Friday, February 02, 2024

Too Hot to Handle: Thinking God’s Thoughts After Him

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The German mathematician Johannes Kepler once responded to a question about his work in astronomy by saying “I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him.” If that’s true in math or science or any search for “small-t truth”, it’s most applicable when we come to the study of God’s word. Explaining “Big-T Truth” for our fellow believers so they may grow up in Christ is one of the most important tasks ever given to men, and the challenge to do it right is described by Peter in the words “whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God”.

Tom: IC, we were just emailing each other about a sequential exposition series you’ve been sharing with other men in your own local church. Describe for our readers the small problem you’ve encountered and have needed to work at overcoming in the process.

A Small Problem Encountered

Immanuel Can: Well, one of the great features of our Bible is that it is divided into not just books but chapters and verses as well. This gives us an “address” that we can remember and use to locate every little passage of scripture. Who could forget what “3:16” means in John, or “10:9” in Romans, for example?

Tom: It’s a “favorite verse of mine” …

IC: These addresses were mainly gifted to us by a printer named Robert Estienne, or Robert Stephens (NT), and another guy named Arius Montanus (OT), back in the 16th century. (It’s a bit more complicated than that, but not much.) These markers are very handy. What few people realize, though, is that these chapter and verse divisions were no part of the original manuscripts.

Tom: Which we might expect with manuscripts thousands of years old.

IC: Yes, that’s the shock: these divisions are not inspired, and not part of the original text.

Tom: I think most mature Christians know this at one level or another, but it doesn’t necessarily make them more cautious about the way they approach the text, and it should.

IC: Right. In most ways, it’s not necessarily a problem. But there is one bad effect: seeing our text broken up into chapters and verses can lead us to stop and start reading in some odd places. And it makes us think of the ideas in each book as less naturally flowing from one to the other than the original text would actually expect. Maybe we’re not conscious that John 3:16 is as closely tied to John 3:17 or 3:15 as it is, or to the context of thought of which it forms but a part. It could look to us like a lone, “magic” verse, rather than the middle statement in a paragraph, or the middle of a discourse with Nicodemus, or as part of a distinct theme John has been developing for three chapters already.

Rightly Dividing

Tom: So what we’re saying, then, is that when it comes to sequential exposition of a book from the platform, which is quite trendy these days, it is very important that we rightly divide — quite literally — the word of truth. Assigning messages to different speakers according to the chapter divisions in the Bible may be convenient for the tech guy working on the church website, labeling the sermons users can download, but it may not do justice to the thought flow of the passages under consideration. We may end up missing the author’s main point because we’ve lost half his argument; it’s back in the previous chapter or forward in the next.

IC: Yes. The text itself often reminds us when we’ve blown it. Consider, for example, Hebrews 2:1. It starts with the words, “For this reason.” The only problem is, the reason it mentions is not in Hebrews 2! It’s back in Hebrews 1. So if we start our reading in Hebrews 2, we may overlook that a proper reason is given for everything the author is encouraging us to do, and think he’s not appealing to our intelligence, just demanding obedience to something the reasons for which we aren’t expected to understand. That’s not right.

So little words or phrases — what we call conjunctions or “joining words and phrases” — tip us off, in many cases, that we’re dealing with an awkward verse or chapter break. If a section starts with an expression like “therefore”, “since”, “so”, “and”, “but”, “nevertheless” or “yet”, it should remind us to look at what came before or after.

Half a Story and Half an Explanation

Tom: I was just looking at one of these this morning in my reading. Acts 7 is the death of Stephen. Then Acts 8 begins with a single line: “And Saul approved of his execution”, followed by two more verses about how Saul ravaged the church. Luke connects this causally to Stephen’s provocation. Then the entire rest of the chapter is 37 verses about Philip. Those first three verses really belong in chapter 7 because they are part of a different story; they are the conclusion the Holy Spirit was moving toward in telling it.

Ephesians 5 and 6 are similar: first there is the oft-misunderstood command to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”, followed by its explanation. But only half the explanation is in chapter 5, and the rest is in the first nine verses of chapter 6! Miss those nine verses, and you don’t have Paul’s complete argument.

