How Craig G. Bartholomew’s “Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics” Can Affect Our Scriptural Reading/Preaching


I love Craig G. Bartholomew’s description of Scripture as that “field in which is hid the pearl of great price” (5). Scripture is a treasure-filled-trove since in its’ authority it “adequately renders Jesus Christ and thus God to us” (8).  If that is true, then WE (both academics and ordinary Christian readers) should learn how to plow the ground, together and even for one another. That is, our goal in reading Scripture is nothing less than cultivating a communal “obedient attention to God’s address through his Word” (12).  A proper hermeneutic will allow the reader to really catch God’s address, to facilitate true, real communion with God. This reading, its not a game. It’s a chance to encounter the God of the universe. So, how should we do it? Enter: The Task of Hermeneutics!

Chapter Two gives us a good start. Titled “Listening and Biblical Interpretation,” it was my favorite chapter of the entire book. Bartholomew believes our approach to Bible reading should be described more than anything else as fundamentally a kind of surrendera way of listening. Bartholomew’s “philosophy of listening” includes reminding us that before we can attempt to analyze this text-of-beauty, we must first “LISTEN!” as the imperative sema in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 instructs. What is primary is our embrace of sustained humility. Our respectful listening. Our trembling, open receptivity. The vocative “Israel” in Deuteronomy 6:4 alerts us to the fact that God’s Word is addressed primarily not to individuals, but “to his gathered people” (33). This means listening doesn’t just include my own ear, it includes all of us hearing with our ears, together. Of course, analysis of the Bible has a vital place, but only after our acknowledgment of God’s presence. After all, “How can one answer without listening?” (31) We need  to slow down, we need to be in the presence of one another, and we need God’s Spirit BEFORE we can even BEGIN to think about properly understanding what God’s Word is saying to us.

This has implications for preaching. A preacher shouldn’t simply illumine (much less “analyze”) what a congregation doesn’t already know, although certainly this is part. Preaching is more: It is primarily to “enable us to encounter again and again the living God who has come to us in Christ” (35). Here we are looking for what Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones also looked for, “preaching that ushers us into the presence of God” or as John Stott asserted, “what we need in our pulpits is truth on fire.” Karl Barth notes that since this encounter can only be created by God himself, our hermeneutic must always be pneumatic and prayerful since it is the delight of the Spirit to use the Word to bring us to God. If we read and preach this way, then the hearing of God’s Word allows us to take possession and apply in our hearts that which God ALONE has for His people.

An illustration: This hermeneutic process, this attentive, contemplative stance with Scripture is much like taking a hard candy into one’s mouth and slowly letting it circulate as one’s tongue explores its surface (41). This is a distinctive clarification. Bartholomew notes that “In my library, as I glance through major books on theological interpretation and biblical hermeneutics, it is rare even to find a reference to prayer in their indexes” (43). How sad!

Bartholomew returns to the subject of preaching in part 5, in pages 487-585. Chapter 14 (pages 487-522) includes an example of what this can look like if the book of Hebrews were the focus, and chapter 15 (pages 523-585) highlights the primacy of preaching – as well as its’ main challenge today: application. His question is one I ask myself in particular ways almost every week: “How does one preach a biblical text for all it’s worth so as to allow its full force to address a contemporary congregation?” (535) How can a sermon amount to “Christ walking amid his people and addressing them“? (537) If we want Scripture to act as a “spectacle” of reality (Calvin), then Bartholomew reminds us to seek wisdom, to utilize prayer, practice lectio divina, and to rejoice in the wounds of our work so we can be formed more like Christ as we ingest the words of Christ in our hearts. This allows us in our reading and preaching of God’s word – to bless the whole world! To joyfully and boldly proclaim God’s whole truth, to the whole of God’s creation! As Psalm 19 reminds us, this world is “drenched with God’s speech” (33) – so why not join the choir? We should and can gift to others through our reading and preaching not just a “church-view” but a truly comprehensive, Trinitarian “world-view.”

