How to Approach Difficult Bible Passages

As a teacher, I am regularly asked about Bible passages and the theology they convey. Sometimes the questions are straightforward; other times, not so much. Some time back, for example, as I was innocently trying to lead our community group through Romans 8:18-30, I was asked how to interpret verses 29-30 in light of that not-at-all-discussed-among-Christians topic of Predestination and Freewill. It happens.

The vast majority of the time, I am more than happy to dig into a text and explain what I think and why. Having been privileged to study under some brilliant Biblical scholars (and having read many more), I am all too eager to hold forth on the Scriptures, and I genuinely hope that my discussion helps those listening. However, in the past several years I have discovered a more fruitful approach to addressing these questions: walking through Bible passages with people and training them how to read and interpret wisely. Continue reading

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What is the Purpose of the Local Church?

This post originally appeared as a contribution to a Round Table discussion at Conciliar Post.

Any full discussion of the church—in either its New Testament or current forms—demands more space than a round table affords. Accordingly, I want to focus on two central characterizations of what the New Testament Church seemed to be and how contemporary local churches might still satisfy those purposes: the Church as expectant and missional. Continue reading

The Bible in Thirty Chapters

What If…

The Bible is a pretty large book. Although we might not immediately think of it as such, how many other 2,128-page1 books do you have laying around your home? Or which reader has four different versions of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare on their bookshelf? The Bible is unique, not only for its contents, but also for its construction and history.

Though rightly regarded as the most important book you could ever own or read, modern Christians often fail to recognize the unique place in history we inhabit when it comes to accessing and understanding the Bible. For much of history, most Christians did not have access to the entire Bible. The first pandect (Bible in one book) was produced in the 8th century.2 Even after the invention of the printing press and the proliferation of Bibles in vernacular languages, many Christians only had access to particular books or collections of books in the Bible.


This reality got me thinking: what if I only had access to a couple of biblical books? Which ones would I want to have? My particular fondness for Luke and John would make those gospels priorities for me. Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy are vital for understanding God’s covenant with Israel, so those would be useful too. I might be a terrible theologian if I did not have a copy of Romans and a terrible 21st century Christian if I did not at least consider having Revelation. Simply imagining life without the whole canon serves as an important reminder of how blessed and privileged we are to live with access to multiple copies and versions of the entire Bible.

Thinking Smaller

However, as anyone who has read extensively in the biblical text knows, no biblical book contains within its scope the entire story of God’s People, the whole history of salvation, or even every key doctrinal point.3 Having access to certain books, therefore, might still leave a reader relatively uninformed about the biblical metanarrative, the overarching story of the Bible. This reality led me to reflect further: what if, instead of whole books, we only had access to certain chapters of the Bible? What if we only had access to, say, thirty chapters of the Bible: which ones would we want to have?

Before proceeding, I want to note a couple of things about what follows. First, this is an exercise in theological reflection. Far be it from me to suggest stripping the Bible down for parts or ignoring chapters which do not appear on this list. Second, I hasten to note the importance of reading all portions of the Bible in their literary contexts. Chapters in the Bible were not original to the text, having only been added in the 13th century.4 Even though this exercise is somewhat arbitrary, then, the process of focusing and limiting the Biblical text does reveal much about our theological commitments.

Finally, this list arises from my own concerns and contexts. The foci of these chapters are the biblical metanarrative (creation, fall, redemption, restoration), the history of Israel, the life and work of Jesus, and the message of the Church. Of course, there are plenty of other themes and messages to be highlighted by this type of exercise. Without further preparation, these are the thirty chapters I would use to summarize the Bible:

The Bible in Thirty Chapters

Genesis 1-3: Creation, Fall, and Curse

Genesis 12, 15: Call and Covenant with Abram

Exodus 12: Passover Initiated

Exodus 14: Crossing of the Red Sea

Deuteronomy 5-6: Ten Commandments and Heart of the Torah

Psalm 23: The Good Shepherd

Psalm 106: Summary of Israel’s History

Isaiah 53: The Suffering Servant

Ezekiel 37: Dry Bones and Restoration of Israel

Matthew 5-7: Sermon on the Mount

Luke 22-24: Lord’s Supper, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus

John 3-4: Born Again of Living Water

Acts 7: Summary of Israel’s Rebellion and Stoning of Stephen

Acts 26: Life of the Apostle Paul

Romans 9: God’s Continuing Covenant with Israel and Inclusion of the Gentiles

1 Corinthians 11(17)-12: Lord’s Supper, Spiritual Gifts, and Ecclesiology

Galatians 3: Abraham, the Law, and Faith in Christ

Hebrews 1: Christology and Superiority of Jesus

1 John 3: Children of God and Law of Love

Revelation 21: New Heavens and New Earth

What do you think of this list? Which chapters would you remove? What other chapters would you include?


