.”  The basis of Moses prayer is the same basis that God rescued Israel in the first place.  We are “guilty as sin” now but that was true of us at the beginning.  Moses knows first hand that Israel has “been rebellious against the LORD as long as he has known you” (9.24, NRSV).

Moses’s second prayer move is “remember.” Remember the patriarchs becomes a standard refrain in Israelite prayer.  Moses knows the patriarchs were hardly models of integrity and righteousness.  The beginning of the torah (Genesis) graphically canonizes their moral and spiritual failures. Every Israelite is thus taught that “we” have never been God’s obedient children. Thus the call to remember the patriarchs is not to remember their failures but for God to remember his promises to them, even as they were schmucks.  The patriarchs did not deserve God’s promises of grace but received them because God is the God of love (7.8,12). The petition is for Yahweh to remember and thus continue in mercy, though Israel only deserves destruction.

Moses’s first two petitions are fairly radical.  But it is the third that borders on daring. Literally Moses asks Yahweh “not to turn to” Israel’s blatant, explicit and premeditated wickedness and sin.  It is important to see Moses does not excuse nor minimize the crises of this event.  This is the equivalent of a spouse – literally – committing adultery while on the honeymoon. God has every right to use the “nuclear option.”  In fact most would say God was righteous if the option was exercised. 

No excuse. No justification. No shrinking back from the catastrophe. Just the plea to “not turn to” that horrific and “in your face” travesty.  Do not look at it. Do not pay attention to it. All that can be done is beg for mercy. And that is exactly what Moses does. “Do not look at the sin of this people.” 

Yahweh granted grace. Israel is on the cusp of the promised land. The cloud has not abandoned Israel by day nor has the fire been extinguished by night. No wonder Moses asks rhetorically what nation “has a god so close as is the LORD our God whenever we call upon him!

Concluding Reflections

What does Moses teach regarding Israel’s relationship with God? Israel is called into a unique and exclusive “covenant of love” with Yahweh.  The relationship does not depend, and never depended, upon technical precision with 613 commandments.  We are called to love Yahweh. We are called to circumcise our heart. We are called to love our neighbor. 

The problem is we do not love Yahweh, we do not circumcise our heart and we do not love our neighbor.  Most of the time our actions are knowingly at variance with our calling.

There is no sacrifice in the law, none, for premediated deliberate sin.  This by the way is also true in the New Testament.  Sacrifice in the Bible is always for unintentional sin and for expressing thanksgiving and joy before the Lord.  Israel does not and cannot offer a “sin offering” for the Golden Calf. David does not and cannot offer a “sin offering” for his rape of Bathsheba. What can be done?

But we are all Israel. We have all committed deliberate sin, every one of us.  I have been wicked. I have been rebellious. I have been sinful.  I, and I assume you, am just like our ancestors.  What is to be done?

Moses taught us that the moment of the greatest deliberate sin was also the moment of the most stunning revelation of God’s grace … because we prayed and asked for forgiveness.  And Yahweh forgave because Yahweh forgives “wickedness, rebellion and sin.” 

The torah teaches us that our God is near. The torah teaches us that our God hears.  The torah teaches us that our God is the God who forgives when his people call on his name whether we are a prophet, a priest, a king … or just a sinner in desperate need of grace. 

Prayer, the torah proclaims, is the link to our Father, the key to love, joy, intimacy … and forgiveness.

If you, O LORD, kept a record of sin,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness  with you,
so that you may be revered.

(Psalm 130.4)

With Moses, I bow to the ground and worship (Ex 34.8). 

“What is the Bible and what do we do with it?” This is a question that one of my favorite scholars, Peter Enns, asks and attempts to answer regularly. Some may be tempted to say that the answer is simple: The Bible is the inspired word of God and its purpose is to tell us what to do. You know the old adage, the Bible stands for, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Silver bullets are nice. The problem is, they’re few and far between. In this instance, this supposed simple answer to a supposed simple question is inadequate to address something as complex as the Bible. We may be inclined to ask what it even means that the Bible is inspired by God. Further, can the 66 books in the Protestant Bible really be described as “basic instructions”? Better yet, could the first five books in our Bibles be described as purely instructive, even if just for Israel? Surely so! After all, they are referred to as “the law” and the purpose of laws is, at least in part, to tell us what to do.

            What we will see in this series is that the Bible is far from a collection of literature simply meant to give us instruction. Specifically, we will see that not even the Torah can be thought of in purely instructional terms. The Torah, like the rest of Scripture, is a depiction of humanity’s journey in coming to know God and its ultimate purpose is to point us to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. The Old Testament in general is a theological journey. It is written, arguably, over the course of roughly 1,000 years and covers events that span even farther. Different thoughts about God are represented, much of which are drastically influenced by culture and circumstance. These thoughts can stand in tension and even in contradiction with one another at times. Understanding this reality is essential to understanding the Torah specifically, the Old Testament more broadly and the entire Bible ultimately.

