Written by Dr. David Dunbar Monday, 19 March 2012 00:00

These three nouns are used by Lesslie Newbigin to describe the church, particularly at the congregational level, in its relationship to its surrounding culture (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society [Eerdmans, 1989], p. 233). It is an inspiring and challenging vision.  

Think of it!  Local churches that so embody the grace of Jesus in word and deed that they are an effective sign-post pointing to the truth that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” Churches that are the instruments through which God answers our prayer for the kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. And congregations where people actually get a taste of the new heavens and new earth.

 Yes, it is exciting, uplifting, and hopeful!  And then there is the reality.  This was brought home to me Sunday after teaching an adult class at church where we talked about this beautiful vision. I could sense that many folks were stimulated by our discussion.  This is something the hearts of many of us long for.  But then one of my more thoughtful students said, “Dave, I love studying this stuff, but then I ask myself if I am ready to make the changes in my life that kind of church requires.”

 Indeed!  That is the question that all of us must face honestly. Business as usual will not lead to congregations that are the sign, instrument, and foretaste of the coming kingdom.  Like my friend, I too find it easy to get excited about the idea of a vibrant church, but I am actually much less enthusiastic about how such a church would disturb my comfort zone.

Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary.  He has been married to Sharon for 42 years.  They have four grown children and six grand children.


Written by Dr. David Dunbar Thursday, 15 March 2012 00:00

In recent blogs I have been reflecting on Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible (Brazos, 2011).  He believes that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” among Evangelicals proves the un-workability of our hermeneutic:  because we cannot agree on what Scripture teaches, we inevitably find ourselves in warring theological camps.  How should we address the problem?

Smith offers two proposals that taken together could provide a greater degree of unity within the church.  First, he argues that the Bible must be read Christocentrically:  Jesus Christ is the true subject matter of the whole of the Scripture.  “If  believers today want to rightly understand scripture, every narrative, every prayer, every proverb, every law, every Epistle  needs likewise to be read and understood always and only in light of Jesus Christ and God reconciling the world to himself through him” (p. 99). Few would deny what Smith affirms, but in practice Christ gets side-lined in our teaching and the resulting interpretations (particularly of the OT) are often little more than religious moralism.

Second, he argues that we must make value distinctions in our interpretation.  Not all truths are equally important.  We should avoid “flat” readings which value all biblical content equally.  Smith adopts the threefold distinction of dogma, doctrine, and opinion used by the Baptist theologian Roger Olson.

Dogma refers to those teachings which are nearly universally agreed upon by believers.  Doctrine refers to beliefs that are held not universally but by substantial groups of Christians and which may justly be considered important to the life and witness of the church.  Opinions are those beliefs which are less central and more idiosyncratic.

Smith is persuaded that Evangelical Biblicism makes this three-fold distinction difficult.  As a result much that is really just opinion gets moved up the ladder to the de facto status of Dogma.  The result is theological warfare and the loss of Evangelical catholicity.  The solution must be found in “. . . Christians actively agreeing on a short list of dogma, actively building bonds of Christian communion across their doctrinal differences, and deflating the importance of many of their own beliefs [opinions] to the levels at which they appropriately belong” (p. 138).

What I find particularly attractive in this book is the author’s repeated emphasis on the interpretive center (Christ) rather than the boundary markers (denominational distinctives).  Focus on the former more than the latter is critically necessary for the missional effectiveness of the church, as is the humility that must mark our interpretive efforts and our relationships within the body of Christ.

Dave Dunbar is President and Professor of Theology at Biblical Seminary.  He is married to Sharon, has four adult children and six grandchildren.  See also http://biblical.edu/index.php/david-dunbar.


Written by Dr. David Dunbar Wednesday, 14 March 2012 00:00

I’m still working on Christian Smith’s challenging book The Bible Made Impossible (Brazos, 2011).  Smith charges Evangelicalism with propounding an unworkable theory about the nature and function of the Bible which he calls “Biblicism.” One need not embrace all aspects of his critique (I don’t) to appreciate that some of his observations are spot on.

