In this accessible book, biblical theology is taken down from the shelves of misunderstanding and neglect and placed in pastors’ hands as the practical, everyday tool it is.
About the Author
Michael Lawrence serves as the lead pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He earned a PhD in church history from Cambridge University and an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Lawrence is the author of Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church.
Thomas R. Schreiner (MDiv and ThM, Western Conservative Baptist Seminary; PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and associate dean of the school of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Read an Excerpt
Exegetical Tools: Grammatical-Historical Method
I began this book by promising a "how-to" guide for ministry, one that would result in really useful theology. But so far, what I've mainly given you is definition and foundation. We've said that biblical theology is not merely theology that finds its source in the Bible, but a theology that attempts to make sense of the Bible as a whole. We've also said that the Bible is not just a collection of inspired religious books written by various prophets and apostles, but that it's a single story, a coherent narrative of the redemptive acts of God. This single story has God as its author, its primary actor, and its center, and the climax of this story is the glory of God in salvation through judgment. And yet, it is an emphatically practical story, since it encompasses the humble realities that define each of our lives.
But with this chapter, I mean to begin to make good on my promise of practical help. After all, as soon as we define the Bible as we have, we are confronted with a problem. How can we be sure that we're reading and understanding the story correctly? For that matter, how can we be sure that we're reading and understanding the various parts of the story correctly? Let's set aside for a moment the incredible idea that we could understand the mind and purposes and, therefore, the Word of God. How can we be confident that we can accurately understand the words of a Hebrew prophet living and writing three thousand years ago? Aren't words, human words, much less divine words, incredibly slippery and malleable? Isn't the meaning of a text an incredibly subjective idea? I mean, unless an author is present to tell us what he meant, who's to say that one interpretation of a text is better or more accurate or more faithful or more meaningful than another?
I'm going to consider below some of the technical aspects of this problem, but let me start by illustrating this in a context where many of us operate every week: youth ministry. Every Wednesday morning, I lead the sixth grade boys' devotions at my children's school. We're slowly working our way through the Gospel of Mark. To keep them engaged, as well as to teach them how to study the Bible on their own, I don't teach a lesson. Instead I ask them to read the passage out loud, and then I ask them questions about the text they just read. Almost all of my questions can be answered from the text itself, or the immediate context. They are not always easy questions, but they are always questions that arise from the passage we read.
The boys are bright, motivated, talkative, and happy to be there. They go through similar exercises in their literature class, so they're familiar with the process. But every Wednesday morning, several boys will quickly blurt out answers without even really looking at the text. These quick answers invariably fall into one of several categories. There's the Sunday school answer — whatever the question, the answer must be Jesus, the cross, sin, or some combination of them all. There's the "I heard my pastor/parent/Sunday school teacher say ..." answer. This really isn't an answer at all, but an appeal to authority so they don't have to personally think about it. But the most common answer by far always begins, "I think it means ..." When I respond to this answer by asking them to show where their idea came from in the text, as often as not I get a blank stare or a confused mumble, as if I've just asked them something crazy, like which sixth grade girl they like best! By sixth grade, many of them have decidedly, if unconsciously, adopted the attitude that the meaning of religious texts is a profoundly private affair that needs no further justification than their own sincerely held belief. If this is the case in sixth grade morning devotions, it is even more the case in the small group Bible studies populated by the adults of your church and mine.
The Problem of Meaning
If you're at all familiar with current discussions of theories of interpretation, what scholars call "hermeneutics," you'll know that, these days, many are quite skeptical about our ability to know with any precision what an author meant when he wrote something, unless we have direct access to that author. Distance and discontinuity between author and reader in language and culture, historical context and even personal experiences, it is said, effectively cut the reader off from knowing objectively and certainly what the author meant. For some, that's caused a real crisis. For others, it's been cause for celebration. For them, the loss of what we call the "author's original intent" means that finally we can be honest in our reading and acknowledge that we use texts for our own purposes, to mean what we want them to mean.