            My assertions inevitably lead to discussions of biblical inspiration. What does it mean that the Bible is inspired? Some hold to what is commonly referred to as inerrancy.[1] Advocates of this position state that, in the original manuscripts, every single word was unilaterally dictated by God.[2] In this paradigm, the Bible is accurate in all it addresses, whether that be science, sociology, theology, morality or anything else. Therefore, in the entirety of the Bible what we have is unilaterally dictated revelation from God. God would never lie, and would certainly never be mistaken, so everything presented in the Bible regardless of subject is wholly accurate, or so the argument goes. Every piece of literature in the Bible, then, is not at all human reflection on the Divine or an interpretation of Divine revelation but is rather, again, unilaterally dictated revelation from God himself.[3] Consequently, the Bible does not contain any errors: All depictions of God are cohesive, all science is irrefutable, and all thoughts are consistent with one another. We do not find contradicting thoughts about God within the pages of Scripture, as all revelation in Scripture must be internally constant.[4] This is the essential premise of the doctrine of inerrancy. And this is how many Christians in the West have thought about the Bible since arguably the Protestant Reformation.

            To put it bluntly, I do not think inerrancy is the best way to think about the Bible. I do not think the Bible God gave us is “inerrant” as modern theologians have come to define the term. Upon examining Scripture on its own terms and in its own context, I believe we find something much different. As opposed to Scripture being exclusively God’s communication to us, it is rather both God’s communication to us and human reflection on that communication. This means that not all ideas about God in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, stand in unison. Depending on the time and circumstances in which a text was produced, the biblical authors demonstrate a range of ideas and thoughts about God and the world.

As time goes on throughout Israel’s history, God progressively reveals himself to his elect people. Their theology develops over time and is eventually much different come Second Temple Judaism than in the days of the patriarchs. As they come to know God more fully, the Israelites inevitably see him differently. It is similar to how a child sees her father; her perspective will change as she comes to know him, but he is still the same person. God doesn’t change, but Israel’s thoughts about him do. I will demonstrate this throughout the series.

For now, there are two indispensable implications to what I have said concerning biblical inspiration:

1) There is a human element to Scripture. It is both a human and a Divine product. The Bible is ultimately from God and is God’s gift to the church, but that reality alone does not predicate for us particular nuances regarding the doctrine of inspiration.

2) As I have made clear, ideas about God throughout Scripture can change. Jesus is the perfect revelation from God and all previous revelation must bow to him. I have written more about that here.

            This article will serve as a short introduction to various other concepts we will explore in the coming days:

1) The concept of progressive revelation and Israel’s not-so-unique place within the ancient Near East. What do other ancient Near Eastern documents tell us about Israel’s Scriptures? What does the presence of theological diversity and ancient cosmology within the Torah tell us about the Bible itself?  

2) Yahweh as being God among gods. Do other deities exist? Monotheism was not always present within Israelite theology.

3) Retribution theology. Israel eventually comes to question the idea that God always rewards those who are obedient and punishes those who are disobedient. Do good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people?

4) Sacrifice. How do thoughts about sacrifice change throughout Israel’s history? Does God desire animal sacrifices at all?

5) God is perfectly revealed in Christ. What does that mean for us concerning violent depictions of God in the Torah and rest of the Old Testament?

“What is God like?” This is the question humans have had on their minds from the beginning of civilization. We still ask that exact question! Israel’s theological progressions and diversity demonstrate for us that even they were asking that very question. It is in Christ that we find the answer all of humanity, including ancient Israel, has searched for. I hope you will be fascinated, as I am, by examining Israel’s journey in coming to know God. And I hope this series will help to give us all a better sense of the nature and purpose of Scripture, that being to point to Jesus.

When I look at ancient Israel as God’s people, I see much of myself. I struggle with God: I ask questions and have doubts. My thoughts about God have changed since my childhood. Nonetheless, I still trust in the righteousness of God. He is the sovereign creator of the universe and Jesus Christ is Lord of all. I’m not always the follower of Jesus that I should be, but his grace is enough in the absence of my perfection. Israel was the same way; God fulfilled his covenant through them, despite their imperfection, when he brought about the Messiah that would bless all the nations of the world.

[1]. Yes, there are those who give credence to the term “inerrancy” while defining it in a plethora of ways, most of which are not compatible with its most popular definition. Thus, I am using the term here as it is defined in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

[2]. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article VI.  

[3]. Ibid., Article III.  

[4]. Ibid., Article V.   a

This is the first article in a series of three articles by Dr. Leonard Allen of Lipscomb University on the Holy Spirit in Churches of Christ. I hope you will follow this series closely. Part 2 will post May 4. Part 3 will post June 8.

