Debates About the Bible and Books About Reformed Theology & Spirituality

Most of us have great stories of wonderful examples of eager disciples who have learned to live with verve and passion for the sake of God's glory. We should relish these encouraging testimonies, telling stories of God's sanctifying work among us. Dramatic examples of one who takes her faith to the marketplace, or of another who serves the poor with abandon, or yet another of a hard-fought struggle to find hope amidst painful circumstances are often unsung. We should, like Paul and his habit of building up his younger disciples, rejoice in their faithful, real-world discipleship and see what it is that makes them somewhat notable in their faith development. (As I was going to print this month, the brand new Dallas Willard book just arrived in the shop, which addresses this exact theme. It is so important that it surely needs to be discussed in greater detail here later.)

Taking Christ's Lordship to heart doesn't come naturally, of course--we humans tend not to easily find our place in God's providence. We characteristically want to limit God's call on the whole of our lives;
we want to tame God, domesticate God. As one wonderful, recent book by Mark Buchanan puts it, Your God is Too Safe.

Here's how Eugene Peterson puts it, in his powerful introduction to his important paraphrase of the Hebrew prophets (The Message) which came out late last fall:

"One of the bad habits that we pick up early in our lives is separating things and people into secular and sacred. We assume that the secular is what we are more or less in charge of: our jobs, our time, our entertainment, our government, our social relations. The sacred is what God has charge of: worship and the Bible, heaven and hell, church and prayers. We then contrive to set aside a sacred place for God, designed, we say, to honor God but really intended to keep God in his place, leaving us free to have the final say about everything else that goes on.

"Prophets will have none of this. They contend that everything, absolutely everything, takes place on sacred ground. God has something to say about every aspect of our lives: the way we feel and act in the so-called privacy of our hearts and homes, the way we make our money and the way we spend it, the politics we embrace, the wars we fight, the catastrophes we endure, the people we hurt and help. Nothing is hidden from the scrutiny of God, nothing is exempt from the rule of God, nothing escapes the purposes of God. Holy, holy, holy.

"Prophets make it impossible to evade God or make detours around God. Prophets insist on receiving God in every nook and cranny of life. For a prophet, God is more real than the next-door neighbor."

Certainly we need to help others and ourselves become more familiar with and learn better to indwell the biblical story. To take in the prophets--those that Peterson's full rendering helps bring alive in their poetic and historic context--and the rest of the Bible will help us to "receive God in every nook and cranny of life." Which is why we need to read the Bible regularly, but also in a variety of versions and translations. And The Message is stimulating, creative, thoughtful, and--dare I say it?--fun. Eugene's marvelous attention to the detail of words--he reads poetry and novels, you know--helps us get the phrases and sentences and timing just so (not just the wooden accuracy of, say the New American Standard Bible, or the brand new, precise English Standard Version.) The Message (all of the Old Testament is done, now, with the recent release of the Pentateuch and the historical books) captures the flow, texture and implication, nuance and flavor of this massive array of genres, styles, and writing we know as sacred Scripture. I know it is a colorful paraphrase, but I heartily commend The Message to you, to supplement whatever other Bibles you use. The whole one-volume thing will be out this summer, in hardback or a high-grade leather, giving the summer blockbusters a run for their money. Some think it to be the publishing event of the year.

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The new revised edition of the New International Version,
called Todays NIV, (New Testament only) has been in the news
much this winter and spring, making it a publishing event in its own
right. I could write for pages or talk for hours (indeed, we have,
here at the shop) about the bizarre accusations against this new revision and the meanness that has accompanied legitimate debate about the best way to render into clear English specific Greek texts. Not unlike the NRSV or the more recent NLT, (which, interestingly, did not raise a ruckus among anyone) the TNIV New Testament attempts to be clear and accurate in rendering words that have to do with men and women,
males and females. (For instance, anthropos is an often- used Greek word that the old NIV translates as "men" and the TNIV renders in the common contemporary usage of "humankind" or "people.") Hence, the translators and their publisher (Zondervan) have called it "gender-accurate." For instance, Romans 3:28 says (in the regular NIV), "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law." The TNIV translates it, "For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law." We are adopted as "children" of God, not as "sons." Etcetera. However, when the Greek word clearly means male persons (cf 2 Timothy 3:8), it retains the English word "men." It certainly doesn't use feminine imagery for God, nor use inclusive language if the text does not imply such a usage.

