September 22, 2009

Jesus, Satan, and Bible Kryptonite

"Jesus defeated the devil with the Word of God." This commonly heard saying refers to Jesus' temptation by Satan in the parallel passages of Luke 4 and Matthew 4. Is this adage correct, however, and what is usually meant by those who say it? Using the terminology of the OIA method, we can analyze this statement and note the range of interpretations (I) and applications (A) that are assumed or implied by it:

The devil was defeated (I)
Scripture (not Jesus?) defeated the devil (I)
3. The devil would have / might have been victorious if Jesus hadn't quoted the Scripture (I)
4. The devil did not decide to leave, or choose to leave, or agree to leave Jesus, but was powerless to resist the Bible quotations (I)

And therefore:

1. We can use scriptures to defeat the devil, just as Jesus did (A)
2. Scripture should be our primary weapon against the devil (A)
or perhaps
3. Scripture is our only weapon against the devil (A) 

Backing up however, we should also note some facts or observations (O) about this story:

1. Jesus quoted some Bible verses to the devil (O)
2. The devil "left him" (Matthew 4:11, Luke 4:13) (O)

The devil left him. The question is whether it was because of the Scripture quoting. This is a possible case of the Correlation / Causation error.

Two nearby events can but don't always mean that one caused the other.

If we were to spend more time in the Observation stage of our reading, and if we held back the urge to jump to the "obvious" conclusions, then we should also notice the following:

3. The devil did not immediately disappear after hearing the first scripture (O)
4. The devil did not eventually leave after the first instance of Jesus quoting the Scripture, either (O)
5. The devil still hadn't been driven off after the second scripture (O)
6. The devil himself knew and quoted the Scripture (O)
7. The devil quoted the Scripture, seemingly without harming himself (O)
8. Jesus (in Matthew's account) eventually added some other words to a third scripture (O)
9. Those words were "Away from me, Satan," by the way (O)
10. After the third Scripture quote, and (in Matthew) the command to leave, the devil left (O)
11. In Luke's gospel, the devil left—not "driven off by the scriptures," but when he "had finished all this tempting" (O)
12. In both accounts, the verb used is translated as "left" or "departed," rather than "fled" or "retreated."

So, when we try to interpret and apply this story, we have several questions to ponder. If scriptures have the power to drive away the devil, why did it take three tries? Wasn't the Scripture powerful enough? Wasn't Jesus powerful enough? Wasn't scripture in the mouth of Jesus powerful enough? And what does this mean for us?

Now, is the Bible important? And relevant when facing temptation? I believe so, from experience, and from Jesus' example. But is the Bible the devil's Kryptonite? I don't think the two versions of our gospel story support such a conclusion, and I'm wary of creating a doctrine out of a single episode in the Bible. Especially a doctrine that trivializes the Scriptures by reducing them to magical incantations and charms to ward off Satan or his minions. "The devil is a better theologian than any of us," A.W. Tozer cautions, "and is a devil still." He already knows the Bible—and in the original languages, I'll wager.

Could Jesus have defeated the devil without the Scripture? I would hope so. Are we powerless without Bible verses? Is that the source of all power we have? I would hope not. How about you?

September 21, 2009

The OIA Method of Studying the Bible

There are many ways to study the Scriptures. Supposedly, Watchman Nee used "twenty different methods," though I haven't seen a list.

A simple but helpful technique that any of us can use has been called the OIA Method: Observe, Interpret, Apply. Studying the Bible this way is also referred to as "inductive," study because the goal is to read more like a detective, drawing careful conclusions from the particulars of a specific text, rather than making vague claims based on a mishmash of memories of various passages or simply rehearsing prior knowledge or opinion about the text at hand.

Step 1 (Observe): Observe what the passage appears to say to its original audience.
Step 2 (Interpret): Interpret your observations. What do they seem to mean or imply in the context?
Step 3 (Apply): Apply the interpretations to your own life or to the modern day.

One strength of OIA for believers or others more familiar with the Bible's common interpretations is that we are more likely to strip away some of the baggage of prior interpretation that so easily entangles, and to better hear what the scriptures are saying. When successful, we are freed from some of the filtering lenses that we all have received from our own cultures, families, and church traditions, and which color, alter, and delete what our senses take in.

A second strength of this method is that it helps us read a text more like a newcomer to the passage or to the faith would, to find common ground for discussion of scripture with those who are curious, and to see the obstacles to understanding that a particular passage presents.

Much could be said about the details of the OIA method, but here are a handful of keys that I have benefitted from in my own study of the Bible.