Meaning now no longer needs to be cleverly and dishonestly attached to the author's mind, but can simply be the meaning that the reading community finds there. What meaning do they find? They find the meaning that they need, the meaning that they want, the meaning that seems reasonable in light of their own context. In effect, this modern approach to interpretation, based on the supposed inaccessibility of the author's intent, means that there is no such thing as an authoritative text or interpretation, only an authoritative community. For thousands of years, societies have served texts, both sacred and political, usually to the benefit of those in power and to the detriment of minorities and the oppressed. Now, with what is known as the hermeneutical turn, there has been a great liberation. We don't serve texts anymore. The text serves us.
Now, of course, there are some areas where this idea has not caught on. Most parties to written contracts want to insist that the contract has a stable and accessible meaning. But in other areas of law, especially constitutional law, as well as politics more generally, ethics and religion, and especially modern pop culture, this way of thinking, known as postmodernism, has taken hold with a vengeance and breathed a new and dangerous life into old fashioned relativism.
All of this brings me back to the question I posed earlier. If the Bible is a story with God as its author, but a story whose component parts are texts written by people in different languages, cultures, and historical periods, how can we be sure that we're reading the story correctly? Is there even such a thing as a correct reading?
In fact, there is such a thing as a correct meaning of a text, precisely because God, who created this world, our brains, and thus our ability to use language, is himself a speaking God. It was God who created rationality and language so that language could accurately convey meaning from one mind to another mind. And he himself proved this not only by acting in history, but also by condescending to use human language to authoritatively explain and interpret his own actions. We see this again and again on the pages of Scripture — God not only sends the ten plagues against Egypt, he speaks to Moses and Aaron explaining what he is doing. God not only parts the Red Sea, he speaks and explains what he's about to do and why. God not only makes Israel into a nation, he speaks audibly to the whole nation from Mount Sinai, telling them so.
I could continue to multiply examples, but perhaps most telling is the incarnation of Christ himself. When God decided to definitively reveal himself once and for all, he didn't send angels or miraculous signs and wonders in the sky. He became a man and spoke to us in a language that people could understand. As the author to the Hebrews put it, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son" (Heb. 1:1–2). And to make absolutely clear that we should listen to his Son, not once but twice God spoke from heaven, first at Jesus' baptism, and then again at his transfiguration. This is the conclusion Peter drew:
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:16–19)
What this means is that words, when placed in sentences and paragraphs, convey meaning. And not just any meaning. They convey the meaning of the author who constructed the sentence and the paragraph, as a reflection of his authorial intent. As readers of words, and particularly as readers of God's Word, our obligation — and privilege — is to read in such a way as to recover and understand the meaning the author wanted to communicate.
Now of course, you read this way all the time, every day of your life. When you pick up a newspaper or magazine article, your goal is not to read your own ideas into the story. You're trying to understand what the person is saying. You may go on to reject it or be inspired by it. You may think it was well-written or poorly written. You might think of all sorts of application for your newfound knowledge that the author hadn't considered at all. But regardless of what you do with what you've read, the first thing you do, quite naturally, is look for the author's original intent. And when you do that, you are engaged in the process of exegesis.
Exegesis is the disciplined attempt to lead out of a text the author's original intent, rather than my own preference or experience or opinion. Jerome, who knew Greek and Hebrew long after most people had forgotten both and could only read Latin, put it this way in the late fourth century: "The office of a commentator is to set forth not what he himself would prefer, but what his author says."
So all of you, every day, are exegetes of the texts you read, from recipes to instruction manuals, from Sports Illustrated to your favorite blog. You're also exegetes of Scripture. Yet while exegeting the newspaper is nearly automatic, since it's written in our own language and culture, exegeting Scripture requires a more conscious approach. It's written in other languages and at other times, and so we must take even greater care not to misread it. What we're going to do in the rest of this chapter, first, is to look at the method of exegesis known as the grammatical-historical method. Second, we'll provide a brief overview of the various literary forms or genres that make up the Bible. And third, we'll examine how we apply our method to those various genres.
The basic method of exegesis that we use to determine an author's original intent has come to be known as the grammatical-historical method. John Owen described it this way:
There is no other sense in it [Scripture] than what is contained in the words whereof materially it doth consist ... In the interpretation of the mind of anyone, it is necessary that the words he speaks or writes be rightly understood; and this we cannot do immediately unless we understand the language wherein he speaks ... the [idiom] of that language, with the common use of and intention of its ... expressions.