Granted, this proposed contemplative stance, this pneumatic hermeneutic, this comprehensive world-view… it is meant to be a learned, informed one. In-between chapters 2 & chapters 14-15 lie some 400 encyclopedic pages of “history of hermeneutics” as it relates to philosophy, history, literature, theology, and even the university. All of it was helpful for me. We become better readers of Scripture when we learn how other giants have read it before us. But more than anything else, what will stick with me from this book is the importance of surrenderlisteningpraying. slowing down. meditating. trusting. gazing… after all, what I’m looking at in Scripture is “The field in which is hid the pearl of great price.” I may-as-well slow down and stay awhile.



Why Would You (or Anyone) Read a Hermeneutics Textbook?

AT Hermeneutics Pic

If you were a normal person and you heard I was currently reading Anthony C. Thiselton’s Hermeneutics: An Introduction, you would ask, “Why?” You might wonder “Is Mike’s life so sad?” “Is Mike’s life THAT boring?” “Doesn’t he have ANYTHING better to do with his time?” “Is Mike trying to be dull on purpose, or is this just an unfortunate accident – a sort of early mid-life crisis?” These would all be good questions. I ask them to myself. But of course, I’m not bored, I’m not sad, and I’m happy to spend a few hours here and there in these pages. But, “Why?” I like the way Thiselton answers on pages 5-7 of his book:

  1. Reading hermeneutics teaches us the importance of listening to a text on its own terms, rather than rushing in with premature assumptions or making the text fit in with prior concepts and expectations they may have.
  2. Many find that hermeneutics, by virtue of its multidisciplinary nature, provides an integrating dimension to their theological and religious studies. If previously there had seemed to be little connection between biblical studies and fundamental philosophical problems, or between New Testament studies and the history of Christian thought, all these different areas and methods of approach came together in hermeneutics as coherent, joined up, interrelated factors in the process of understanding texts.
  3. Reading hermeneutics produces habits of respect for, and more sympathetic understanding of views and arguments that at first seem alien or unacceptable. Hermeneutics seeks to establish bridges between opposing viewpoints. This does NOT necessitate GIVING GROUND to the other view, but sympathetically to understand the diverse motivations and journeys that have led in the first place to each respective view or argument.
  4. Hermeneutics helps to explain two types of phenomena. On one side hermeneutics shows that “understanding” can be a slow process in which disclosure of the truth can take many years. Understanding is not an on/off event in which we expect belief always to happen suddenly. Some take many years fully to come to faith. Yet it is equally otherwise with others. Some experience understanding dramatically and suddenly, as if scales fell from their eyes. Both means, however, are equally in accord with what it is to understand. To understand understanding helps people to see that both ways of belief are to be expected. 

Review of The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. By Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Paraclete Press, 2015)


On the first page of the introduction Jonathan makes a striking claim:

“I am convinced that the most important thing most of us can do to grow spiritually is to stay in the place where we are.”

As we know all too well, “as participants in a mobile culture, our default is to move” (5). This is especially true in America where we are “grasping for something to anchor our lives in a sea of constant change…like children stumbling off a merry-go-round” (10). I’ll admit the picture of a merry-go-round is a good description of what some of my own years of life have felt like. But Jonathan believes there is a better way. Instead of constant movement, he wants us to see stability as a gift (14) and as a divine invitation from God (21). Jonathan believes we should not only yearn for stability. We should practice it so that “God’s house becomes our home” (17). If we don’t, then we remain restlessness. This is problematic because our restlessness causes us to not only always search for new community, but we also aren’t ever able to settle down wherever we end up.

The author knows we will be skeptical. We’ll ask,

“What difference does it make for me to try to stay somewhere and find community? Commit yourself to a place and you will watch it change before your eyes. Promise yourself to a church or a neighborhood and its people will move on. Stability will begin to sound like wishful thinking, especially when we feel burned by people who decide to move on.” (22)

I admit. I’ve felt this way at times, and I’ve only just recently committed to stability in a particular place (Central Massachusetts), and a specific church (Holden Chapel). Sometimes the commitment to yearning; searching for; loving, and creating stability can feel overwhelming. And sometimes, I wonder if it is worth it. Sometimes I become skeptical. And my first instinct is to run. leave. get out. After all, that’s what SO MANY PEOPLE AROUND ME DO. But maybe, just maybe, what I am running from is not all those other broken people or that broken community or that “insufficient church.” Perhaps what I am actually running from, is myself.

