I suppose we all know that as Christians we are meant to grow up, to mature. We begin as infants in the faith and need to develop into adults. The New Testament writers insist that we must all make this transition from milk to meat, from the children’s table to the grown-up’s feast. And yet even though we are aware that we must go through this maturing process, many of us are prone to measure maturity in the wrong ways. We are easily fooled. This is especially true, I think, in a tradition like the Reformed one which (rightly) places a heavy emphasis on learning and on the facts of the faith.
When Paul writes to Timothy, he talks to him about the nature and purpose of the Bible and says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). That word complete is related to maturity. Paul says that Timothy, and by extension me and you and all of us, is incomplete, unfinished, and immature. The Bible is the means God uses to complete us, to finish us, to bring us to maturity.
But what does it mean to be a mature Christian? I think we tend to believe that mature Christians are the ones who know a lot of facts about the Bible. Mature Christians are the ones who have their theology down cold. But look what Paul says: “That the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Paul does not say, “That the man of God may be complete, knowing the books of the Bible in reverse order,” or “That the man of God may be complete, able to explain and define supralapsarianism against infralapsarianism.” He does not say, “That the man of God may be complete, able to provide a structural outline of each of Paul’s epistles.” Those are all good things, but they are not Paul’s emphasis. They may be signs of maturity, but they may also be masks that cover up immaturity.
When Paul talks about completion and maturity, he points to actions, to deeds, to “every good work.” The Bible has the power to mature us, and as we commit ourselves to reading, understanding, and obeying it, we necessarily grow up in the faith. That maturity is displayed in the good works we do more than in the knowledge we recite. And this is exactly what God wants for us—he wants us to be mature and maturing doers of good who delight to do good for others. This emphasis on good deeds is a significant theme in the New Testament (see Ephesians 2:10, Titus 2:14, etc) and the very reason why God saved us.
This means that spiritual maturity is better displayed in acts than in facts. You can know everything there is to know about theology, you can be a walking systematic theology, you can spend a lifetime training others in seminary, and still be desperately immature. You will remain immature if that knowledge you accumulate does not motivate you to do good for others. The mature Christians are the ones who glorify God by doing good for others, who externalize their knowledge in good deeds.
Of course facts and acts are not entirely unrelated, so this is not a call to grow lax in reading, studying, and understanding the Bible. Not at all! The more you know of the Bible the more it can teach, reprove, correct and train you, and in that way shape your actions and cause you to do the best deeds in the best way for the best reason. More knowledge of God through his Word ought to lead to more and better service to others.
But in the final analysis, Christ lived and died so he could “redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Knowledge of God and his Word is good. Knowledge of God and his Word that works itself out in doing what benefits others—there is nothing that glorifies God more than that.
Never mind all that stuff about “words will never hurt me.” Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words…words hurt worse. Somehow a full-out beating hurts less than a tongue-lashing. After the bruises have faded, the words remain dug in like daggers. I know people who are still deeply wounded by brutal words launched at them years or even decades before.
No wonder, then, that the Bible so often warns us against angry words. And no wonder, then, that the Bible warns against an angry or bitter heart. Our words are, after all, merely the overflow of the heart so that what the heart believes, the mouth speaks.
But the Bible does not warn only about the words we speak; it also counsels about the words we hear. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes says this: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others” (7:21-22).
As always, The Preacher speaks a deep truth. I know well that too much of what I say about others is merely idle and inappropriate, and that my words say far more about me than they do about the other person. I speak too often, too freely, and too harshly of others—even of people I love. I don’t even mean a lot of what I say, but somehow I still say it. Jim Winter says “Many of us would be ashamed if others knew of the things we said about them when they were not there. If we had to explain our action, we would say that we either spoke in a fit of anger; or we did not really mean what we said; or we were simply having a bad day and did not have a good word to say about anyone. This may well have been true, but the damage will have been done.” I always have a handy excuse that can explain it all away.
When I look at my own words, I can easily discern what I really meant and what was just the bitter overflow of a discontent spirit. But, as usual, my self-focused view of the world causes me to miss the obvious. “The thing we must bear in mind is that when people speak ill of us, their explanation would probably be the same! If we are over-sensitive, we will dwell on every word. If we have received the information through a third party, we will dwell on every misquotation.” Even though I know how many idle words I speak, I assume that other people mean every word. I allow myself far greater leeway than I allow others. I excuse myself while condemning them.