Discerning the meaning of the text in this way immediately plunges us into an exploration and study of the grammar, syntax, and literary and historical context of the words we're reading — thus the phrase: grammatical historical method.
Now in discovering the author's original intent, we need to avoid what is known as the "intentional fallacy." That's the idea that through the text, we can somehow get beyond the text into the thought world, feelings, and unexpressed intentions of the author. In fact, we don't have access to the author's psyche or motives, unless he explicitly expresses those things through his words. The mind, and therefore the meaning, that we have access to is the expressed mind, the mind that has revealed itself through the words on the page.
However, in focusing on words, we have to recognize that words, by themselves, don't mean anything in particular. We may know that the word "ball" has a range of possible meanings, but until I put the word "ball" into a sentence, and then that sentence into a paragraph, you can't be certain what I mean by the word. For example, think about at what point the meaning of the word "ball" becomes unambiguous in the following paragraph:
We had a ball. Everyone came in their fanciest clothes and danced the night away. But since Cinderella didn't attend, we were disappointed.
In fact, it's not until the final word of the last sentence that the precise meaning of "ball" becomes clear. Up until that point, it could have meant a "sphere you bounce" or "a really good time." But with the word "disappointed" you know for certain that ball meant "fancy party." So the basic unit of meaning is not the word, but the sentence. And the unit that determines what sentences mean, and therefore the words in them, is the paragraph.
This means that the primary question that the historical-grammatical method is seeking to answer is not, "What does that word mean?" but "What does that sentence mean?" In answering that question, we quickly realize that context is king. So the first step of exegesis is to read the text, the whole text, over and over again. Interpretation actually begins with the whole, not the part. Then, in the context of the whole, we work backwards through the parts, back to sentences, back all the way down to individual words. What we learn and discover there then takes us back to the whole with a more accurate and perhaps nuanced understanding of meaning.
All of this begins with a basic grammatical and structural analysis of the text.
First, how does the larger text break up into units? This is a function of genre: for epistles, it's the paragraph; for poetry, it's the stanza; for narrative history, it's the event or story.
What's the general flow of argument in the text you're looking at? Is there an assertion, supported by subordinate clauses? Is a contrast being drawn, a principle being illustrated, a pattern being established, a response being encouraged?
Looking at a particular sentence, what's the subject, the verb, and the object, and how do they relate? (If you ever diagrammed sentences in school, it comes in handy here!)
How are the sentences connected? Paying attention to the connections allows you to establish the detailed flow of thought. The goal here is discourse analysis, an attempt to make explicit the logical flow in order to identify the author's main point, and the various ways he supports that point.
Feeling overwhelmed? Be encouraged. For each of these steps, all that's really needed is patient reading and a basic understanding of grammar and logic. No commentaries are required at this point!
Next, how do the various larger contexts inform your understanding of the meaning of the text?
How does your text fit within the larger argument of the book or section of Scripture you're reading?
Does the historical context (author, date, audience, and provenance), if known, throw light on your understanding of words or arguments?
Is there a cultural context that you need to be aware of? For example, what are Pharisees? What rights did women have in the Roman world? Or, what's the difference between a concubine and a wife in ancient Israel?
Are there issues of geography, politics, or history that throw light on the meaning? For example, where is Tarshish in relation to Nineveh? What's so special about Caesarea Philippi that Jesus would elicit Peter's confession there?
Now unless you're a full-time Bible scholar, most of these sorts of issues won't be in your category of general knowledge. Here's where commentaries, Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases are extremely helpful.
Finally, perhaps the most important contextual question is how this text relates to the rest of Scripture. I'm going to spend more time on this in a later chapter, but suffice it to say that if the text quotes, alludes to, or resembles another part of the Bible, that's significant for our understanding of what the author was intending to communicate.
