Archive for December, 2011


Exegesis: You’re Doing it Wrong

December 31, 2011

When it comes to mishandling Scripture, few people can match the death-defying logical leaps of biblical daredevil Joseph Prince. Pastor of Singapore megachurch New Creation Church, Prince has been invited to speak at various Hillsongs conferences and Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. His television show, Destined to Reign, reaches millions daily.

What makes a pastor such a coveted international speaker? Sound, grammatical-historical biblical interpretation, you say? No. That would be boring. What people really want is an approach to Scripture that makes the Bible seem like a puzzle book with “Jabez Prayer”-like secrets waiting to be unlocked by the newest hermeneutical Evel Knievel.

Here’s an excerpt from one of this week’s devotional gems at

“And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.” Luke 2:40

The verse says that the grace of God was upon Jesus. The Bible also says that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. (Romans 5:20) And when you put the two together, you may find yourself asking, “If the grace of God was upon Jesus, does it mean that He sinned?”

No, Jesus did not sin. (2 Corinthians 5:21) So there must be another explanation as to why God’s grace was upon Jesus. There must be another explanation as to why someone can abound in God’s grace even when he has not sinned.

Let’s look at the word “grace” when it is first mentioned in the Bible. Genesis 6:8 says that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord”. Noah’s name means “rest”. So the verse is telling us that rest found grace. In other words, when you rest, you find grace!

So grace was upon Jesus because His life was a life of rest and trust in His Father.

Let’s watch that again in slow motion.

Noah’s name means rest.

Noah found grace.

Therefore, rest found grace.

Therefore, if we rest, we will find grace.

See how easy that was? No need for those expensive Bible commentaries and long hours studying Hebrew. All you need is a Hebrew name book. Let’s try some ourselves.

Esau means hairy.

In Malachi 1, God says, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated…”

Therefore, God hates hairy people.

Let’s try a Noah one.

Noah means rest.

After the flood, Noah got drunk and exposed himself.

Therefore, when we rest, we should get drunk and … hmm … perhaps this is one of those “don’t try this at home” interpretive stunts.

Good exegesis is hard. It requires lots of study and knowledge of the original languages, culture and context. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Joseph Prince, the author of Destined to Reign: The Secret to Effortless Success, Wholeness and Victorious Living, prefers an easier hermeneutical approach.

Effortless indeed.

Charisma magazine profiled Prince last year. It would seem that Prince’s interpretive approach lends itself to a word-of-faith type message. The article quotes Prince’s book, Unmerited Favor:

Because of the cross, we can today expect good, we can expect success, we can expect promotion, increase and the abundant life. It is all because of our wonderful Lord Jesus. If we have Him, we have everything and more, and can be a blessing to others.

His message is, predictably, popular in the U.S., where his televised services are broadcast on TBN, ABC Family Channel and several other networks. Charisma quotes one enthused viewer:

Linda Lee Bingham of New Jersey said understanding grace has enabled her to better trust and rest in God. “Good things are popping into my life faster than I can imagine,” she says. “I started a new business project a few months ago and already have 10 employees. The work is finished on the cross, and I’m just enjoying the ride.”

That’s right Linda Lee. Jesus bled on the cross so that you could get your Amway business off the ground. PTL!

To get a real flavor for the interpretive stylings of Joseph Prince, check out the video below. Skip ahead to the 9:00 minute mark to learn:

  • that Luke 21:25-26 contains a prediction of the March 2011 Japanese tsunami and nuclear crisis;
  • that ouranos [misspelled uranos by Prince] is the ancient Greek word for uranium [an element first discovered in 1789 AD]; and
  • that taking communion will neutralize the radiation in your body from the Japanese nuclear leak.

Can’t get enough Prince? In this next video, Prince explains how the book of Deuteronomy and the cartoonish map in the back of his Bible enabled him to predict the discovery of an offshore natural gas deposit near (actually, nowhere near) Haifa.

Kind of makes Harold Camping look like a top-notch biblical scholar, doesn’t he?


Who Needs a Savior? [Wright vs. Comfort]

December 18, 2011

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. -Matthew 5:21

If you’ve spent any time in evangelical circles, you’ll be familiar with certain guilt-inducing analogies about evangelism. Not telling your neighbor about Jesus is like not throwing a life preserver to a drowning man. Not sharing the gospel with your school chum is like having the cure for cancer and not sharing it with a cancer-stricken friend.