All of this is a lead up to Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration that is happening June 26-28. Please check out what is going on at Lipscomb with this event. Churches of Christ are in desperate need to reconnect with their history on the Holy Spirit (it is not as uniform as some might think), which is why we are posting this series of articles. We also must get back in touch with a biblical view of the person and work of the Holy Spirit from the Bible itself.

I will be presenting a class this year and I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am about that!

Please click this link to get more info on Summer Celebration and their emphasis on the Holy Spirit this June.

Here is Part 1 of Dr. Allen’s series on the Holy Spirit for Wineskins,

From Revival Ridge to Bible Deism Valley:

The Odd History of the Holy Spirit among Churches of Christ

Part 1, Cane Ridge and the Spirit’s Fire

By Leonard Allen

I was raised in a very conservative church that had virtually lost the language of the Spirit. That didn’t mean, of course, that we had entirely lost the Holy Spirit—for there were signs all around, as I look back, of the Spirit’s presence in our community. But the “grammar” of the Spirit was missing. Almost entirely.

Dallas Willard (and before him, J. D. Thomas) gave a name to the doctrine of the Spirit on which I was raised: Bible deism—the view that one “experiences” the Spirit solely through implanting the words, the ideas, of the Bible in one’s mind. This doctrine emerged, not at the beginning of the Restoration Movement that gave rise to modern Churches of Christ, but a few decades into the story. So when we trace the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, we find an odd history: beginnings at Cane Ridge (1801)—“America’s Pentecost”—and eventually, after some twists and turns, a residence in Bible deism valley.

Cane Ridge and the Spirit’s Fire

In August 1801, Barton Stone presided over the famous Cane Ridge Revival in central Kentucky. Attendance estimates ranged from 10,000 to over 20,000 (at a time when the population of nearby Lexington, Kentucky’s largest town, was less than 1,800). So many experienced intense emotional and physical responses, falling to the ground, that some portions of the grassy ridge looked like a battlefield scattered with bodies. Many were converted.

These revival gatherings usually have been called camp meetings. But that term is misleading. They were actually communion festivals following a two-hundred-year-old tradition rooted deeply in Scotch-Irish Presbyterianism.[i] Seeking to imitate the New Testament observance, the church leaders served communion on long dinner tables set up in the aisles of the church buildings. At a large communion service as many as ten waves of communicants might fill the tables, and the communion meal might last all day.

By the mid 1600s this communion service had expanded into a three to five-day event. It usually began on Friday or Saturday with intense preparation sermons. Ministers warned people about coming to the table unprepared, without pure hearts. They carefully screened candidates and gave admission tokens to those judged fit to commune. Following the all-day communion service on Sunday, a thanksgiving service on Monday ended the event.

The communion festivals became the highlight of the church year. For serious believers they were times of intense self-examination and spiritual renewal; for young people they were times of conviction and conversion. Sometimes these communion festivals exploded with revival, including intense physical and emotional effects such as fainting and trance-like states.

These revivalistic communion services aroused controversy and division in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and Ireland. The Seceder branch of the church, to which Thomas and Alexander Campbell belonged, deeply opposed such trends, viewing them as disorderly and excessive.

As Scotch-Irish Presbyterians immigrated to America, they brought the communion festival with them. Indeed, it was precisely this kind of communion service that took place at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, on August 8, 1801.

Year later, in 1827, Barton Stone looked back on the events of 1801 with hearty approval. “The doctrine preached by all was simple, and nearly the same,” he wrote. “All urged faith in the gospel, and obedience to it, as the way of life. The spirit of partyism, and party distinctions, were apparently forgotten…. The spirit of love, peace, and union, were revived. . . . Happy days! Joyful seasons of refreshment from the presence of the Lord.”[ii]

The beginnings of modern-day Churches of Christ are rooted precisely here. Stone and other pro-revival ministers soon formed the Springfield Presbytery, then quickly dissolved it, issuing one of the founding documents of our heritage, “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.” A new movement emerged. Under Stone’s leadership the new “Christian” movement grew rapidly, so that by 1811 it could claim about 13,000 members, mostly in a swath running from central Kentucky through Middle Tennessee to Alabama.

The central themes of the movement were freedom from all creeds and coercive human traditions, restoration of simple New Testament Christianity, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, separation from the fashions of the world, and the millennial unity of believers. This unity Stone called “fire union,” for he believed that any lasting unity could be forged only in the fire of God’s Spirit.

Barton Stone remained an ardent supporter of revival practices for the rest of his life. Some of the physical “exercises” present in the 1801 revival, particularly the one Stone described as holy laughter or singing, apparently continued to be a part of the Cane Ridge and Concord churches for a decade or so under Stone’s ministry. Next month I will focus on Alexander Campbell’s new rational view of the Spirit that soon eclipsed Stone’s view.


[i] Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period (Princeton: Princeton University, 1989), and Paul Conkin, Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1990).

[ii] Barton W. Stone, “History of the Christian Church in the West,” Christian Messenger 1 (February 24, 1827), 74-79.