This is one of my favourite stories, on observation. Apply this approach to Bible study before giving up on it.
The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz
By the Student
It was more than fifteen years ago that I entered the laboratory of Professor Agassiz, and told him I had enrolled my name in the scientific school as a student of natural history. He asked me a few questions about my object in coming, my antecedents generally, the mode in which I afterwards proposed to use the knowledge I might acquire, and finally, whether I wished to study any special branch. To the latter I replied that as I wished to be well grounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself specially to insects.
‘When do you wish to begin?’ he asked.
‘Now,’ I replied.
This seemed to please him, and with an energetic ‘Very well,’ he reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.
‘Take this fish,’ said he, ‘and look at it; we call it a Haemulon [pronounced Hem-yu lon]; by and by I will ask what you have.’
With that he left me, but in a moment returned with explicit instructions as to the care of the object entrusted to me.
‘No man is fit to be a naturalist,’ said he, ‘who does not know how to take care of specimens.’
I was to keep the fish before me in a tin tray, and occasionally moisten the surface with alcohol from the jar, always taking care to replace the stopper tightly. Those were not the days of ground glass stoppers, and elegantly shaped exhibition jars; all the old students will recall the huge, neckless glass bottles with their leaky, wax-besmeared corks half eaten by insects and begrimed with cellar dust. Entomology was a cleaner science than ichthyology, but the example of the professor, who had unhesitatingly plunged to the bottom of the jar to produce the fish, was infectious; and though this alcohol had ‘a very ancient and fishlike smell,’ I really dared not show any aversion within these sacred precincts, and treated the alcohol as though it were pure water. Still I was conscious of a passing feeling of disappointment, for gazing at a fish did not commend itself to an ardent entomologist. My friends at home, too, were annoyed, when they discovered that no amount of eau de cologne would drown the perfume which haunted me like a shadow.
In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish, and started in search of the professor, who had, however, left the museum; and when I returned, after lingering over some of the odd animals stored in the upper apartment, my specimen was dry all over. I dashed the fluid over the fish as if to resuscitate it from a fainting-fit, and looked with anxiety for a return of the normal, sloppy appearance. This little excitement over, nothing was to be done but return to a steadfast gaze at my mute companion. Half an hour passed, an hour, another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face—ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at a three-quarters’ view—just as ghastly. I was in despair; at an early hour I concluded that lunch was necessary; so, with infinite relief, the fish was carefully placed in the jar, and for an hour I was free.
On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz had been at the museum, but had gone and would not return for several hours. My fellow students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish; it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp its teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.
‘That is right,’ he said, ‘a pencil is one of the best of eyes. I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet and your bottle corked.’
With these encouraging words he added,—
‘Well, what is it like?’
He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me: the fringed gill—arches and movable operculum; the pores of the head, fleshy lips, and lidless eyes; the lateral line, the spinous fin, and forked tail; the compressed and arched body. When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment,—
‘You have not looked very carefully; why,’ he continued, more earnestly, ‘you haven’t seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!’ and he left me to my misery.
I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of the wretched fish! But now I set myself to my task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another, until I saw how just the professor’s criticism had been. The afternoon passed quickly, and when, towards its close, the professor inquired,—
‘Do you see it yet?’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.’
‘That is next best,’ said he earnestly, ‘but I won’t hear you now; put away your fish and go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer in the morning. I will examine you before you look at the fish.’
This was disconcerting; not only must I think of my fish all night, studying, without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature might be; but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.
The cordial greeting from the professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myself what he saw.
‘Do you perhaps mean,’ I asked, ‘that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?’
His thoroughly pleased, ‘Of course, of course!’ repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. After he had discoursed most happily and enthusiastically—as he always did—upon the importance of the point, I ventured to ask what I should do next.
‘Oh, look at your fish!’ he said, and left me again to my own devices. In a little more than an hour he returned and heard my new catalogue.
‘That is good, that is good!’ he repeated, ‘but that is not all; go on.’ And so, for three long days, he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. ‘Look, look, look,’ was his repeated injunction.
This was the best entomological lesson I ever had—a lesson whose influence has extend to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy the professor has left to me, as he has left it to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we cannot part.