The particular issue I will address is what Smith calls the “Handbook Model.” Here is how he explains the position that he adamantly disagrees with:  “The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance” (p. 5).

As evidence that this is a real problem, Smith provides a substantial list of book titles and web-sites from the Evangelical world.  Some of my favorites:  The World according to God:  A Biblical View of Culture, Work, Science, Sex, and Everything Else; Gardening with Biblical Plants; and Queen Esther’s Secrets of Womanhood:  A Biblical Rite of Passage for Your Daughter [!]

While there is an amusing side to this that we might just dismiss as the lunatic fringe in the Evangelical family, I don’t think we should.  The reality is that there is a large group of people in our churches that embraces this general approach to Scripture, and too frequently they are encouraged in this direction by leaders who employ the Bible in just this way.

The mistake is easily made in a culture where technology rules us and where handbooks tell us how to use and maintain the technology. If God wants to speak with us, doesn’t it make sense that he would give us a handbook? Give us clear instructions to repair the human machine and we can fix it!

But of course, he didn’t. He gave us a story . . . about Israel, and Jesus, and the disciples of Jesus. Not all the Bible is a story, but even the non-story parts fit in and around the story. And the problem with a story is that it is not a handbook and cannot be interpreted like a repair manual without violating the nature of the story. The simple fact is that Queen Esther’s story was not intended to yield a manual on the secrets of how to be a woman in the modern world. The story of Esther is important and needs to be taught, but its significance must be understood in a whole different way.  That however is a discussion for another time!

Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary.  He has been married to Sharon for 42 years.  They have four grown children and six grand children.


Written by Dr. Kyuboem Lee Tuesday, 13 March 2012 00:00

I was getting ready for the upcoming Biblical Seminary class on Anthropology, reading a course textbook, Charles H. Kraft’s Anthropology for Christian Witness (published by Orbis). This work, first published in 1994, is an indispensable work for understanding culture from a missional perspective, and therefore is essential reading for anyone who is committed to a thoughtful communication of the gospel and an effective kingdom mission. However, it does show its age. Our world has changed in some dramatic ways since he penned this work--in a word, globalization.

Kraft states a major purpose of anthropological studies as safeguarding our Christian witness from “the enemy within us--our own ethnocentrism” (xiii). A great benefit to understanding culture is that we begin to be self-critical in matters of cultural presuppositions--a vital skill in engaging cross-culturally. He goes on to explain, “One of our major aims in this approach to the study of anthropology is to learn to protect the people of other societies from our own inclination to make them like us” (2). The application for the missionary from the West is obvious, but Kraft also had this to say for international students from the Two-Thirds World: one, the study of anthropology can help you overcome the cultural inferiority complex that arises from being a student in a western education system; and two, it can give you the corrective needed against looking down on the traditional segments of your own home culture (3-4).

These are wonderful words from a major figure in contemporary missiology reflecting on the checkered history of modern mission that anyone who is involved in cross-cultural ministry needs to heed seriously. But in our globalizing world, where various cultures (outside the traditional Western hegemony) are ascendant, the applications need to be made even more broadly than to Western cultural chauvinism. For instance, should the same warning against ethnocentrism be sounded to missionaries from South Korea, who are now found in every corner of the globe? What about its application to the immigrant pastors from Western Africa ministering in Queens, New York, one of the most diverse places in the world? And what of the African-American and Hispanic Christians living and serving in North American urban neighborhoods which are now home to increasing numbers of new immigrants from places such as Cambodia, Middle East, and others? After all, Western white culture does not have a corner on ethnocentrism, just as it does not have a corner on biblical theology.

This is not to say that the legacy of the recent Western predominance in Christianity does not loom over the global church’s present-day missional endeavor--to deny its influence would be to deny reality. But there is much that anthropology can teach every one of us about our own brand of ethnocentrism, no matter what part of the world we come from or what culture nurtured us. And it is crucial that we struggle with our own ethnocentrism, especially now when we are confronted by a global world in which diversity is the norm, if we are to have a credible Christian witness. It is a tragedy that Christianity is too often being promoted and practiced as a tribal religion when in fact it is a uniquely global religion, with a unique appeal to our global world.