“Someone asked Abba Antony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’ After encouraging the pilgrim to keep God before his eyes and pattern his life after the Scriptures, Antony added, ‘In whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it.’ Another of the desert fathers advised similarly, ‘If a trial comes upon you in the place where you live, do not leave that place when the trial comes. Wherever you go, you will find that what you are running from is ahead of you‘” (35).

I needed to read this book. As a typical (idealistic) millennial, I am eager to follow Jesus anywhere, “so long as I don’t have to stay put” (39). But perhaps I need to reorient my appointment book. After all, “The same power that healed you can sustain a life of faithfulness right where you are” (39). I need to learn to “unlearn the habits of a culture that tells us the answer to our problems is always somewhere else” (40). I needed to hear the stories of real people practicing real stability:

Don lived for years in the Chicago area…He told me, ‘I’ve given up my spiritual journey.’ I could tell from his smile that he had a point to make, so I asked what he meant. ‘Well, you know, we Christians talk a lot about our spiritual journeys. We get excited about experiences and go places looking for the next spiritual high. We say God called us here, then God calls us there. But it’s all so individualistic. It’s all so focused on little ‘lessons’ or ‘insights’ that we’re supposed to take with us to the next place.

Don paused and looked around…I think I’m learning…that God can change us if we’ll settle down in one place. So I’ve given up my spiritual journey. I’m going to just stay with God here and see how I can grow” (47).

I think this lesson is one of the most difficult ones for my generation to learn. But we must. I must. After all,

“Without roots of love, we easily become slaves to our own desires, using the place where we happen to be as a staging ground for our ambitions and manipulating the people around us so they might serve our objectives” (83).

The practice of stability, then is an exercise in putting down roots. God help us. God, help me!

The house was built in ’98,

prior to my arrival.

And a big maple tree at the corner of the porch

was run over and buried lots of times by wagons

moving in materials to build the house.

And the other maples what Daddy had planted,

they had no trouble at all.

But they all died and this one lived that had such rough treatment.

And there’s a saying

“Rough weather makes good timber.”

It may be

that the trouble with folks today

is that they’re raised like hothouse flowers,

and they don’t have much to go on

at the end.

(From page 106)

A few thoughts from two recent readings on “Biblical law”…


Paul and the Law: Keeping the commandments of God. By Brian S. Rosner. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Editor D.A. Carson. IVP, 2013. 

This book was EXTREMELY helpful for me as I continue to try and figure out what we Christians are to do with Biblical law. I’m always trying to discern: as a Christian, am I under law or grace? How should or shouldn’t Biblical law (especially the OT) affect my ethics? Am I supposed to love the law, or hate it? Should I try to obey God’s law (and which ones?) or am I to live according to the Spirit? The answer hasn’t been immediately forthcoming for me when I read the entire Biblical corpus and especially when I try to take ALL of Paul seriously. Rosner describes the tension well. He says,

The subject of Paul and the law is rightly regarded as one of the knottiest puzzles in the study of the New Testament. Paul affirms that ‘the law is holy, just and good’, insists that ‘we uphold the law’ and asks rhetorically, ‘Does the law not speak entirely for our sake?’ Yet the same Paul also holds that believers in Christ ‘are not under the law’, believes that ‘the law brings death and works wrath’ and maintains that ‘Christ is the end of the law’ (Page 207).

For the most part, before reading this book my hermeneutical approach to Biblical law was to try to discover which bits of the law I was meant to follow and which ones I should ignore (mostly following the Reformed rubric of discerning which laws are ceremonial, moral, or civil). Based on context, exegesis and trying to discern authorial intent, I would then haphazardly come up with my decisions on what Biblical laws still seem to “stand” and what other ones are “not for us today’. But after reading this book, Rosner has taught me to do otherwise. He shows how a better approach to Biblical law is not to ask “which ones” should Christians follow, but instead we should ask “in what sense” is the law still valuable for Christians today? When we ask that question, we come up with a bigger and better answer. It is impossible to describe how important that distinction is without going into detail. But, long story short, this is a paradigm shift for me.