A year afterwards, some of us were amusing ourselves with chalking outlandish beasts upon the museum blackboard. We drew prancing star-fishes; frogs in mortal combat; hydra-headed worms; stately craw-fishes, standing on their tails, bearing aloft umbrellas; and grotesque fishes, with gaping mouths and staring eyes. The professor came in shortly after, and was as amused as any at our experiments. He looked at the fishes.
‘Haemulons, every one of them,’ he said. ‘Mr … drew them.’
True; and to this day, if I attempt a fish, I can draw nothing but Haemulons.
The fourth day, a second fish of the same group was placed beside the first, and I was bidden to point out the resemblances and differences between the two; another and another followed, until the entire family lay before me, and a whole legion of jars covered the table and surrounding shelves; the odour had become a pleasant perfume; and even now, the sight of an old, six-inch, worm-eaten cork brings fragrant memories!
The whole group of Haemulons was thus brought in review; and, whether engaged upon the dissection of the internal organs, the preparation and examination of the bony framework, or the description of the various parts, Agassiz’s training in the method of observing facts and their orderly arrangements was ever accompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content with them.
‘Facts are stupid things,’ he would say, ‘until brought into connection with some general law.’
At the end of eight months, it was almost with reluctance that I left these friends and turned to insects; but what I had gained by this outside experience has been of greater value than years of later investigation in my favourite groups.
Richard L. Mayhue, How to Study the Bible (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 1997), 65–69.
“The grand distinction between Christianity and all systems of philosophy, and all other religions, so called, consists in this, that it is not a mere system of notions, but a series of facts. Its first promulgators could all adopt, as their own, the words of John: “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you” (1 John 1:1–3). It is this that makes it everlasting; for deeds once done can never be altered: it is this that makes it universal; for duly accredited facts fall within the reach of those also who could not follow a chain of abstract reasoning: it is this that makes it so mighty; for simple facts are stronger than the most elaborate arguments. That a thorough investigation of these facts is a duty, may be taught us by Luke; but their reality being once ascertained, it results, from his words to Theophilus, that the ἀσφάλεια of the faith can no longer be called in question. Would that they who, in reading the Gospel narratives, have continually in their mouths the words, myth, tradition, legend, might enter into the spirit of Luke’s prologue, and, after due research, might feel and experience that here, if anywhere, they are treading on the firm ground of the most unquestionable reality!”
J. P. Lange, 1802-1884
John Peter Lange and J. J. van Oosterzee, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Luke, trans. Philip Schaff and Charles C. Starbuck (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 13.
Luke’s Gospel is a political challenge to the Roman Empire:
The angel declares to the shepherds that “a savior” is born (Lk 2:11) in the city of David, but the unspoken fact is that a “saviour” is already enthroned in Rome-Caesar Augustus, whose monuments declare him “saviour of the world.” Against this backdrop the anticipation of a savior within Israel seems fraught with danger, as the pious figures we meet in Luke’s Gospel invoke OT promises of deliverance. Zechariah speaks of a “mighty saviour” and of being “saved from our enemies” (Lk 1:69, 71 NRSV). Simeon, who has been looking for the “consolation of Israel,” thanks God that he has lived to see God’s “salvation” (Lk 2:30) in the face of the infant Jesus. And the aged Anna rejoices over the child in the presence of all who are “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38 NRSV). John the Baptist also speaks of a great judgment and renewal within Israel associated with the coming of the Lord. Luke summarizes John’s activity with the biblical image of preparing a highway for the divine warrior so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk 3:6 NRSV; cf. Is 40:5 LXX).
Leland Ryken et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 441.
“Grace ceases to be grace if God is compelled to bestow it in the presence of human merit.… Grace ceases to be grace if God is compelled to withdraw it in the presence of human demerit.… [Grace] is treating a person without the slightest reference to demerit whatsoever, but solely according to the infinite goodness and sovereign purpose of God.”
Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace: Living Confidently in God’s Unfailing Love (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2008), 35, quoting C. Samuel Storms.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were barren; Israel was barren. The childlessness of a godly couple in their old age is mirrored by the spiritual dryness of the of the people of God. Israel had not heard a prophetic voice for centuries. No man living could recall hearing a prophet. Zechariah, an Aaronic priest who is chosen by lot, burns incense at the hour of prayer. It is then he is met by Gabriel, who announces the birth of a son, who is to be named John. All of his and Elizabeth’s hopes and prayers were answered, although Zechariah cannot believe it. He is struck silent. The reproach upon Israel was soon to be lifted, just as the reproach of childlessness was from Elizabeth.
