Sunday, November 16, 2008

God's foreknowledge as a result of his sovereignty

In my last post I criticized Greg Boyd's otherwise-excellent arguments in "God of the Possible" as giving insufficient attention to God's sovereignty as an important key to understanding his foreknowledge. I suggested that while Boyd correctly answers his objectors toward the end of the book, by saying that the Open View of God does not diminish--and may in fact enhance--the view of God's authority, he could have applied the fact of God's sovereign nature to the question at hand to far greater effect. In this post I will elaborate on why I think it matters.

The classical view of God's foreknowledge, which Boyd describes well, seems to me to imply that part of the foundation of God's authority rests on the fact of his settled foreknowledge about all that will happen. Though I am vastly oversimplifying, in essence the thought seems to be that God's power and/or authority depend at least in part on God's omniscience--his ability to see the end from the beginning--to "know all things."

I submit this is getting the cart before the horse, and the fact that Boyd does not point this out complicates his own explanation about the future being "partially open" and "partially settled." I suggest rather that God has settled in his mind that there are certain things he's going to do, and certain outcomes that he is going to ensure take place. Those things are "settled" for the simple reason that God has resolved that he will do them. Isaiah 45:23 is a great example of this, where God says "I swear by myself" that one day everyone will acknowledge he's the only God. This is not conditional on anything, but nor is it a passively-settled future event. It's something God is going to accomplish, and he knows he can and will do it. His foreknowledge, therefore, is absolutely settled because God the omnipotent can deliver on his commitment.

In the same vein, however, those things that God in his sovereignty has delegated to his creatures to decide, remain uncertain until his free moral agents choose among the possibilities. Here Boyd makes a very plausible case that God, being infinite in knowledge, can forsee all of the possible choices we might make, and even rank them in probability based upon our character and the character of other players, environmental factors, etc. that lead us to decide as we do. This perspective permeates the book, but one good place to see it is in his question 6 discussion on pp 126 and following, where he offers the analogy of God as the "infinitely intelligent chess player" who can anticipate all our possible moves. As Boyd correctly points out, this actually requires a lot more intellectual horsepower than simply to know the one fully-determined script that everything is going to follow, and thus an open view of God actually posits a more intelligent, more wise, more glorious perspective for God than that of exhaustive, settled foreknowledge.

Even if the choice we make from among the possibilities is one that God did not expect or desire (and Boyd makes an unambiguous Scriptural case for this happening), this does not diminish the fact of his sovereignty in the slightest, because regardless of the outcome of our choices, he is confident in his power (and so ought we to be) to take whatever mess we make and still accomplish his good purpose. Put crudely, we have the ability to screw things up because that's one of the possible consequences of the freedom to choose, which God has granted. However--and this is cause for joy--we don't have the ability to screw them up beyond repair. THAT is God's sovereignty (and his grace) in full force!

The Sovereignty of God

I’ve just finished Greg Boyd’s lay treatise on the Open Theism entitled “God of the Possible.” In the main I think Boyd has laid out an excellent perspective that conforms far more closely to my understanding of Scripture and my observation of the world, than does the classical view that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of a settled future. I definitely recommend the book.

However correct he is about the openness of the future and of God’s knowledge of that future, I think Boyd misses the significance of God’s sovereignty as it informs God’s future knowledge. It is not wholly unaddressed—Question 16 in chapter 4 deals in some degree with the objection classical evangelicals raise, that the open view of God somehow demeans God’s sovereignty (pp. 147 and following in the paperback edition). Nevertheless I suggest that if Boyd were more fully to consider the basic nature of God’s sovereignty, he could present a more forceful response to this question.

We Americans (perhaps others, but I know “us” best) don’t get the concept of sovereignty in anything remotely approaching a Biblical sense. It’s not our fault exactly, it’s in the DNA of our nation. The American Declaration of Independence illustrates my point, when it states that governments “. . .deriv(e) their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This concept, that we, the ruled, are in fact the source of the ruler’s authority, is a fundamental American belief, but it was wildly revolutionary in the context of European monarchs whose sovereignty was derived, either from divine right (that is, conferred upon them by God), or by their own self-existence. Interestingly, even now the term “Sovereign” in a monarchy refers, not to the state or the nation, but to the person of the monarch him- or herself. This contrasts sharply with our constitutional republic in which the people themselves are the sovereign (I speak, of course, of the governing philosophy with no comment on how it is—or isn’t—reflected in reality).