The good news is that Christianity is a global religion par excellence. Translation is built into its Scriptures (as Lamin Sanneh has pointed out so well, contra Islam which does not allow for translation and sees only one culture--the Arab culture--as sacred); Christianity’s redemptive history is marked by God’s covenant expanding, gathering and including all nations; and Acts as the history of the first Christian mission is a story of the gospel traversing cultural barriers, a trajectory that the church is to continue on until the consummation of history. This global nature of Christianity challenges our ethnocentric tendencies, which we all have within us, and turns us outward to embrace the other. It is a blessing of the gospel.

So, anyone want to sign up for future Anthropology classes?

Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as a lecturer of Urban Mission at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission 


Written by Justin Gohl Monday, 12 March 2012 00:00

For my part, one of the main insights of a missional approach to theology is that “mission” does not require a change in physical location per se. I tried to get at this idea in a blog post here back in November (11/29), in connection with Acts 17 and the idea of “sacramentality”—which we could just as easily term “incarnational.” Because the Word (Logos) who became flesh always filled the world he had made (cf. Col 1.17), the incarnation was not a “change of location” for the Son/Word, but a new form of self-manifestation for the purposes of revealing himself to and redeeming a broken, rebellious world, in a way that we could understand (with the Spirit’s help).

Being a stay-at-home parent presently with two kids under the age of 3, this is a very important, helpful, and challenging way of viewing the world. Practically speaking, I am not free to roam as I please, to spend my time as I please, to engage in many extra-curricular activities. My participation in God’s mission in this season of life takes place within the structures and flow of life in the world that God has created—namely, parents raising children. A missional-incarnational-sacramental reframing of parenting challenges me to see my and my wife’s efforts as a ministry which has God’s ultimate purposes in mind, of redeeming and reconciling the world to himself. And this both respect to my children and myself—with my children, for them to be formed as Christ-followers and responsible citizens; and with me, frankly, both to be encouraged and gladdened, and for it become clear where I lack the fruit of the Spirit in, at times, significant ways—patience, gentleness, joy—and to pray for renewal and transformation in myself.

Is not this training and purification for God’s mission? Is not God’s mission for us to embody the fruit of the Spirit wherever we may be, as God’s agents of reconciliation in the world?

For many in the Reformed tradition especially, this emphasis is not new, with its focus on the covenantal nature of the Church and the family as a microcosm of the covenant community. What has intrigued me as I have interacted with early church readings of the Book of Proverbs—which itself has no little focus on parenting—is the degree to which some prominent figures in the early church were concerned with the life of the family in the Church. Homiletical treaties from both John Chrysostom and Basil the Great have been preserved in which methods of Christian parenting are discussed and the question of what influences we allow on our children is raised.

(For translations of the two treatises, see: M. L. Laistner, Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire, together with An English Translation of John Chrysostom’s “Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children,” [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1951]; Saint Basil, Address to Young Men on Reading Greek Literature. Pages 363-435 in vol. 4 of Saint Basil: The Letters [trans. R. J. Deferrari and Martin R. P. McGuire; Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, reprint 1970].)

What we see in both could fairly be described as a reframing of parenting in missional terms which seeks to preserve the all-important internal/external tension that is at the heart of missional theology and church life. We take care of and shape the internal life and identity of the family and church so as to be faithful and effective representatives of Christ in every place we go, in every station of life, with a prudent readiness to see and find God already at work in the world to which we are sent.

May we be empowered by the Spirit towards this end!

Justin Gohl is an adjunct professor of theology at Biblical. He is married to Kate, his wife of 7 years, and is a full-time stay-at-home dad with two kids, Caleb (2) and Phoebe (1). He is ABD at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia where he is in the latter stages of writing his dissertation on the early church’s use of the Book of Proverbs.