It may seem odd that Luke spends so much time on the birth story of the forerunner of Christ. It does not seem so odd, however, when the greater story is considered: a priest, of the tribe of Levi is burning incense in the temple, according to the Law, following the centuries-old ceremonies that demand repetition daily. During this temple ministry, a son is promised, but not one who will be a priest like his father. John will be a prophet, in the spirit of Elijah; the first prophet in centuries. Something new is coming.
Note also that John, of the tribe of Levi, will prepare the way for the final High Priest (Hebrews, chapters 5-8), the Saviour, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29). “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Levi gives way to Judah. Someone New has come.
In that same Holy Place in Herod’s great temple, Zechariah receives the first indications that the temple system is not eternal, but shall be declared irrelevant in the Kingdom of God. John will not carry on the temple traditions, but announce a new atoning sacrifice in Christ. Levi gives way to Judah.
In all of Christ’s ministry there is no miraculous sign or event in the temple, until the last day of the temple’s place in God’s economy: “ . . . And the curtain of the temple was torn in two” Luke 23:45. Jesus taught that the temple is to be destroyed. Because of the cross, its purpose is finally complete. It can now serve no other purpose. Limited access to God, restricted to the priesthood, is over. Access now is for “. . . as many as were appointed to eternal life . . . (Acts 13:48).
The ceremonial Law is now complete, and the old covenant is ratified.
In a ceremony in the Holy Place, the end of the Holy Place is foretold.
Luke describes the parents of John the Baptist, Zechariah and Elizabeth, as “righteous before God, walking blamelessly (ἄμεμπτος) in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” (Luke 1:6)
We are still accountable and expected to be blameless. Are you? How are you?
The question of Biblical literacy came up in a recent Facebook conversation, and it is a concern for many of us here. I wonder if we are not a victim of our own success, in a way. In the earlier years of the RM, and in the first half of the last century, many Americans were well-read in the Scriptures. Theological liberalism began to attack the Bible, but many Christians doubled-down on the Bible during that time, and Bible teaching demonstrated to be very important, by its frequency: Sunday School, Biblical preaching, Sunday night, Wednesday night, etc.
The RM took the Bible seriously. That is why I am no longer a Lutheran. I was raised in the liberal LCA synod, was confirmed, but was introduced to the Bible by other high school students from First Christian Church in Council Bluffs. These students told me what the Bible said about being saved, and how. That’s something I never heard in the Lutheran church.
I became a Christian there, and without knowing it, a member of the RM (Restoration Movement). I might add that it was High School students, and their college friends, who recruited me to attend Manhattan Christian College.
What impressed me, at age 15, was that the Bible was so important, and this church took it seriously. I wonder if that is so much the case today. We have taken the Bible seriously for so long, that we assume we are still doing it, without remembering that each new generation must be taught to have that same concern.
Don Carson, in speaking of the Gospel, says that though a generation or two take the Gospel very seriously, later generations begin to ASSUME the Gospel. So the Gospel is less proclaimed, but assumed, as other things are done: arts, music, counselling, social work, other ministries, etc., etc.
So I wonder if we, sometime in the 70s or 80s, began to do “other things,” and tacitly set aside the Bible. In the 1800s, philosophy is said to have taken “a hermeneutical turn” which has changed the course of philosophy from that time to the present.
In evangelical churches, not only the RM, I think we have taken a “relationship turn,” in our approach to all things, including Deity and Man. This is marked by a move away from propositional Revelation to feeling, from Word to deed, from foundations to structure. Relationships became the main thing–and it was around that time that we heard that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.” Interestingly, my liberal Lutheran church national youth group was called “Lutheran Youth Encounter.”
Some call it Neo-orthodoxy, a move to separate “fact” from “truth,” but I’ll stop digressing.