But all too often--and in sharp contrast to the way any Biblical contemporary would have understood it--American Christians’ description of God’s sovereignty falls into the trap of imputing to God’s authority the same source as human governments—namely us. This is true any time anyone makes the claim “if God weren’t this way (pick the theological trait of choice), he wouldn’t be sovereign.” This is hubris of the highest degree. What we’re really saying is that we couldn’t possibly grant the sovereignty of anybody who doesn’t measure up to our standard. In other words, God Himself is presumed to derive HIS just powers from our consent. Now, no good Evangelical would actually admit that is what he is saying; in fact he’d rightly counter that it was heresy. But when we attach conditions to the sovereignty of God, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

What I’m getting at is that God is sovereign simply and completely because he is—full stop. There are no conditions, no criteria that define or justify the fact that God is supreme over all things in heaven and on earth. God doesn’t derive his power or authority from anything at all. Rather it is one of the truths of his self-existent being. If nothing else we believe about God were true, his supreme authority would not be affected in any way, because it stands on its own. Therefore, any pronouncement of the sort “If X were not true, God’s sovereignty would be diminished” is sheer nonsense.

This brings me back to the open view of God, and Boyd’s book in particular, but I’ll save that for the next post.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Insight from Boyd on Bringing Our Presuppositions to Scripture

I'm in the middle of Greg Boyd's excellent book "God of the Possible," an introduction to the "Open View of God" which I find quite compelling, but which I'm sorry to say some of my Evangelical friends have flatly rejected as heresy. I'll address the Open View in future posts, but for now I wanted to share a point he makes regarding our interpretation of Scripture.

Boyd clearly espouses a tighter view of Scriptural inspiration than I do--that is, he consistently refers to the whole Biblical text as the Word of God rather than searching for the Word of God WITHIN the Biblical text as I propose. Nevertheless I am in full agreement with the following statement (p 56-57 of the paperback edition), which he makes in partial response to the objection that if God regrets a decision he has made, he "must not be perfectly wise":

. . .it is better to allow Scripture to inform us regarding the nature of divine wisdom than to reinterpret an entire motif in order to square it with our preconceptions of divine wisdom. If God says he regretted a decision, and if Scripture elsewhere tells us that God is perfectly wise, then we should simply conclude that one can be perfectly wise and still regret a decision. Even if this is a mystery to us, it is better to allow the mystery to stand than to assume that we know what God's wisdom is like and conclude on this basis that God can't mean what he clearly says. (emphasis mine)

This quote highlights a problem that I believe pervades a great deal of theology, both modern and of long standing. Two observations that I think are key:
  1. Our theology is far too intolerant of mystery. We seem to operate under the assumption that unless our system of belief has a complete explanation for every conceivable objection, we have not got it right. I regard it as the height of arrogance that finite humans could presume to fully understand the ways of an infinite God, yet in questions such as God's sovereignty we insist on explaining and analyzing it as if we were in fact the arbiters of God's authority.
  2. The plain reading of Scripture is frequently far simpler (and, I submit, more likely to be true) than the contortions we force it through in order to fit our systematic theology. While it by no means always holds true, we would do well to start with the assumption that if a simple explanation fits the facts (or in this case, the Scriptural texts), it makes no sense to look for a more complicated one.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Eternal destiny, part 4: What about those who've never heard?

The second element of the question put to me was as regards the eternal state of those who have never heard the gospel, and consequently have never had the opportunity to accept or reject Christ. This is a problematic concept when we try and break it down logically, and I readily admit this. However the uncomfortable reality is that Scripture is nearly silent on the subject. I only found a couple of references that alluded to the “ignorant unbeliever” at all. In Luke 12:42 and following, Jesus says that the one who knowingly violated what he knew to be right will be punished more severely than the one who erred ignorantly. Peter in his second epistle is even stronger (2:20-21), when he says of those who once believed but have returned, not only to the world, but to actively trying to deceive other believers, that “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs. . .”

There are several passages that may be inferred to include those who have never heard, including Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, as well as John 5, Hebrews 9, and Revelation 20. There are vastly more passages which describe only the fate of those who have turned their back on the Lord—a far more active thing. But even from the few passages that do seem to include all people everywhere, we can infer that all flesh will be subject to judgment. Moving from this inference to the conclusion that those who have never heard are subject to the same punishment as those who actively oppose Jesus, requires a leap that Scripture does not make.

Scripture is quite clear that only those who have believed in the Lord receive eternal life (though I must qualify that the conventional evangelical definition of the term "believe" as "intellectual assent to orthodox propositions" is wide of the mark). Universalism is not a Biblical concept. But to say with certainty that the ignorant unbeliever will languish in eternal, conscious torment along with the one who has rejected and opposed Christ, is not a conclusion Scripture supports.