The Preacher offers wisdom. He tells me to treat other people’s words just the way I would want them to treat mine—to know that they sin just like I sin, to know that they don’t mean every word anymore than I mean every word. The notes in the MacArthur Study Bible say it well: “Since you have many offensive words to be forgiven, don’t keep strict accounts of other’s offensive words against you.” Or as Spurgeon counsels, “You cannot stop people’s tongues, and therefore the best thing to do is to stop your own ears and never mind what is spoken. There is a world of idle chitchat abroad, and he who takes note of it will have enough to do.” There is a world of idle chitchat abroad, and a world of idle chichat within.
The simple fact is this: I have cursed you, and you have cursed me. We have both sinned and both desperately need to receive and extend the grace of the God who cursed his own Son so we could have forgiveness through him.
I don’t think there is any part of the Bible that is more disputed than the opening chapters of Genesis. It is not only the meaning of these verses that is the subject of endless debate, but their very nature. What is their genre? Are Genesis 1-11 meant to be understood as history? As fiction? Or are they something else altogether? This is the subject of a fasinating new “Counterpoints” book from Zondervan.
The format of the “Counterpoints” series is well-known to most of us: A number of authors present their understanding of a controversial passage or subject, and then interact with one another. In Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither, each of the authors is asked to respond to four elements: identify the genre of Genesis 1-11; explain why they believe this is the genre; explore the implications of this genre designation for biblical interpretation; and apply their approach to three specific passages: the story of the Nephilim, Noah and the ark, and the Tower of Babel. James Hoffmeier defends Genesis as history and theology, Gordon Wenham defends Genesis as proto-history, and Kenton Sparks insists it is ancient historiography. While the terms may be intimidating, each viewpoint can be simply summarized.
Hoffmeier admits that there are various literary genres on display in Genesis, but says that “the general tenor of the book, and Gen 1-11 in particular, is intended to be thought of as describing real events.” He understands the geographical precision of the author, as well as the framing of the book into various family histories, as clues that Genesis is meant to describe history. This means that an ancient audience would “consider the Nephilim episode, the flood, and Tower of Babel narratives as historical events.” And if they read it that way, so too should we.
Wenham largely agrees with Hoffmeier, and also sees history behind the events of Genesis 1-11. However, he describes Genesis as proto-history, “a form of writing that has links to the past but interprets history of the sake of the present.” If history (as a genre of writing) can be compared to a photograph of events, he suggests that Genesis 1-11 is more like an abstract painting in that it intends to convey meaning more than specific facts. If this is true, recovering the message of the text is more important than defining its genre and determining which elements are firmly historical. In his view some of the events may be grounded in history and others may not, but the distinction is a secondary concern.
Kenton Sparks takes a much different view and insists that there was no Garden of Eden, no tree of life or tree of knowledge of good and evil, no talking serpent, no worldwide flood or ark, and no Tower of Babel. “Whatever the first chapters of Genesis offer, there is one thing that they certain do not offer, namely, a literal account of events that actually happened prior to and during the early history of humanity.” In this way Genesis 1-11 represents myth or legend. He still believes Genesis is important for what it means to convey, but considers it ridiculous to believe that any of it is grounded in fact (even though the original readers probably did believe it was factual).
For a number of reasons I am comfortable setting aside Sparks’ essay as being outside the bounds of Evangelical theology. It quickly becomes clear that he prioritizes scientific discovery over Scripture and that he reads the Bible through an all-too-familiar biblical criticism straight out of the nineteenth-century. The more interesting comparison is between Hoffmeier and Wenham, both of whom are orthodox, godly scholars who have contributed much to our understanding of Scripture and Christian theology. (Preachers and those who closely study the Bible will no doubt recognize Wenham as the author of superior commentaries of Genesis, Leviticus, and Numbers.)
My honest assessment of the book ranks Wenham as making the strongest case for his position. This is not to say that I agree with his perspective; I find his description of proto-history uneven and more than a little convenient—it allows him to do an end-around past difficult questions such as a literal Garden of Eden and a worldwide flood. At least in this chapter there seem to be few guidelines as to how we can decide which events are historical and which are not. However, I appreciate his reliance on the Bible and his tone in addressing the other authors.
While my view would best be represented by Hoffmeier, I say that only with one major caveat: He believes in an old rather than young earth. Here is a gaping hole in this volume: It contains three views of the Bible’s earliest chapters, but not one of the authors believes in a literal six-day creation. For Wenham and Sparks this is no surprise, but it is disappointing that the scholar defending Genesis as history holds that the earth is ancient and was not created in a literal six-day time period. (It is also odd that this becomes clear only in his response to the author contributors.) While his inclusion does prove that an old-earth view can be reconciled with a historical reading of the early chapters of Genesis, I would have found it much more helpful to have a six-day view represented. I understand that the distinction between young earth and old earth is not the purpose of this volume, yet few six-day adherents would recognize a truly “historical” reading of Genesis 1-11 that sees these events unfolding over millions of years. In that way one major view is not adequately represented.