These analogies are bound to make the timid evangelist feel like a cad. I’ve long thought the analogies were unfair. The drowning man knows he needs saving. The cancer patient is keenly aware of his need for a cure. Not so the unsaved friend. The drowning man is not going to swim away from the life preserver and give you the cold shoulder for bothering him about it. But the unsaved friend who isn’t keen on being proselytized might do just that. Christianity was a hard sell because we were trying to convince people of a solution to a problem most people didn’t believe they had.

Several years ago I was introduced to a soap-box preacher who seemed to have a solution to this dilemma. His name was Ray Comfort and he had a sure-fire way of convincing people of their sinfulness before offering Jesus as the solution. If you’ve seen Comfort’s approach, you’ll know that he rarely deviates from it. He runs through the 10 Commandments, asking people if they’ve ever lied, stolen or taken God’s name in vain. He even gets people to admit that they’re murderers and adulterers by employing Christ’s expansive “You have heard it said” definitions in Matthew 5.

Comfort eventually gets his interviewees to admit that they are guilty of breaking God’s law. He then asks whether God will send them to heaven or hell as a consequence of such guilt. People tend to divide down the line on this one. Some say “hell”, though often with a laugh, suggesting that they don’t really believe this to be their fate. Others insist that they will still go to heaven because they aren’t bad people. This is when it gets interesting. Comfort must then persuade these people that they are deserving of eternal torment, often on the basis of their having admitted to little more than telling lies and “looking at a women with lust.”

I can remember, even then, that although I was on Comfort’s side, I felt the weight of the objections. Why exactly were the fires of hell an appropriate punishment for offences that seemed an inescapable part of being human? Comfort’s whole strategy was to confront people with the law so that they would recognize their personal guilt and cry out for a personal savior. Yet few people seemed to walk away from their encounter with Comfort buckling under the weight of condemnation. Probably because he had done little more than demonstrate that they were typical human beings.

I was reminded of Comfort this week while watching N.T. Wright’s recent talks at Moody Bible Institute. Wright spent a good deal of time sketching the framework for a proper narrative understanding of the gospel in its first century Jewish context. Christ “saving his people from their sins,” he maintains, is primarily about Christ’s role as Savior of the Jewish people from exile (i.e. from the consequences of their corporate sin). For the New Testament authors, “salvation” was about God rescuing his people. It meant the restoration of the Jewish nation – indeed, all of creation – and of individuals as part of that corporate restoration.

The interviewer, seemingly concerned about the lack of emphasis on personal salvation, questioned Wright about what he would say to an unbeliever who sought his counsel because of a personal sense of guilt and alienation from God. Wright replied, in part, as follows:

Actually, I have to say, within western post-modernity, most human beings I meet are not walking around saying, “I feel terribly guilty. How can I get rid of this?” That’s simply not the way they’re asking the question. And I don’t believe it is necessarily part of the task of either the apologist or the evangelist first to make them feel a guilt which they didn’t feel and then to show Jesus as the answer to that. It feels like a con trick.

I’m not saying that we go soft on sin – far from it. I’m saying that all people are aware of a major problem at some point. They may blame everyone else for it. They may blame the politicians, the economists, whatever. But to be able to say, “Actually, the whole world is in a mess and we share that messiness, that brokenness, that sinfulness. And God has dealt with the whole cosmic problem and he’s dealt with your problem in the middle of it.”

We’ve got to do both. And I have a sense that people … there’s a sort of sigh of relief when they realize that the church isn’t just interested in them as an individual, as maybe another scalp to be yanked in. But actually that we in the church are concerned with the whole creation, the whole world, with, to be sure, every single last human being as part of that…

I wonder if Ray Comfort would meet with more success if, instead of trying to persuade people of a personal guilt problem, he sought first to persuade them of a corporate guilt problem. I wonder if my neighbors’ consciences aren’t more attuned to the world’s need for a savior than to their own need for a savior.

I’m increasingly persuaded that the evangelical emphasis on embracing Jesus as a “personal Lord and Savior” represents an impoverished understanding of the kind of savior Christ was meant to be.

Perhaps spreading the euangelion (good news) is not so much about throwing life preservers to individuals who have fallen overboard as it is about enlisting our fellow deckhands into the captain’s plan for righting our listing ship.


[Click here to watch the 4 sessions from Wright’s visit to Moody. The above quotation is from the final video.]


Worst Christian Bookstore Name Ever

December 16, 2011

Wandering through a mall in Durban, South Africa, last month, we came upon this unfortunately-named Christian bookstore:

I have yet to figure out what the acronym might stand for. It is an acronym, right?

Here’s their website, where you can order products such as …

Or, just in time for the holidays …

I wonder if they know.