Finally, although this last point is a logical one and not a scriptural one (and therefore I offer it as a point to consider, not a doctrine), I have been struck by a number of cases over the years where the Spirit of God has clearly prepared a people group to receive the gospel, in some cases generations before any missionary arrives. Repeatedly I have read of missionaries arriving in a place to find people to whom elements of the truth of God have been revealed without any clear knowledge of the gospel, but who as soon as they heard the word of Christ have realized that this is what they were waiting for. It seems to me that we should be careful not to seal up our doctrinal boundaries so tightly as to exclude from our belief system those in whom the Spirit of God has been working without the benefit of a flesh-and-blood missionary.

None of this excuses us from our mandate to spread the gospel. As I said at the outset, our king has given us marching orders, and they are to be followed, not because of what will happen if we don’t, but because he’s our king. But as to the fate of those we don’t reach before they die, perhaps the most relevant scripture is Jesus’ counsel to Peter when he asked about John’s fate: “. . .what is that to you? You follow me.”

Eternal destiny, part 3: Eternal what?

An implicit point in many discussions of the state of a human being after death, revolve around the theory that we were created with immortal souls, which live on after corporeal death. The belief is that we will all live forever, either in bliss or torment. I did not find any conclusive evidence of this in the New Testament. In fact, the majority of the passages I found speak of resurrection from the dead, not a continued existence after death. A worldview that states that we are all “fully dead” (for want of a better term) at death, but that God will, at the end of time, raise us all either to eternal life or to judgment, is just as consistent—perhaps more so—with the scriptures I read, as is a belief in the immortality of the soul.

Furthermore, numerous passages in both the Gospel of John and the epistles, seem to set up a contrast between death or destruction on one hand, and eternal life on the other. The classic John 3:16 is a good example of this. The contrast is not between “eternally conscious punishment” and “eternal life,” but rather between “perishing” and “eternal life.” “Eternal death” (my phrase, not in the Bible) is also eternal—that is, death from which there is no resurrection or reprieve. The “second death” of Revelation may be just that.

I’m not necessarily advocating annihilationism (although I find it logically compelling). As my notes on individual passages will show, I in fact came across a variety of places in both the gospels and the epistles, some of which might be taken more to indicate an ongoing punishment, and others of which seem more to suggest a finality to the punishment—rather like the contrast between life in prison and the death sentence. Both are final, complete, and irrevocable, and nothing I found in Scripture suggests anything less.

My point is that an equally-honest case can be made, either for eternal conscious punishment, or for annihilation, depending on the Scriptural passages to which one gives more weight, and no clear-cut, conclusive pattern emerges. I may decide the preponderence of evidence points one direction, and another believer may see it pointing the other way, and neither of us is conclusively on solid Scriptural ground. I cannot agree to a doctrine which attempts to clarify a point that I believe the writers of Scripture—under divine inspiration—left vague.

Eternal destiny, part 2: Begging the Question

The clearest finding I come to from this study was something I had already suspected, but I was still surprised by the preponderance of evidence that came through. This is that the concept of hell and condemnation is used in the New Testament primarily as a warning to those who claim to believe, or who claim God’s privilege. It is not used as a warning or threat to the unbeliever. Time and again, both Jesus and the writers of the epistles speak of hell in the context of calling out the oppressors, the self-righteous religious leaders (particularly as those leaders are misleading those who might otherwise follow God), and those who try to justify themselves while ignoring the core of Jesus’ teaching. Even the term “unbeliever” in context refers far more frequently to those who have consciously rejected Jesus, than to people who just don’t know or haven’t received the Gospel.

A corollary to this point is that hell is also not used by any Biblical writer as a reason for us to evangelize. In the Great Commission, and in other places where Jesus commands us to spread his word, the reason is Jesus’ authority itself (“all power is given to me, therefore go…”), not the eventual state of the unbeliever. Jesus’ message to the unbeliever was an affirmative one—come, believe, repent, follow—not a negative one of fleeing punishment. Scripture is clear that God wants people to be saved, and we may infer that their eternal state is part of the reason, but Scripture itself does not link the two. That link, while reasonable, is a creation of human logic, not a Biblical one.

I freely acknowledge that there are many dedicated believers who first came to Christ out of a fear of condemnation. This is yet more evidence that God, in his grace, uses our flawed efforts to his glory. However, to argue as some have, that we need to use the “fear factor” to reach people who might not respond to a more affirmative presentation of the gospel, is to forget what we so readily claim at other times—that it is the Spirit of Christ who draws people to him, not the effectiveness of our words. If we believe in the Spirit’s moving in our evangelistic efforts, we do not need to go beyond what is written to be effective messengers of the gospel.