I enjoyed reading Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither and benefited from the author’s essays and rejoinders (though the editor’s conclusion is both underwhelming and disappointing). It adequately and tersely describes three varied perspectives on the Bible’s most foundational passage, and it provides a mountain of food for thought. Sadly, it is weakened—perhaps not fatally, but certainly significantly—by failing to represent one common and compelling understanding—that Genesis 1-11 should be read both literally and historically as describing real events just as they took place.
A friend of mine expects that she will soon be engaged to be married, and finds herself wondering about the nature of engagement. We assume it: We must get engaged to be married before we actually get married. But what is engagement? Is it an inviolable agreement with all the significance of marriage? Is it a tentative agreement that can be broken off on a whim? What exactly is this thing we call engagement?
The first thing we must admit is that there is no New Testament command that a couple must be engaged before they are married, and no New Testament edict about what an engagement looks like. We see a description of betrothal—something similar to engagement—in the lives of Mary and Joseph, but no prescription that we are to imitate this exact form of it. We see glimpses of similar traditions in the Old Testament but, again, nothing that binds us today.
Whatever engagement is, we need to admit that it is a cultural, not a biblical, construct. Like the white dress at the wedding or the black suit at the funeral, engagement is a construct that varies significantly from culture to culture. We see this when we can look past our own traditions.
My church has a significant Ghanian population and I have learned that the West African view of engagement is very different from the Canadian and American view; I have learned as well that many first- or second-generation immigrants practice a kind of hybrid engagement that combines elements of Ghana and Canada. As I travel to the southern United States I see that engagement there is a little bit different from engagement here in the Great White North. When I was in India I met a wonderful Christian couple who had been introduced to one another at their engagement ceremony, and who were still strangers on their wedding day. Each of these cultures has a form of engagement, but there are significant differences between them.
So what is true of engagement here in twenty-first century Western culture? And how can we do engagement well?
I understand engagement as a relationship where a couple deliberately increases the intimacy of their relationship as a prelude to marriage. The primary business of engagement is increasing relational intimacy to ensure compatibility. The couple makes their agreement (or engagement) with one another before their friends, family, and church, making it not only a personal agreement, but a community one. Engagement is a formal agreement that these two people are serious about pursuing the lifelong commitment of marriage and that, though they are not yet fully committed to marrying one another, they are escalating their intimacy to ensure that they can be suitable for one another.
Let me be clear: I am not talking about sexual intimacy. I am not even necessarily talking about physical intimacy. I am talking primarily about relational intimacy. While a man and woman are dating they may discuss previous relationships or past traumas, but when they are engaged they must begin to discuss these things—at least they must if they are wise. Their engagement gives them the structure, the urgency, and the end-goal that allows them to pursue topics that are too intimate for those who are dating, but too serious to leave until after wedding rings have been exchanged.
How does a couple do this? Primarily by both deliberate and casual communication. They talk together on their own, and tell one another about their joys, their fears, their strengths, and their weaknesses. They open up about their family backgrounds, their sexual history, their traumas, and their triumphs. They talk openly, honestly, exhaustively, and intimately.
But there is more. They take pre-marriage counseling together under the guidance of a godly pastor and his wife, or under the guidance of an experienced Christian couple. They read the Bible, pray, and worship together both together and corporately. They spend time with godly couples they admire, peppering them with questions and simply observing how different marriages works. They read books together—books on marriage, of course—but also perhaps books on money or sex or any other area that tends to cause difficulty in young marriages. They ramp up their relational intimacy toward what they will experience as husband and wife, while carefully holding off the sexual intimacy that will eventually seal their relationship.
Can an engagement be broken off? Yes, I believe that it can. After all, the couple has not yet taken their vows and has not yet experienced sexual union. And there is a sense in which this kind of engagement only makes sense if it can be broken. The increase in relational intimacy may expose certain sins or character traits or past traumas that one of them simply cannot tolerate. This makes the modern Western engagement somewhat different from ancient betrothal, and perhaps different from contemporary engagement in other parts of the world. Engagements can be broken off, but the tacit agreement is that this will happen only under the saddest or most serious circumstances.
That is engagement as I understand it at this time and in this place.