For a heavy-handed critique of all this, claiming that an ungodly and trendy feminist agenda drives the Zondervan men in charge, see (who
else?) World magazine's Web site, www.worldmag.com. For Zondervan's response, visit www.tniv.info. Both give specific examples of the translation process (and the presuppositions involved--does one go for literal precision of orginal meaning or a dynamic equivilence translated into a contemporay cultural idiom?) Although the blistering World critique makes some serious charges, the TNIV New Testament is only 7% different than the regular NIV (changing words like "cloak" to "coat" and the old-fashioned "with child" to "pregnant.") Less than 2% of those changes have to do with gender, but what a firestorm that has created. Checking out both Web sites will allow you to enter the discussion yourself, knowing that this will not be the end of the matter, as new translations and paraphrases continue to appear and the struggle for integrity in such renderings will remain contested.

Speaking of contested ground: Struggling With Scripture (Westminster/John Knox) by Walter Brueggemann, William Placer & Brian Blount is a new book which emerged from a conference among the liberal wing of the Presbyterian Church (USA) which illustrates that the interpretation and role of the Bible is truly contested territory. While some are debating whether it makes sense to translate a certain word a certain way, others are asking what it even means to say the Bible is God's Word and our authority. This book would be terribly savaged by conservative evangelicals if they noticed it, and, try as I might to appreciate it, Dr. Blount's piece (he is an Associate Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary) nearly caused me to spit. Still, I immensely enjoyed Walter Brueggemann's very personal narrative of his own journey of faith and into the career of biblical scholarship. As he describes his own operative assumptions, his angle on the "endlessly beguiling" task of interpretation, it is helpful to hear him share his candid sense of these things. With two new books this spring, Ichobod Towards Home, on the story of the ark of the covanant in 1Samuel 4, and Testimony to Otherwise, on Elijah and Elisha, Brueggemann is one of our most prolific and consistently interesting scholars, nearly a national treasure. I would get this little book just for his tender chapter.

William Placher, too, is always worth reading. Here, he makes a powerful case for progressives and moderates in the mainline churches to reclaim the Bible as the source for their theological positions, wrestling with Scripture not as a sign of distrust--which has too often been the case of those schooled in the higher criticisms--but as a reflection of religious faithfulness. This is not political posturing on his part, but the sign of his considerable maturity in faith and his obviously deep desire to honor God as well as the complexities of the texts. It is a good chapter, even for those who may not end up exactly where he does.

Struggling With Scripture, complete with an introduction by William Sloane Coffin, certainly is one example of how the wider church--UCCs, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics--are in a quandary about the role and authority of the Bible. The chapters are interesting and heartfelt, but ends (in Blount's final piece) with a strong sense that, as he puts it, "the Bible does not have the last word on things." He insists that that is the case because the Bible is a living Word, so, he says, it can never be the last word. (The whole while, he's sounding very much like a "last word." If there are no final fundamentals, no absolutes, then why take seriously his claim that there are no absolutes? Hmmmm.)

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Which takes us back to the need to celebrate and encourage those who can emerge from these confusing times, not hardened into rigid ideologies of a certain theological camp (right or left) or discouraged and perplexed by it all, but thoughtful, engaged, well-informed and solidly rooted. Vibrant faith comes, in part, from serious and wide reading, open-hearted struggling with Scripture and--see my annotated list--a clear working knowledge of the best of our faith traditions and theologies. The best modern disciples and most serious Christians, it seems, know Scripture and have done some reading in the basic theological questions. Please read on.