In a nut-shell, Rosner’s overall argument is that Paul always does three things with the law:

  1. Paul repudiates the law
  2. Paul then replaces the law
  3. Paul then re-appropriates the law both prophetically and also as wisdom.

In the end, I think Rosner is right. Impressively, Rosner shows how all 3 of these moves are in action in each Pauline book (210-216). This is a significant insight and I found it to have extraordinary explanatory power. My favorite thing about Rosner’s rubric is that it allows us to take ALL of Paul’s comments about the law seriously. We don’t have to pick and choose which Pauline statements on law we will focus on and which ones to marginalize. I loved this! Rosner’s “rubric” as I’ll call it is the most comprehensive system for understanding Biblical law I have ever read and is far superior to the system I was using previously. Reading this book was akin to reading D.A. Carson’s Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension. But if you ask me, Rosner went one step better than Carson. Where D.A. Carson was content to simply show the fabric of tension within Scripture, Rosner is so bold as to find solutions. Mind you, not solutions for altering the texts or even worse, ignoring certain ones, but solutions with how to interpret and synthesize the whole. Perhaps the student has become the master? (Notice D.A. Carson is the editor of Rosner’s work :)

I learned SO much from this book and I will never look at Biblical law the same. It should be sufficient for me to just state a few of Rosner’s statements that I agree with after tracing his arguments:

  1. Believers in Christ are not under the law, in the law, or even from the law. We are not subject to the law as disciplinarian because of Christ and His Spirit within us (81).
  2. Christians are not meant to “do” the law, we are meant to fulfill it (83-88)
  3. While the law does not disclose righteousness, yet it bears witness to it (152)
  4. Thus, while we are not subject to the law, we still value it as we value the ground underneath our feet. It is a foundation to us. It is our “floor” (166, 193)
  5. The law helps us in understanding the Gospel both prophetically (it showed the way of Christ before Christ and prepared us for Him) and as wisdom. Without the law, we don’t see the “shadow” of Christ’s wisdom as clearly as we would have.
  6. Maybe most pertinently and practically for my case: When approaching the law, one of the best things we should do with it, is ask: “any wisdom here?” (188) If we ask that question, we are well on our way to properly using all of Scripture (and all of Biblical law!) as prescribed ethics for today.

The Whole Christ

The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance  Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. By Sinclair Ferguson. Crossway: 2016. 

Quite simply, this is one of the best books I have ever read in my life. Absolutely unbelievable. I bought it because the reviews on it were insane. My expectations were high. But even still, this book blew my socks off. I would use words for it such as, “stunning,” “breath-taking,” “brilliant,” and absolutely “life-changing.” I’m not joking. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of this book (particularly chapters 4-5) become REQUIRED reading for most every seminary student in the country within 20 years. This is an IMMEDIATE classic and should become one of the primary texts on “legalism” in the English language. I am left in awe, in so many ways.

This is one of those books that I hesitate to write anything about because all my good words about the book will ruin your potential for realizing how amazing it actually is. I would venture to say this type of book is impossible to write by a young person. It has the weight of a wise, experienced intellect-theologian-pastor-sage-disciple. Reading this book completely revolutionized my ideas and even definitions of what legalism is, what antinomianism is, what grace means, who Christ is, and how core these things are to the Christian life – and really, to every human.

Please, if you are a minister, or a Christian, and you want to learn about what it means to follow Christ and learn to love His grace – you have to read this book! You’ll gain some knowledge of early 18th century Scottish history on the way (and on top of that, substantial amounts of the history of reformed theology), but really, that’s just the cherry on top. Do yourself a favor. Buy this book. Now! Please…

(Disclaimer: The publisher did not send me a free copy of this book for my review. I spent my own money on it, and I’d do it a million times over if I had to, or if I had that much money) 




A few thoughts from recent readings on “justification”…

Below are a few casual thoughts I have after reading these two books:


Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Perspective. By Hans Kung.