Written by Professor Steve Taylor Friday, 09 March 2012 00:00

Note to the reader: This is the fourth in a series of blogs on reading the Bible as a biblical theological unity. For context, readers should consult the prior posts.

A Practical Motive

In our last post on this topic we discovered how Origen of Alexandria rescued the third century church from its bafflement with the Bible.

Origen was hardly some ivory-tower theoretician in all this. His motives, on full display throughout his writings, were thoroughly pastoral. He was convinced that every scripture was inspired by God to bless his people. Moreover, Origen insisted that Scripture must interpret Scripture. As he put it in his Commentary on Matthew (2.18), "Every interpretation which is outside scripture is not holy.… No one can bring his own interpretations unless he shall have shown them to be holy, from that which is contained in the divine scriptures." Origen insisted that the unity of the Bible was to be found in Christ. Christ, he insisted, is "the spirit which was at work in the prophets…, who became man and said: 'It is I who speak; here am I'" (referring to Isa 52:6; PG 13:657-8  D) and Christ is "the prophesied gift toward which, in essence, all prophecy tends" (PG 13:659-60 C).

A Method Adopted

And even though parts of Origen’s theology and a large part of his interpretive approach were later questioned by some in the church (on the latter, look up “The Antiochene School” in any theological dictionary), the church in the western part of the Roman Empire followed, for the next 900 years and with minor variations, Origen’s grand solution: a strong Rule of Faith and an interpretive approach that went beyond the literal/historical meaning of Biblical texts to spiritual meanings supportive of Christian ethics and theology. Among Origen’s disciples were the great Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in the late 4thand early 5thcenturies and his contemporary, the Bible scholar and translator Jerome.

A “For Instance”

Perhaps a concise yet revealing instance of this three- or four-fold approach to biblical interpretation  is provided by Gregory the Great (540--604 CE), the last of the Latin Fathers and one of the notable popes of the Roman church. He was asked to write a commentary on the book of Job* which would, "not only shake loose from the words of the historical narrative their allegorical meaning, but … also direct the allegorical interpretation towards moral edification," all the while bringing other scriptural text to bear on his interpretations (Origen’s program precisely!). In his introduction, Gregory explains his aims and methods:

First we lay the foundations of historical fact; then we lift up the mind to the citadel of faith through allegory; finally through the exposition of the moral sense we dress the edifice in its colored raiment. The utterances of Truth are nothing but nourishment to refresh the soul. Expounding the text in various ways we offer dishes for the pallet of different kinds, so that we may banish the reader’s boredom…. Sometimes we neglect to expound the overt historical sense lest we be retarded getting to the deeper matters. Sometimes passages cannot be expounded literally because when they are taken in that superficial way they offer no instruction to the reader but only generate error. (Cited by Yarchin, p. 88; italics mine; note the practical purpose of scripture)

Gregory then proceeds to expound each section of the book of Job—sometimes verse by verse—according to the three different levels: the literal, the allegorical, and the tropological (or moral).

So Job 1:2 narrates: "Seven sons were born to him, and three daughters." Why does Scripture relate such apparently insignificant facts? How might the number of Job's offspring bear witness to Christian truth or provide moral guidance for the reader? As for the literal meaning, Gregory explains that the large number of Job's children is one measure of his true greatness: since "not even love for his many children could make him cling to his property." These facts are the first indications in the story of Job’s piety and humility.

More significant however is the allegorical meaning: Gregory notes that "holy scripture is in the habit of using the number seven as a symbol of perfection" (the Sabbath, the Jubilee year, etc.). Moreover, as a prime number, seven is comprised of the numbers four and three which, when multiplied together, equal the number twelve, a clear reference  to "the apostles going forth manfully to preach…, who were sent to preach the three persons of God to the four corners of the world." The three daughters (who cannot properly symbolize of the Trinity) either represent "the multitude of hearers" of the twelve apostles or the three different classes of believers within the church: pastors, the ascetics and celibates, and the married.