In the rush to keep people coming back to church, there has been a subtle change to treat disciples of Christ as the customers of Christ, so that people who profess Christ as Lord must be constantly wooed back to Him. We want them to like us. My take on the entertainment-as-worship phenomena is that is not so much that non-Christians won’t come if they’re not entertained, but it takes a circus to keep people, who are supposedly Christians, coming back. A man or woman who understands the seriousness of their lost-ness will be put off by levity, not drawn to it. How can a person who truly understands their guilt before God, be beholden to silliness in preaching? Is it the Word of God and His Spirit that draws a man to Christ or the band?
It takes a special kind of immaturity to be captive to entertainment, and that especially so when the consequences of falling short are eternal.
Staying with this consumer motif for a moment, we can see then that churches simply aren’t selling what people are buying. If there are faithful, Bible-preaching empty churches on Sunday nights and Wednesday nights, it could mean that there is an oversupply of Bible. That overstock is not fault of the church. There is, indeed, a famine for the Word of God, but no felt hunger among the starving (Amos 8:11). People need the Bible, but aren’t aware of that need. Replacing what is needed, the Word of God, with other business will save no one.
If we are trying to gather a shrinking market share of people who want Bible, and entertainment works, then that will be what is done; I think that this has been the trend for over 30 years now. If “Christianity lite” edges out the gravitas of the Faith, Sunday after Sunday, there will be few left who really do hunger for the Bible.
When I say “doing other things,” I’d like to offer some examples, and ask some questions:
- How often does preaching get set aside for other things on Sunday mornings? Special services, reports from missionaries (which do need the time, but need a longer time), skits from the youth group, all are used to replace preaching.
- I have seen advertised, from all sorts of churches, “An Evening of Praise” or “An Evening of Worship.” Are you aware of the success of anything like, “An evening of preaching” or “A night of teaching,” with back-to-back Scriptural exposition? Why would this not gather as large a group of people as would something involving music and drama?
- Has our preaching shifted from Scripture to needs based subjects? I firmly believe in the need to address needs, but from what I can tell, much preaching is no longer exegeting the Bible and applying it to life as the text brings them up, but first looking at problems faced by many and then finding texts to address those problems. This, though, tends to fragment our understand of Scripture, and makes the Bible more of a go-to book of advice.
- If you preach, in sermon planning do you start with Scripture, or your audience? Why?
- I assume that if you are reading this that you are a preacher or an elder. How many times have you read the Bible through in your life? Have you done so?
- Are students graduating from our colleges and seminaries Biblically literate? Have they read the Bible through? In what things are they literate?
- How soon after becoming a Christian did you read the Bible?
- If you were to start publically reading the Bible each Sunday (1 Timothy 4:13), and assuming you followed a plan or lectionary so you don’t just cycle through favourite texts, would your church push-back, and say that’s too much Scripture, or that it takes too much time?
- Can you imagine a worship service with no preaching, but just worship, offering, music and the Lord’s Supper? Can you imagine a worship service with only the Lord’s supper, offering, and preaching, but with no music? Which of these two are harder to accept?
I can think of others, but the few I listed above give some hint as to the kind of trouble we have in our churches now.
I do believe that the average preacher, elder, deacon, and church member knows much less of the Bible, is reading it less, and comprehends much less of the Biblical worldview than even 30 or 40 years ago.
Speaking now to the older preachers: Do you remember in the 70s, the Baker Book House catalogue that came out two or three times annually? Almost all the books sold in that catalogue were reference works about the Bible or theology. Even the early Christian Book Distributors catalogues leaned heavily upon doctrine, theology, Biblical studies, commentaries and Biblical languages. Now consider the top-selling books today: Christian fiction, relationship repair, and Bible study guides that state the painfully obvious that could be gleaned by a simple reading of the Bible (Lucado and Warren come to mind). Among Christian bestsellers are few books that actually enable one to understand Scripture better. We are awash in books, but know the Bible less.
If the pool of people who really respond to the preaching of the Bible is small, and shrinking, it is our duty to cultivate and grow that pool.
I think that elders and preachers need to encourage the reading of Scripture, in their entirety, more. This means that Christians ought to expect to read the Bible through, repeatedly, for the rest of their lives. Preachers and teachers must be reading more than what is necessary for the next lesson or sermon.
I also think that preachers and elders ought to model, and encourage, the “plucking out the eye” and “cutting off the hand” of much of popular culture. It simply is not that important to be up on every song, movie, play, novel, trend or sporting event. We only have so many hours in our lives, and we need to get past the entitlement mentality when it comes to our entertainment.