Keys to Observation:

  1. Temporarily set aside previous understanding of the passage. Try to read with "fresh eyes."
  2. Make a list of everything you notice. Don't evaluate or filter your observations yet.
  3. Include what the passage does not say, in contrast to what it does say.
  4. Be patient. Don't jump to the "what this means" step.
  5. Record your questions. Questions don't mean failure. Far from it, when approaching an ancient text from another culture. They might just mean that you're now actually paying attention, finally able to see something that you never saw before.
  6. Note what surprises you, or what you expected to find.
Keys to Interpretation:
  1. Fight the urge to trot out a familiar interpretation. Ask whether the observations actually lead you to such a conclusion.
  2. Be willing to wait for more evidence. Don't panic, thinking that you must know the meaning, or thinking that a real believer or a smarter reader would surely be able to figure everything out immediately.
  3. Ponder what your observations might have meant to the original audience in the original time, language, and culture. Obviously, this is difficult to know with certainty, but think about it. And consider becoming more educated on this critical topic.
  4. Ask why these facts were included in the passage and others weren't.
  5. Keep your focus tight. Don't jump around among other passages that you think might be related, or that you have always heard discussed alongside this one. Be particularly careful of parallel passages in the gospels. Your immediate goal should be to understand what the author was driving at, not just to create harmonized timelines or similar distractions.
  6. Be willing to entertain interpretations that are novel, problematic, or even "heretical." These will energize your quest for better understanding.
Keys to Application:
  1. Realize that application doesn't have to be universal. "What does the passage mean to me?" is a valid question.
  2. Look for similarities between the characters in the passage and yourself.
  3. Ask how you are similar to the original audience and how you are different from them.
  4. Question the assumption of superiority for your modern context. Maybe this ancient text should speak to your life, too.
  5. Decide what points are still not clear to you, and move on to the next section of the book. Extended context often sheds more light.
  6. Pray for understanding, wisdom, and patience. Before, as, and after you read.
Frankly, much of this list applies to critical reading of any text and to reaping personal profit from reading—to being changed by it. And really, isn't that the point of worthwhile reading?

September 5, 2009

Those Who Oppose Our Message

[Salvation #4]

So, we're confronted with the possibility that we're blundering through life without a clear understanding of the gospel. And the apparent fact that we, "the saved," disagree on almost every aspect of what salvation is and what one has to do to be saved. We nod our heads and say the lost must be born again, but we have very different ideas about what that phrase means, how it works, or what it has to look like.

No surprise that this causes some heavy-duty cognitive dissonance—when many of us grew up with the gospel neatly packaged and delivered to us with a fistful of cliches about how simple the gospel is. But the bigger problem with our disagreement may be what it tempts us to believe about or do to those who disagree with us, though they are our brothers and sisters, our family, the church.

Let us be clear: disagreement coming from those in our own faith community, from those we thought we didn't have to persuade or defend against, can be very threatening. Especially when our criterion for being in community turns out to be the very point of controversy. If I can't convince you, might that mean my claims are weak? If you don't agree with me, might I be wrong? And if those in the church don't agree, why would we expect anyone else to believe our message?

Confused or threatened by our differences, our first instinct is often to question. Weren't we on the same side? Aren't we children of the same heavenly Father? Our hurt and puzzlement are understandable, perhaps. Disagreement, difference even, is the opposite of what causes community in the first place. Especially, as in the case of the church, when our solidarity is defined in stark absolutes: heaven and hell, the lost and the found, the redeemed and the damned. Especially when the stakes are life and death, and the consequences eternal.

The speed with which we move from confusion to suspicion, however, is much more problematic. If we disagree, his faith must be weak, we reason. If we differ, she must not take the Bible as seriously as the rest of us. We bolster our own rightness at the expense of the other. Our fear of being wrong and our need to justify at all costs are sad but all too predictable. I in the middle, again. The sin thing. Rather than preferring the other, always trusting and always believing the best, we entertain doubts about motives, allegiance, or even spiritual maturity. They probably aren't even saved. That would explain everything. Such ultimate accusations reveal how far we will go to justify our own position; how readily we will sell our own kin down the river to discredit their views and vouchsafe our own beliefs; how willing we are even to sacrifice relationships, rather than give up what we hold dearer than love and loyalty.

Difference leads to disappointment, suspicion, and, perhaps, eventual betrayal on our part. Which—far from apologizing for—we defend as our right. As though we founded the club and wrote its membership rules. How great our disappointment in those who should have seen the reasonableness of our wisdom. How great the offense of those who, if they were really saved, should have known better. As though, even worse than letting us down, they have actually sinned against us by not agreeing with all of our cherished convictions, our self-defining opinions, and our precious, precious preferences.