I have found the most useful way to break up a book for study or presentation is to read the entire thing a couple of times making notes about the thought flow, then break it up by subject. Sometimes this follows the chapter divisions, sometimes not.

IC: Great strategy. I agree. I remember the late David Gooding, a truly brilliant Bible scholar, saying that when one is reading scripture, the most important consideration is thought flow. He meant the way that one idea leads to the next in a “because” kind of way, so that the whole of the passage forms a single argument. Another way to put this is to say, as you have, that the noblest goal of the Bible reader is to “think the thoughts of God along with him”. That is, not to seek our own interpretation or values, but rather to hear God speak in the way he desires to speak, about what he wants to speak, when he wants to say it. I think those are priceless insights.

The Lesson the Holy Spirit is Giving

Tom: I agree, and I would add, “with the emphasis on the things God emphasizes”. So often, people draw weird, self-involved conclusions from Bible statements that don’t say what they think they do. For example, in the wrong hands, the command to love your neighbor as you love yourself becomes an imperative to love yourself. But that passage is not about my love for me, it’s about my love for the other guy. We need to take the lesson out of a passage that the Holy Spirit is giving, not use bits of his argument to support some hobbyhorse of our own. That involves looking for repetitions of phrases and giving maximum weight to the conclusion of an argument as opposed to getting sidetracked by statements that are merely made in support of it.

IC: What I do as much as possible is to ignore the chapter and verse breaks and pay attention instead to those connecting words and phrases. I read whole books and multiple chapters as often as I can, and I try to understand the logic of the point that the Spirit of God is making to us, and I try to hold commentaries (and even what I have previously been taught by others I respect) fairly loosely, so I can try to hear God speak.

Tom: I find switching translations helps sometimes. Hearing it said a different way helps me lay aside the assumptions I’ve made from previous readings.

IC: Yes. And there’s a whole other topic to be discussed … what is a “good” translation, and how many should we use. But I don’t want to get too far into that, because I think that at the moment, we’re concerned particularly with the unfortunate side-effect of chapters and verse numbers to break up a text, rather than which text is best. So keeping whatever you’re reading whole is key, I think.

Tom: Agreed. The ESV is my current workhorse, but I like to look around through the translation options just to hear a verse differently, and figure out why the translators of another version have gone in a different direction. But you’re right, whatever version you are using, you need to be looking first and foremost at the argument that is being made, where it starts and finishes, and what are the logical steps in it, and the proofs offered for them.

Out of the Mind of God

I find looking for thought flow applies to Bible history just as much as to the more essay-form letters of Paul. The writers of the gospels, for example, are often making an important spiritual point with the way they put their anecdotes together. The latter part of Matthew 22, for example, recounts four incidents in which the Lord Jesus stumps first the Pharisees, then the Sadducees, then their combined forces by answering their “gotcha” questions in such a way as to astonish them. When they have taken their best shot, he then finishes them off with the famous “If David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” question. You could take each of these incidents in isolation, but the way Matthew presents them invites us to read them as related, building to a climax with the rhetorical observation that Messiah must be God, after which no more questions are forthcoming.

IC: The same could be said for any of the gospels, too … like Mark 2-3, or John 1-3 … and beyond. There’s a unity of theme that’s being worked out in all those books.

Tom: Indeed. So, what are we saying here? If we want to think God’s thoughts after him, we’re going to have to do a little bit of chasing them around, not being content to look for a nice, prepackaged version our Bibles seem, at surface level, to provide?

IC: I don’t want to sound too negative about the chapter and verse breaks. We’d have a much tougher time navigating 66 books without them. At the same time, I want us to spend more time reading our Bibles as whole letters, as whole stories, as thoughts flowing from one end to the other, out of the mind of God. I want us not to let the verse numbers fragment and scatter our understanding, so that our Bibles become just lists or collections of fortune-cookie-length sayings. So often, the answer to something we really want to know is in the verses before or after the ones we’re looking at, or in the main thought flow of the book itself. I want us to have everything we can get from that. And I think the Lord does, too.

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