So my first and most important conclusion is this: a doctrine of hell/punishment is not necessary to obedience, and it is not central to the message of the New Testament. I submit it does not rise to the level of doctrine at all.

Eternal destiny, part 1

I've already posted about my aversion to statements of faith in general, and to specific points in the commonly-accepted evangelical doctrinal statements. In the next several posts I want to take on one specific point in Evangelical doctrine that I believe is seriously misguided--the subject of eternal condemnation/hell. As the reader will soon see, I don't come out entirely in the camp of any of the major positions I have seen, in that I maintain the whole question of one's eternal destiny (particularly as a future-only proposition) is, in fact, asking the wrong question. But so much Evangelical thought is focused either on salvation as a means of hell-avoidance, sin as a thing that dooms us to hell (without salvation), and the fate of the "lost" (i.e., going to hell) as the reason for evangelism, that I don't think the point can safely be ignored.

The doctrinal statement goes something like this (this version taken from the new SOF of the Evangelical Free Church of America):

We believe that God will raise the dead bodily and judge the world, assigning the unbeliever to condemnation and eternal conscious punishment and the believer to eternal blessedness and joy with the Lord in the new heaven and the new earth, to the praise of His glorious grace.

The following posts are taken from a short paper I did on this subject in January, 2007 while I was in the process of pursuing a possible job in an international missions organization. Although the work I would have been doing was in the realm of health and development, the organization (not surprisingly) wanted to be sure my beliefs were in alignment with their doctrines, which as it turned out, they were not (I didn't get the job). Specifically, in the view of a statement that contained the above text, I was asked my position regarding the eventual state, both of the unbeliever who rejects Jesus consciously, and of those who never hear the gospel and therefore die "unsaved."

Not having fully studied the issue before (I have for a long time felt, as I said, that it was the wrong question to be asking), I committed to do a study of the Biblical texts for myself before answering. I did a complete survey of the New Testament, specifically looking for any text that seemed, to me, to be relevant to the subject. I'll post my annotated list of texts when I figure out how to do so, but I'll get the content up first.

As I said, my methodology here was simply a complete survey of the New Testament. In one or two cases I also referred to the Greek roots of a couple words. When I did this I used the Nestle Greek text, and Young’s Analytical Concordance as my principal references. I deliberately did not consult with any theological references or commentaries for this paper. I chose to do this, not because I do not respect others’ study, but because I believe it is important to approach a Scriptural question first and foremost by allowing the Scripture to speak for itself. I operate under the assumption that key Scriptural concepts (and consequently doctrines) must be derivable from Scripture itself. I do not presume to be superior to church fathers or traditions—but on the other hand I feel it is crucial to remember that nothing but Scripture itself carries Scripture’s authority. In the next three posts, I'll lay out what I found.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Biblical Literalism according to Wright

I have been reading N.T. Wright's book "The Last Word -- Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture." This is a good read, shorter than usual for Wright, that discusses a number of issues surrounding Biblical inspiration in what I believe is a very healthy light. My quote of Wright in this post, while it links to an online article, is also in the text of this book.

I wish Wright went a little further than he has done in his analysis of the historical perspective on Scriptural authority. He does offer a great deal in explaining the ways in which the church fathers throughout the last twenty centuries saw that authority in a variety of lights, none of them much like the current perspectives of either "liberal" or "conservative" Christianity. However he appears (and I qualify this by saying I'm only about 2/3 of the way through at this writing) to completely hop over the synonymization of the concepts "authoritative scripture" and the "word of God," which concepts, as I have previously argued, ought not to be conflated. I had hoped that the evolution of this conflation would be part of his history and it is not.

Nevertheless, I came across a couple of very interesting passages today (pp 68-74 for those who have the book) in which he informs us that even the term "literal interpretation," so hot among fundamentalists in the past century and today, meant something very different to the 16th-century reformers, and before them, to medieval theologians. Medieval scholars saw four different "senses" in which to interpret various parts of Scripture: the literal, the allegorical, the anagogical, and the moral (Wright is not advocating this structure, in fact he points out potential error in it). In medieval usage, "literal" meant the original meaning of the words as actually written (same Latin root as our words "literature" and "literary"), as opposed to any other means of interpretation. As Wright points out, the "literal" interpretation of one of Jesus' parables does not mean that we approach the events of that parable as though they actually happened (which is what would mean in modern English if we took the parable "literally"). Rather, we accept that the writer is representing that Jesus told a parable--a story that may or may not be factually true but illustrates the real truth Jesus was trying to convey.