Did Paul Write the Pastoral Epistles? Part IV

December 13, 2011

This will be the final post on the topic of the authorship of the Pastoral epistles. Follow these links for Part I, Part II, and Part III. We’ll wrap up by examining two apparent conflicts between the Pastorals and other NT writings by or about Paul. These conflicts raise further doubt about whether Paul is the author of the putative letters to Timothy and Titus.

Historical Difficulties

The Pastoral epistles describe travels of Paul that bear little resemblance to what we know of his journeys from Acts and other Pauline letters. They have Paul ministering in Crete and leaving Titus to continue the work they had begun. They have Paul wintering in Nicopolis (Western Greece). They have Paul leaving Timothy in Ephesus when he departs for Macedonia (seemingly contrary to Acts 20 which says that Timothy was Paul’s companion on his journey from Ephesus into Macedonia and Greece).

There is no external evidence for any of these trips and no easy way to reconcile them with the chronologies provided by Acts and the undisputed Pauline epistles. Recognizing this, some have suggested that these journeys must have occurred after the time frame covered by Acts. In other words, maybe Paul managed to survive his Roman imprisonment, was released, and returned to the Eastern Mediterranean to complete the journeys mentioned in the Pastorals.

The first problem with this suggestion is that there is simply no evidence of it.

Second, the idea that Paul survived his Roman imprisonment and went on to complete further missionary journeys is at odds with passages in Acts that give the clear implication that Paul would meet his end in Rome.

In Acts 20:25, Paul bids a tearful farewell to the elders at Ephesus:

Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.

The author of Acts gives us no indication that Paul was mistaken about this. Rather, at verses 36-38 he continues:

When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again.

Did Paul surprise everyone (including himself) by surviving his imprisonment in Rome, returning to the Eastern Mediterranean and launching a new work in Crete? I suppose this is possible. But the more likely explanation (particularly in light of all the other evidence pointing away from Pauline authorship) is that the historical details don’t fit because someone is writing these letters in Paul’s name at a later time. The author has sufficient knowledge of Paul’s travels and companions to include personal details that sound plausible, but insufficient knowledge to do so in a way that doesn’t conflict with our more reliable records.

The Role of Women

Scholars have noted that the Pastorals’ teachings on the role of women in church life seems at variance with Paul’s view. Would the Paul who provided instructions on how women should pray and prophecy in I Corinthians (11:4-6) also tell Timothy that women must learn in silence (1 Tim. 2:11-14)? Would the Paul, who frequently commended prominent women in the church (eg. Phoebe, Priscilla, Chloe) and who described Junia (a female name) as “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7), now forbid women from teaching or exercising authority over men?

There are several clues throughout the Pastorals that the author is motivated by a desire to reduce tensions with those outside the church, such that Christians might enjoy “peaceful and quiet lives” (1 Tim. 2:1-3). We know from ancient sources that the early church was criticized for the prominent role afforded to women and for teachings that were seen as disruptive to the household.

An extreme example of the sort of teaching that was raising eyebrows is found in the mid-2nd century AD text, The Acts of Paul and Thecla. This early Christian novel portrayed Paul as teaching a strict form of asceticism that forbade marriage and sex. The heroine, Thecla, takes Paul’s message to heart and refuses the marriage arranged for her. She preaches, baptizes herself, narrowly avoids death … it’s all very exciting. But to encourage women to carry on in such a fashion was, to a Roman audience, scandalous.

5-6th century fresco of Paul, Thecla (left) and her mother (right)

The Pastorals may be, in part, an attempt by followers of Paul to counter such interpretations of the Pauline message and alleviate tensions with those outside the church. The message: Paul was no enemy of traditional Greco-Roman family roles. Rather, women should strive for propriety, quiet submission and salvation through childbearing (1 Tim 2:15), i.e. by fulfilling their traditional role in the household. [For more on this point, be sure to listen to Professor Phil Harland’s podcasts 1.11 and 1.12 at Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean.]

In sum, the Pastorals appear to teach a more restrictive role for women than do the undisputed letters of Paul, possibly as a reaction against interpretations of his message that were bringing the church into disrepute.


Taken in isolation, one might be able to mount a cogent rebuttal to each of the arguments canvassed over the last four posts. But the case against Pauline authorship is a cumulative one. Considered together, the various pieces of evidence make it difficult to resist the conclusion that Paul did not author the Pastoral epistles — a view shared by most mainline scholars.

What does this means for 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus? What does it mean for the Bible as a whole? Must we “throw the whole thing away because it’s not trustworthy,” as suggested by Aaron Armstrong? I certainly haven’t cut the Pastorals out of my Bible. Nor should you. They represent an important record of how early followers of Christ interpreted the message of the Apostle Paul as it had been passed down to them.