Importance of Literary Forms
I mentioned earlier that the basic unit of thought would vary depending on the genre, or literary form, that we're dealing with. Yet I didn't stop to explain what I meant by genre.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church"
Copyright © 2010 Michael Lawrence.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Text to Be Examined,
SECTION ONE The Tools That Are Needed,
1 Exegetical Tools: Grammatical-Historical Method,
2 Biblical Theology Tools 1: Covenants, Epochs, and Canon,
3 Biblical Theology Tools 2: Prophecy, Typology, and Continuity,
4 Biblical and Systematic Theology: Do We Really Need Both?,
5 Systematic Theology Tools: How and Why to Think Theologically,
SECTION TWO The Stories to Be Told,
6 The Story of Creation,
7 The Story of the Fall,
8 The Story of Love,
9 The Story of Sacrifice,
10 The Story of Promise,
SECTION THREE Putting It Together for the Church,
11 Preaching and Teaching (Case Studies),
12 Biblical Theology and the Local Church,
For Further Reading,
What People are Saying About This
“Every thoughtful preacher or teacher of the Bible sooner or later faces questions of the nature of biblical theology, its relationship to doctrine (systematic theology), and the practical application of both to the ministry that edifies the church. Following in the footsteps of Geerhardus Vos and Edmund Clowney, Michael Lawrence has provided us with a masterly study that relates biblical theology to systematics, and then applies both to the ministry of the church. This skillfully executed integrative approach breaks new ground in the practical application of biblical theology. Its thoroughness without being over-technical makes it accessible to anyone who wants to be a better preacher or teacher of the Bible.”
—Graeme Goldsworthy, former lecturer in Old Testament, biblical theology, and hermeneutics, Moore Theological College
“I thoroughly appreciated Lawrence’s fresh approach to ecclesiology. While there are many treasures in this book, its primary richness comes from following the flow of redemptive history five times over—each time from a different perspective, built around a different theme. Looking at biblical theology like one stone with many facets was an exceptionally enlightening approach. This is a book to be read and re-read.”
—John MacArthur, Pastor, Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, California; President, The Master's College and Seminary
“If the kind of biblical theology described and commended by Michael Lawrence in this superb book were to take root in the preaching and teaching ministry of pastors, and get into the bloodstream of lay people in the churches, things would bode well indeed for the improvement of our collective grasp of and obedience to the whole counsel of God. Lawrence not only does a brilliant job of introducing a sound biblical theology, but also relates it to the ministry of the church. He offers one of the finest and most accessible discussions of the relation between biblical and systematic theology that I’ve ever read. This is a pastoral must-read for our times. I cannot recommend this book too highly.”
—J. Ligon Duncan III, Chancellor and CEO, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi
“Studies on the relationship of theology to ministry seem to be quite rare. In fact, some books designed as ‘guides for ministry’ often portray suspicion of and hostility toward the theological enterprise. On the other hand, some theologians think that such guides are not worthy of serious attention. What is desperately needed is a work that recognizes the significance of the work of theology for ministry, while simultaneously recognizing the importance of doing theology for the church. Michael Lawrence has brilliantly met this need in this clearly written and compelling volume, which envisions afresh the work of pastor-theologians. I believe that Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church will certainly be one of the most important books for pastors and theologians to read this year.”
—David S. Dockery, President, Trinity International University
“I commend both Lawrence$rsquo;s book and the wonderful ministry at Capital Hill Baptist Church, where they are putting this book into practice.”
—James MacDonald, Pastor, Harvest Bible Chapel, Rolling Meadows, Illinois; author, Vertical Church
“Usually, you have to go to different sections of the bookstore to find good books on biblical theology, systematic theology, ministry, the church, and the Christian life. At the very least, the relationship between theory and practice seems strained. However, this book brings these concerns together. Michael Lawrence believes that good shepherds are theologians and good theologians are shepherds. For anyone who believes that theology needs the church and the church needs theology, this will be a welcome resource. For anyone playing with the idea, it will be a compelling one.”
—Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California; author, Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God's Story
“According to the Apostle Paul, one of the central works of pastoral ministry is rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), and it takes diligent study to be able to do it. According to Michael Lawrence, it is also vital to rightly apply the word of truth to the life of a congregation, and to be certain that the application is faithful to the united story of the entire Scripture. In his book Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, Lawrence skillfully guides his readers in constructing a biblical theology, “the whole story of the whole Bible,” and teaches them how to derive lessons from that story. But Lawrence’s heartbeat is the right application of the story and those lessons to the daily life scenarios every minister faces. This work is a succinct, readable manual on the right application of the storyline of the whole Bible to the common issues of daily life which pastors will inevitably face as they minister in the 21st century. It is a valuable addition to the library of any pastor who yearns to see God’s word bear fruit for eternity.”
—Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church, Durham, North Carolina
“I am grateful that this book has been written. It’s an ambitious book—broad in scope and simultaneously rich in insight. Its biblical, systematic and pastoral theology are presented in a lucid and accessible way, its case studies are pastorally helpful, and its polemics are thought-provoking and penetrating.Michael has done us a great favor by grounding his subject material in the cut and thrust of ordinary pastoral ministry while at the same time stimulating us intellectually. His unshakable commitment to propositional revelation, the centrality of the Bible in church ministry, and his unflinching belief that God works by his Word are a great foil to much theology in vogue in the church today.This book is a bell ringing in the fog of American Christianity—with its extremes of prosperity, market-driven, and emergent theology—that we at the ends of the earth in South Africa have sadly not escaped. It calls us back to the old fashioned, tried and tested practices of exegesis, hermeneutics, and preaching that have fed the Christian church for centuries. May God use it to nourish his church, which often seems undernourished both in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.”
—Grant J. Retief, Rector, Christ Church, Umhlanga, Durban, South Africa
“With biblical illiteracy in the church at an all-time high, faithless and banal preaching the seeming norm, and Christian leaders impressed more by stories of success in the marketplace than the biblical story of redemption, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church comes as a much needed correction. Michael Lawrence is surely right: One must understand the grand story of Scripture to rightly interpret its constituent parts. When the story is misunderstood or ignored, then Christian preaching and ministry will inevitably suffer. Through definition, explanation, and example, Lawrence has produced a thorough and practical guide to correct biblical interpretation, Spirit-empowered exposition, and faithful ministry.”
—Todd L. Miles, Assistant Professor of Theology, Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon
“Biblical theology is the missing tool for so many pastors— and yet is such an essential tool for rightly handling the Word of God. Michael Lawrence leads us step by step from theological foundations all the way through to real life applications of biblical theology. In other words he shows us how to read and use the Bible rightly on its own terms. He skillfully blends scholarly insight with down-to-earth pastoral awareness and covers a huge amount of ground in the process. This is a great example of theological thinking for the work of ministry. You may not agree with every conclusion he draws but you cannot fail to benefit from interacting with his thinking.”
—Graham Beynon, Minister, Avenue Community Church, Leicester, UK
“I am deeply thankful for this important book and pray it will be widely read and greatly influential! There is no greater need in the church than biblically grounded theological discernment that informs everyday life. The perspective and methods of ‘doing theology’ that Michael Lawrence provides are crucial for developing this distinctively Christian view of life. Ministry methods and foci today are so often determined by pragmatism, consumerism, trends, and the latest opinion polls rather the an holistic understanding of the Bible. Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church points the way out of this man-centered approach and helps equip leaders for God-honoring, gospel-advancing ministry. Lawrence writes with the depth of a careful theologian and the heart and experience of a loving pastor. Here he models what he is wanting to produce with this book—pastor/theologians who understand the whole counsel of God’s word, and are able to translate it into the lives of God’s people for the glory of God.”
—Erik Thoennes, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, Chair, Biblical and Theological Studies Theology Department, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University; Pastor, Grace Evangelical Free Church, La Mirada, California
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Michael Lawrence offers a great book on the connection between ministry and theology. His premise is that "our theology determines the shape and character our ministry." Our ministry gives a better reflection of our theology than our words sometimes do. He goes into detail to show that our understanding of the Bible has a direct influence on how we minister. The first five chapters offer a great refresher or introduction of some of the basic tools needed to accurately think and speak about God as we encounter at the story of the Bible. The last few chapters deal with the themes that are woven throughout God's salvation story. Lawrence does a great job in this book at introducing his premise and offering a helpful foundation of Biblical theology. This book is by no means the end of the conversation but it will get you headed in the right direction. I highly recommend this book. I am a book reviewer for Crossway Books