1 The number of pages the in NRSV Bible on my desk.
2 Codex Amiantinus, a Vulgate edition prepared as a gift for Pope Gregory II.
3 Arguments for a Protestant reading of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans or a liturgically-informed reading of the Gospel of John fail to entirely convince me here, as both of these approaches present considerable contextual problems and often neglect important components of Israel’s story.
4 Alternative systems were devised by Archbishop Stephen Langton and Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro, with modern Biblical chapters deriving primarily from Langton’s system.

How to Approach Theology

New College CloistersTheology is important. Good theology is even more important. Everyone is called to “do” theology.1 These are guiding principles for my theological work, which I seek to undertake with thoughtfulness, faithfulness, and charity. Of course, to merely say (or write) that theology holds a place of value is not the same as actually living out one’s faith while seeking understanding.2 Too many times in my own life it is at the place where the proverbial “rubber hits the road” that my abstract, intellectualized theological principles fall prey to my sinful nature and laziness. As important as it is to speak truth, it is not enough to merely say the right things. As James says in his epistle, “Show me your faith apart from works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”3

Thus, truly good theology consists not only of thinking rightly about God, but also living rightly (and righteously) in his presence. Of course, this raises that all important question of how: how do we not only think but also live faithfully? In reflecting on this task, I have developed some practice-oriented musings for how we should live as Christians in today’s world, which I now submit as theses for discussion: Continue reading

Exodus from Bondage?

lukeResponse to “Exodus from Bondage: Luke 9:31 and Acts 12:1-24” by Susan Garrett

In her article “Exodus from Bondage: Luke 9:31 and Acts 12:1-24,” Susan Garrett argues that Luke employed a soteriology of exodus, wherein Jesus (and to a lesser extent, through thematic recapitulation, Peter) stood as true Israel and freed his people from bondage to Satan. Central for this paper is the collective memory of Israel, which Garrett suggests regularly drew upon the Exodus paradigm as a source of historical renewal for Israel. Picking up on these themes, Luke cast Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem as the faithful journey of Moses to the Promised Land. Culminating in his passion and resurrection, Jesus leads the better exodus and leads the people of Israel from bondage to Satan. Whereas ancient Israel sought to inherit the land, Luke indicates that only through the formation of the Christian community in Jerusalem—the Christ-follower inheritance of the land—may God’s promise to Abraham truly be fulfilled. Continue reading

Redeeming Halloween

826439-halloween-copyHappy Halloween! Or Happy Reformation Day. Or Happy All Hallow’s Eve. Or maybe I should just wish you all a Happy(-ish) Monday.

For many Christians, October 31 seems marked with uncertainty. Yes, we all enjoy seeing (and buying, but this isn’t the place for personal confessions) the gigantic bags of candy in the grocery store. And most of us enjoy seeing hilariously clever punny costumes. But for many others, the celebration of Halloween brings us back to that seemingly never ending question concerning how we should interact with culture. Halloween today seems far less innocent than it did even ten or fifteen years ago. Back in those days, as Richard Mouw has noted, Continue reading

Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Bibliography

This post is the final in our series on Women in the Apostolic Fathers. For a complete copy of this paper, please email me at prahlowjj [at] slu.edu.

Ancient Syriac ManuscriptAncient Sources

Acts of Thecla. Edited and translated by Jeremy W. Barrier. The Acts of Paul and Thecla: A Critical Introduction and Commentary. WUNT 2, 270. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009.

Apostolic Constitutions. Edited and translated by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Cox. Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 7: Fathers of the third and Fourth Centuries. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951. Continue reading

Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Conclusions

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Women in the Apostolic Fathers.

Apostolic FathersThrough consideration of several pericopes from the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, this study has argued that these authors conceived of women as having properly ordered roles in the Christian Church, roles which could include familial and visionary functions. In First Clement, biblical women were employed as examples for the congregation at Corinth. Second Clement reinforced the Pauline idea that the relationship between Christ and the Church was akin to that of husband and wife, both of whom contain fleshly and spiritual components. The epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp reveal an emphasis on church order and ecclesiastical hierarchy which affects how all Christians—both women and men—should live their lives. These epistles also demonstrate that women held positions of some standing in certain Christian communities, including groups of “virgins called widows”, house-holding women, traveling (diaconal?) women, and individually outstanding women. In the Shepherd of Hermas, women serve as revelers of God’s truths, images of the Church herself, and teachers of women and children. Continue reading