I’m mostly reading in this area because I am interested in figuring out how to articulate how justification happens and this book gave me a good start, especially considering Barth’s Christocentricity on the topic. Essentially, Barth’s thoughts on the “how” of justification seem to be mostly revolved around a single person: Christ. Barth believes everything about our own justification derives from Christ’s own status and from the justification that resides in Him first and foremost. If I were to summarize Barth’s thoughts on justification mathematically,  I would put it as:

Christ’s eternal obedience in us = Our eternal gift of justified reconciliation

According to Barth, “Christ stands alone – yet he stands for all of us. Christ [somehow] lives in our place, for us, in our name.” (IV/1, 555) Christ becomes our Savior by gracing us with His self-judgment. Only by Christ revealing Himself can we see our own real history of salvation. Etc. I really liked all of that, but wondered (as others have) how still this justification gets applied IN us, not simply FOR us? Barth isn’t so worried about this because he sees the justification of humanity as an intrinsically alien justice. As Barth would say, humans are justified only as Christ is justified. But I’m still trying to figure out how to articulate a solution to the dilemma: If our justice has fully occurred in an Other, how is it applied to us? I do believe as Barth says, “He [Christ] is our man, we are IN Him, our present is HIS, the history of man is HIS history, He is the concrete event of the existence and reality of justified man in whom every man can recognise himself and every other man – recognise himself as truly justified.” (IV/1, 630) But HOW exactly has this happened?

We know justification happened because we have faith. This justification is a revelation that has made itself known to us as it was accomplished on the cross and proclaimed in the resurrection. For Barth, the closest thing he gets to on “how” includes his comments to the fact that this intrinsic change of justification on our end is a wonderful consequence of God’s initial promise. Barth’s process of justification amounts to a divine fiat: The Word both creates and reveals the actuality within us. Our experience of it is simply subjective and yet it shows us the truth of the matter. Our faith then, as humble participation in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, is the only truly representative response of a justified believer and thus is proof of Christ’s justification on our behalf.

Side note: if Barth is true, what does this mean for the universality of salvation? Barth doesn’t seem to distinguish between the “Christian man” and “all men.” I’m guessing this is on purpose. I’m not a universalist, and I don’t know if Barth ever explicitly said that he was, but it seems to me his arguments push us awful close. After all, if what is true of Christ’s relationship to the Father is also true of ALL of us ever since the creation of the world and especially since God made a covenant with humanity, how can we not understand salvation to be, in the end, universal to all people?

Perhaps my favorite part of the book was Kung’s clarification of the particular role of faith in justification. This is something I’ve been looking for, and need to think about more. We know that neither faith nor works merit the grace of justification, yet faith as submission remains a condition of justification and thus while there is no justification without faith, justification remains through it. As he says, God accomplishes everything, yet it does not follow that God accomplishes everything alone. Other highlights include Barth’s redefinition of “free will” (48) and also his combining “justice” and “grace” into the same concepts (55-56).



Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. By N.T. Wright

I read the 2016 version with a new introduction and my mind was whirling after only the introduction. I’ve decided that in the next few years, I need to take a “N.T. Wright year.” I need to read him through-and-through. I’ve read some of his popular stuff but need to dig into his more foundational works. I have a similar problem as others, apparently. “For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first century questions.” (37) I want to do that. I needed to read this book because:

  1. I’m an American and thus tend to see “salvation” in primarily individual terms as if “the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation” (23).
  2. I’m new to this topic and struggle to keep my thoughts on “justification” in their own Biblical contexts.

N.T. Wright is a strong corrective on both counts. As he notices, “We are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around Him.” (23) Also, when N.T. Wright exegetes a passage – he does just that. He never exegetes a verse. His expression of justification is thus more canonical and historical than any others I’ve yet read. It isn’t surprising then that Wright presents justification more as a covenantal story than anything else. Even a single story:

“God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centered upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah.” (35).

His textual centers of justification are, surprisingly, Genesis 15, Deuteronomy 27-30 and Daniel 9. He would show how if you want to understand justification, you have to understand how Paul connects with those central OT passages.

If Barth’s justification is effected via fiat, I would say Wright’s justification is through the Spirit as “glue.” Although similarly to Barth, Wright sees justification not so much as an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status (91). Justification is then for Wright a shocking acquittal (how often does a guilty person receive the ruling, “forgiven” in a law court?) accomplished through the power of the Spirit for the purpose of blessing the world.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like either read gave me any quick solutions for understanding how to articulate the how of justification. But this is probably better anyways. I guess I’ve still got lots more praying to do before I figure this all out.