Finally, the tropological or moral meaning refers to the "seven virtues of the Holy Spirit" enumerated in Isaiah 11:2-3 coupled with the three theological virtues enumerated by the apostle Paul in 1 Cor 13, namely, hope, faith, and love. All these virtues together define the moral perfection of the number ten.

Some “Take-aways”

It will be helpful for our future posts on a Christotelic reading of scripture to underline some closing observations. This kind of manifold reading of the Bible recommended by Origen and adopted by the medieval church in the Latin West

  1. Was pursued under the conviction that every scripture is “inspired by God” (2 Tim 3:16) and therefore invested with rich divine meaning—meaning discoverable for the rest of the church by the diligent and gifted.
  2. Was done in service of actualizingthe text of the Bible, i.e., of ensuring that every passage of the Bible is indeed “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (again 2 Tim 3:16) and thus capable of being lived out (actualized).
  3. Tended to treat biblical passages atomistically: the narrative or argumentative coherence of the text itself was frequently sacrificed (or at least de-emphasized)  as verses, phrases and even words were taken out of their immediate contexts and made to point to Christian truths or maxims above the passage being interpreted.
  4. Relied on the Rule of Faith to safeguard the coherence of the biblical message and to check the arbitrariness of the interpretive method. What seemed arbitrary or even fanciful at the textual level was actually justified and legitimated at the higher level of systematic and timeless truth.  Though in theory Christ was affirmed as the theme of scripture, in actuality he became a cipher for an increasingly complex set of theological propositions. The reading of scripture became a ruled reading governed by an external rule.

All of these developments tended to yield a flat Bible who’s deepest and most vital meaning coincided with a body of timeless and universal truths and principles rather than being found in the stark particularities a story climaxing in Jesus the Messiah. Within the constraints of the Rule of Faith and the resourcefulness of the interpreter, any unit or component of the Bible could refer directly to postulates already known to be true on other grounds. The Bible came to be a book of symbols and examples rather than the surprising record of God’s redemptive triumph.

What do you think? How much is this reading strategy still with us today?

* Conveniently excerpted in William Yarchin, History of Biblical Interpretation: A Reader (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), pp. 88-92.

Stephen Taylor is Associate Professor of New Testament at Biblical. He is a missionary kid fascinated with the question of the relationship between culture and understanding the Bible. Steve is married to Terri, and together they have five kids. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/stephen-taylor .



Written by Susan Disston Thursday, 08 March 2012 00:00

If you’ve ever been in a jam while at your computer, you’ve probably hit the Esc key or pounded it hoping for a quick fix to whatever the problem is. The Esc key is a shortcut that stops, quits, cancels, exits, or aborts the situation so that you can start over. Fresh.

Coincidentally, the word eschatology also begins with Esc. Eschatology in the Christian tradition is the study of the end times and of our ultimate destiny: a new heaven and a new earth (Isaiah 65-66). A destiny where we start over. Fresh.

Christopher Wright wrote about this place from the Isaiah passage—“joyful, free from grief and tears, life-fulfilling, with guaranteed work satisfaction, free from the curse of frustrated labor, and environmentally safe” It is a vision that pus most New Age dreams in the shade.” The Mission of God, p. 408.

It is this vision that Wright says should propel the Christian toward creation care: that it is both humanity and the creation itself that will be caught up and made new by God. Wright added, “It follows then, from a creational and eschatological perspective, that ecological care and action is a dimension of our mission inasmuch as it is a dimension of restoring the proper status and responsibility of our humanity. It is to behave as we were originally created to and as we will one day be fully redeemed for.” p. 414.

Some Christians respond to creation care as “just another fad.” When they dismiss the so-called fad, they are metaphorically hitting the Esc key, the one that stops, quits, cancels,... rather than connecting the beginning of God’s story with the end and seeing the earth—creation—as a vital part of what God has provided to humanity for blessing.

For more of Christopher Wright on creation care,  go to CreationCare.org.

Susan Disston is the assistant dean of curriculum and assessment at Biblical Seminary. She teaches project courses in the doctor of ministry program and in ESLPLUS. http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/adjunct-faculty-theology



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