So, are we doing other things, or doing what matters?
I appreciate the sentiments in this article, and I agree that legalism is a problem for many. To be a legalist, though, is not to affirm the moral truth of the Law. Legalism is not the careful keeping of God’s Law. What legalism is, is to rely upon the Law a means to salvation. The problem with this article is that Rohr treats the Law as the problem, rather than sin (breaking the Law) as the problem. His concern over legalism leads him to deny the proper place of the Law. Rohr says that the Law is only “. . . to get you seriously engaged with the need for grace and mercy; they were never an end in themselves (read Romans 7:7ff).” This is missing the point of the Law.
First off, Rohr creates a straw man argument in saying that “they (the Law’s rules and regulations) were never an end in themselves.” The Bible never says the Law is an end to itself (Psalm 19:7; 37:31; 40:8 and many other places); rather, one important purpose of the Law is to reflect the holiness of God, and how His people may please Him.
Secondly, Rohr seems to want to cut off any use of the Law as a way to know the character of God. He seems to limit the purpose of the Law to “getting us seriously engaged,” and not as a means to keeping us seriously engaged. But the moral character of God did not change at the cross, and the cross does not take away the moral requirements of the Law. The Law cannot (because of our weakness) save; but the saved seek to grow in sanctification, which is at the least, to keep His Law.
Rohr’s first two Bible passages do not at all say what he says they do:
Rohr says that Paul said this: “ ‘Cursed be the law,’ Paul even says (Galatians 3:13)”
But Paul really said this:
“13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’”— Galatians 3:13 (ESV)
Failure to keep and obey the Law brings a curse, but that curse is not the Law itself. Paul never uses this language to describe the Law. Rather, reliance upon the Law brings a curse. This is an important distinction, because Rohr’s approach denies the Law its rightful place as a rule of life for the Christian, and sure and true guidance for the Christian who desires to please God (John 14:15, 21, 15:10).
The curse comes not because of anything at fault wi-th the Law, but with us. That is why Christ became a curse for us. That’s grace.
Rohr: “But it seems Christianity has paid little heed to Paul’s revolutionary message, or even to Jesus who says six times in a row, ‘The law says, but I say!’(Matthew 5:21-45).”
What Jesus said: “You have heard” (Matthew 5, verses 21, 27, 33, 38, 43) and “it was also said” (Matthew 5:31). Jesus was NOT saying what Rohr is claiming. Jesus is not doing away with the Law, nor is He saying that He is somehow setting it aside; actually, quite the opposite (see Matthew 5:17 and below)
Jesus is not quoting the Law in these sayings. Jesus is quoting the Rabbinical interpretation of the Law. This is evident because, when Jesus quotes Scripture, He says, “It is written . . .” (Matthew 4:4, 6, & 10). Here He does not. He says, “You have heard.” This is a reference to the oral tradition of the Rabbis. That this is a Rabbinical interpretation is also evident from the last “you have heard,” in Matthew 5:43:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”
This is not a statement of Old Testament Law. It is a Rabbinical commentary.
Furthermore, Jesus makes it clear that the Law is not abolished, by saying, “17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Matthew 5:17 (ESV)
Fulfilment and abolishment are two entirely different things. What Jesus says is that the Law will not pass away until it is kept perfectly, that is, fulfilled, and it was done so in Christ. In fact, Christ’s “you have heard” statements reaffirm the deep and spiritual nature of the Law, not merely the outward appearance.
Legalism is a real problem, and it lays at the theological foundations of Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholicism, and every man-made religion. It is man striving to reach God.
But the cure for legalism is not antinomianism (lawlessness), but Grace. Grace is what God applies to us when we are brought to the end of our abilities by the Law. It must be kept in mind that the Law was good when I could not keep it; now, in Christ, who kept it for me, the Law is still good.
I personally believe that legalism among professed Christians is much less a problem than antinomianism, because there appears to be so little difference between Christians and non-Christians morally in our present age. If the Law, properly used as a means to show our need for Grace, but also as a perfect rule of life lived with the power of the Holy Spirit, was better taught today, the distinction between believer and unbeliever would be clearer.