The presence of pseudonymous writings in the NT does, however, raise some interesting questions about whether the privileged position given to canonical texts is always warranted. For my part, I would tend to give greater weight to something found in the undisputed Pauline corpus than to a teaching unique to the Pastorals. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.


Did Paul Write the Pastoral Epistles? Part III

December 11, 2011

This post is Part III in a series examining the problems scholars have identified with attributing the Pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) to Paul. For Part I click here. For Part II click here.

Lack of Substantive Debate

In Part II, we looked at the emphasis in the Pastorals on keeping “the faith”, which may indicate that the Pastorals were written after apostolic teaching had an opportunity to coalesce into a recognized body of doctrine. A corollary of this point is the manner in which false teachers are opposed in the Pastorals. When it comes to false teachers, the Pastorals are heavy on name-calling, but light on substantive debate.

Paul’s usual approach is to confront his opponents with reasoned debate and an authentic gospel. Consider, for instance, the epistle to the Galatians where Paul spends several chapters developing his argument against the Judaizers (who taught that gentiles must adhere to the external signs of the covenant).

The author of the Pastorals, on the other hand, is content simply to denounce false teachers. There is no apparent need to mount any lengthy argument against the false teaching. It is sufficient to point out that the impugned teaching is at odds with established teaching. The opponents have “departed from the faith” (1 Tim. 6:21) and little more need be said.

We should be familiar with this kind of approach because we hear it all the time. Those who view themselves as faithful and orthodox Christians will condemn a particular viewpoint, not on its merits, but on the ground that it is contrary to the creeds or the “fundamental truths of the faith” or “the historic teaching of the church.” There’s nothing inherently wrong in making an argument like this. But in order to make it, you must be living in a time when such traditions have already been established. Thus, scholars see the frequent appeals to tradition in lieu of substantive debate as a further sign that the Pastorals date to the post-Pauline era.

Presence of Gnostic Thought

Woven throughout the Pastoral letters are attacks on certain heresies. Some have observed that the false teaching the author is combatting appears to have elements of proto-gnosticism. The author’s opponents forbid marriage (1 Tim. 4:3), and get caught up in myths and genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4; Titus 3:9). They maintain that the resurrection has already occurred (2 Tim 2:18). Timothy is warned about “what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20), gnosis being the Greek word for knowledge. Part of the repudiation of the false teachers is an explicit affirmation (contra gnosticism) of the goodness of the material world, “For everything God created is good” (1 Tim. 4:4).

Charting the origins and emergence of gnostic thought is notoriously difficult, but some scholars have suggested that these elements in the Pastorals suggest a date of composition towards the end of the 1st century or early 2nd century.

Developed Ecclesiology

The Pastorals’ emphasis on the roles of bishops, elders, deacons and widows is typical of the more developed ecclesiology of the late first century rather than Paul’s era. Concern about the roles and qualifications of church office holders is absent from the uncontested works of Paul. In those letters, church leadership has more to do with spiritual gifting/charisma than with a clearly defined system of offices.

James Dunn summarizes the argument from ecclesiology as follows:

The degree of church structure seems more developed than anything in the earlier Paul. A distinctive office of “overseer (bishop)” has emerged (1 Tim 3:1; Titus 1:7), as also that of “deacon (minister)” (1 Tim 3:8). These titles were already in use in Phil 1:1, but the concept of a formal office is more in evidence. Likewise, the office of “elder” appears in the Pauline corpus for the first time (1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:5). It looks as though on this point the Pastorals share the hindsight perspective evident also in Luke’s account of Paul’s mission (Acts 14:23; 20:17), of which there is no trace in the earlier Pauline letters. It may also be significant, then, that the only use of the term “charism,” so central to Paul’s concept of the body of Christ (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1), is limited to talk of Timothy’s charism given through the laying on of hands in the past (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6).

Dunn, James D.G., The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections. 

Dunn goes on to caution, however, that the ecclesiology in the Pastorals is still emerging. It is not yet as developed as in the letters of Ignatius (circa 110 AD), which evidence a monoepiscopacy [try saying that word 5 times fast! – it means having only one bishop per city]. The important point is that the Pastorals reflect a degree of institutionalized church structure unknown in Paul’s day.


In the next and final post in this series, we’ll look at the role of women in the Pastorals as well as some historical difficulties with the letters. On a personal note, I must apologize for the month-long hiatus in the middle of this series. I have just returned from a three week trip to South Africa during which I had rather limited internet access. As a token of my apology, I offer this irresistibly cute photo of a momma marmoset and her baby, taken in Hout Bay, South Africa. Sadly, I was not permitted to bring them home with me.