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To use brackets when teaching theology in the church

Something the NASB edition does but nobody else bothers with: italicizing all words that have no basis in the original text. Of course, this is hilarious, because even word-for-word translations have several words in each sentence that are interpolated. A phrase like πιστις Χριστου cannot be translated into English as “faith Christ” but must include an “of” in between to make sense. Should we italicize “of” in every genitive? The word “in” or “to” for each dative? Beyond case-use, there are more ways that words get added. One that Matt Chandler pointed out a few years ago is Philippians 2:4, “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” In the Greek, this sentence is more like “not looking to your own ________ but each of your to _________ of others.” The word “interests” is a simple translation addition to make the sentence clear for English readers. The NASB italicizes it.

brackets symbol vectorTo avoid being confusingly word-for-word, the NASB still includes the word; to avoid giving the word undue weight, the NASB italicizes it. While that approach may be ridiculous — and at times unhelpful, since English readers are used to thinking of emphasis when they see italics — the idea can be applied on a different level. I would like to suggest that the same inclusion-by-italicization method can be helpful for our teaching of theology in the church. Since, again, italics usually communicate emphasis, maybe brackets are the better symbol.

The balance struck by the NASB is also a balance to strike with teaching theology: we don’t want to be unhelpfully text-only, which would deprive our congregation from thinking rightly about the text. On the other hand, the theology we supply to the text may be wrong, and we do not want to give it the same level of authority in our teaching.

The main example that comes up in my conversations at Trinity is limited atonement. Limited atonement is a doctrinal idea that I believe is logically consequent from other doctrinal ideas which have strong Biblical basis: the other four points of Calvinism, total depravity, unconditional atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Each of these command strong Biblical support in a way that limited atonement does not. (If anything, 1 John 2:2 leans the other way on atonement). Limited atonement is extra-biblical, but this does not mean untrue; it only means not necessarily true. Calculus is extra-biblical, but true!

So if someone were to ask me, “Where do you see limited atonement in the Bible?” I would have to first show the Biblical support for those other four doctrines, and then after all of that, say, “Look, I know its not anywhere in the text, but limited atonement just has to be an accurate description of Christ’s work on the cross if these other four things are true.” In other words, limited atonement as a doctrine exists one level of abstraction above these other doctrines; it does not have roots in the text, but in other doctrines, which themselves have roots in the text.

So, should we teach limited atonement? Or should we just leave it unsaid? My answer is that we should still teach it, but bracket it with phrases like “it seems like the best way to understand these doctrines would be…” as an opening bracket and then “there may be more precise ways to talk about the relationship between these doctrines, but we can save those for later.” Maybe it’s my evangelical upbringing, but this approach seems like a healthy way to major on the majors, minor on the minors, and keep our gaze focused on the Biblical text and the doctrines most obviously rooted in the text.

Of course, this bracketing is unnecessary in a doctrinal class, a catechism class, a book study group, or, unthinkably, a class on theology. I am only talking about expositional preaching on Sunday morning, especially when the congregation is walking through a book of the Bible chapter by chapter. As pastors, our understanding of level-two and higher doctrine should impact how we read the text and the basic ideas which emerge from it — don’t get me wrong, higher doctrine matters — but it is unhelpful to explain these ideas as if they bears the same weight as other teachings. Your doctrinal stance on the precise nature of the atonement will color your teaching, but don’t trick the congregation into thinking that stance is rock-solid authoritative like the text itself.

I know there are objections to what I am saying. For his part, Paul comments that he opposed Peter “when I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” (Galatians 2:14, a great verse to memorize). Likewise we should understand the gospel in all its abstract implications and try to live accordingly. There is also the simple fact that Paul himself was a deeply systematic theologian, and he wrote Biblical text, so then we have some Biblical texts that ground even our deepest systematic theology. The number of topics that can be two layers of abstraction away from “But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!” or “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” is small. (Romans 11:12, 29).

I am talking about practical, day-to-day, sermon-by-sermon use of theology for teaching laypeople. For the Junior High students I volunteer with at church, this can be important. I remember when I was in eighth grade and first started to discover the doctrines of grace and the five points of Calvinism. It changed my life, but not always for the better. Eighth-grade me would have been far better off being challenged to learn more about the Torah and Prophets, or about the doctrine of sanctification (!) than about theoretical constructs which I later discovered were deeply bankrupt. The solution doesn’t have to be complicated: we can better communicate the message of scripture by including-by-bracketing logical developments of doctrine.

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