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Those who, to use Steve Garber's memorable phrase, "weave together belief and behavior" (Fabric of Faithfulness), are those, quite often, who read serious books. Of course, as a bookseller in a rather ordinary small town, it would be silly to think that everyone must be a scholar, read academic tomes, act like some kind of brainiac. But serious people do care about their times, dig deep wells, become life-long learners, stay in communities of discourse about the big questions of life--but that doesn't imply an abstract or obscure fascination with the arcane. Christian faith is lived with both feet on the ground (again, which is why I like Peterson's commonplace rendering of The Message) in the midst of the perplexing ordinary.

But--I say this time and again, and invite you to, as well--we must know what we believe and why we believe it. We need to read theology, church history, and even the history of theology to have a biblically-based, theologically-informed vision of the good and faithful life. Humans need to think about God; God is revealed to us in the Bible and creation, and we formulate ways in which that (more or less) coheres into a pattern called a worldview. Some call it doing theology. Doing good theology undoubtedly helps us to know God better, respond to God more appropriately and to live a good life.

So here is a list where I describe some of my favorite introductory theological books. I think it is a very important list. Please forgive the list's Presbyterian denominational bias but--as you surely must know, and as I said in the First Presbyterian (York, PA) Sunday school class for which this bibliography was developed--theology is a task of the local congregation; we do our thinking, reflecting, formulating and systematizing our doctrinal ideas in a particular community, standing in a certain historical tradition, in a certain place and time. This happened to be a course on Reformed theology for a diverse mainline congregation of eager adult learners, from across the theological spectrum. Not all of us knew what we believed, nor why we did or didn't believe it. (And, some of us still don't!) Such gracious openness makes for a great environment to teach and learn, and I hope these book descriptions inspire you to want to learn more. After teaching the class, I know I want to learn more, and I have committed myself to study more in this important field.

So, for the record: I realize that I didn't list books here about the role of the Bible (which necessarily informs good theology) or the communal and ecclesiastical locus of theological reflection, but it is presumed in all that I recommend.

Please print out the list. Pass it around. Forward it to others. Order some of these books from us and while you're at it, get some of "Ëœem into your parish library. Most are not at all hard to read! If you are Presbyterian, especially, show the list to you pastor or Christian educator. If you are not part of a reformed congregation, use those that seem helpful, as some of them really are ecumenical. (Or call us, and we'll recommend some equivelent writings from your denominaitonal heritage.) We need to deepen our knowledge of things that really matter, and this list is a great, great place to start.

Consider also checking out the syllabus for the Sunday school course--
"Reformed Theology 101"--as it shows how theological reflection can be done in a local setting and how these particular books came to be recommended. I hope the course may serve as some sort of model for your Christian ed. programs and that the list of books may be used as a resource for church libraries, Sunday school classes, college Bible studies or theological retreats. (We are now meeting for an evening or two, with our pastoral staff included, to further discuss over dessert the implications of this foray into doctrine. Gotta have food and conversation for really good theology.) For what it's worth, the lectures were audio-taped, so email me if you want to order a set. I'm quite passionate about serious adult education, but also have a generally up-beat presentation style that is a bit silly at times, so I'm told that the tapes are worth listening to.

For instance. In talking about the dangers that many of the Reformation-era leaders endured (from Luther to Zwingli to Menno Simmons to Thomas Cranmer, who all paid dearly for their courageous commitment to theological truth) I noted that John Calvin, the father of the Presbyterians, often had to appear in disguises to hide his identity. 

Rather than merely suggest that this may be a good sign of true doctrine--it gets you in trouble with the powers that be--I suggested that it also might enliven our congregation if some of our church leaders came in wearing those Groucho Marx glasses and noses. In fact, come to think of it, maybe some of those guys arguing about the TNIV ought to get a pair for themselves. It might help us keep it all in perspective.