This sense, for the reformers, put them at odds with Catholic theology in that, to the Catholic interpretation, the literal sense of Jesus statement "this is my body" provided the foundation for the dogma of transubstantiation, while the reformers argued that the literal interpretation (remember that Wright says "literal" means "the sense that the first writers intended" rather than our modern definition of the word) recognizes that the text is relating truly a metaphorical statement by Jesus.

Obviously this difference in approach could be applied all over the place--so that a "literal reading" of the Genesis account of creation could be as the poetic narrative of God starting things out good, and humans jealous of God screwing it up, rather than justifying the seven days, the talking snake (apologies to Bill Maher), and other things that create so much heartburn in cosmological circles.

As Wright states, ". . .we need to note carefully that to invoke 'the literal meaning of scripture,' hoping thereby to settle a point by echoing the phraseology of the Reformers, could be valid only if we meant, not 'literal' as opposed to metaphorical, but 'literal' (which might include metaphorical if that, arguably, was the original sense) as opposed to the three other medieval senses (allegorical, anagogical and/or moral). This is one of those many points at which the later appeal to the rhetoric of the Reformation needs to be scrutinized rather carefully. Today, when people say 'literalist,' they often mean 'fundamentalist.' The Reformers' stress on the literal sense by no means supports the kind of position thereby implied."

I'm not suggesting that literalism in any form is necessarily a biblically-derived concept anyhow--although in its medieval sense I think it has a lot more going for it than in the modern sense of the same word. But it is important to understand how terms of art have evolved before going off half-cocked about what some historical authority is saying.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Personal Salvation

It’s not about you.
The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness.

So begins that modern mogul of megachurches, Rick Warren, in his bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life." He's right, of course, though I wish he would have expanded the thought in more directions than he did. But I'm afraid that though millions bought (and presumably read) his book, the Purpose Driven (tm) People haven't gotten the message. Whether it's in the old hymns of the faith:

I once was lost, but now I'm found
Was blind, but now I see. (Isaac Watts "Amazing Grace")

Or the spectacular navel-gazing of that new "praise chorus" "Marvelous Light:"

Lift my head and spin around
See the marvelous light I've found

Whether learning to claim Jesus as your "personal savior" or acknowledging that He died for "my sin," the stuff that comes across the pulpits and sound stages of churches new and old is most definitely "about me." And when the subject is sin, it usually falls into the camp of the stuff "the world" does, unless, like the various "Promise Keepers" and "Quiet Battles" and similar ministries, it deals with the private demons of addiction, sex, porn, etc. I find it interesting that most "sin" the church talks about is either sex, or voting Democratic (and Democrats like sex), but I digress.

I've been griping about this individuality for a long time, and the response is usually something along the lines of "of course, you're right," whereupon the hearers go back to their worship (another word that's been badly distorted, but one thing at a time) and that's the end of it. Meanwhile the gospel continues to be taught as basically Jesus' solution for each of our individual sinfulness, and if there is any collective or greater good to be had, it pretty well disappears into the self-contemplation of the devoted "saved." I came across a highly relevant passage this past week in N.T. Wright's "Surprised by Hope" that, I believe, clarifies the issue better than I ever have done. Consider:

" insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question--to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world--may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century, the mistake that both Jesus and Paul addressed. Israel believed (so Paul tells us, and he should know) that the purposes of the creator God all came down to this question: how is God going to rescue Israel? What the gospel of Jesus revealed, however, was that the purposes of God were reaching out to a different question: how is God going to rescue the world through Israel and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process but not as the point of it all? Maybe what we are faced with in our own day is a similar challenge: to focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all."

This, I believe, gets fully to the point Paul was making in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 (or 21) that God in Christ reconciled us to himself and then gave us the ministry of reconciliation. We are saved, rescued, reconciled, not for any benefit of our own, but so that we, in turn, might become Christ's ambassadors and save, rescue, reconcile others. To the extent our faith is "personal" (by which I mean "private") it is irrelevant to God's purpose.

By this I do not mean to deny our own accountability for our actions. I do not mean to suggest that we don't at some point need to confront the reality that either Jesus is Lord, or he isn't. But acknowledging his lordship is supposed to take us out of ourselves. . .not just give us the quiet assurance that, for us at least, it'll be all right.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A word about creeds

Those who've been in regular dialog with me for some time now know that I have a long-running issue with creeds or statements of faith. To some extent my issue is with the concept itself--that a creed seems often to be used to define who's "in," or more particularly who's "out" of fellowship with a group, a deity, a religion. While I freely acknowledge my own inconsistencies here, it seems to me a proper understanding of the sovereignty of God would necessitate a certain humility of the sort that would say "this is what I believe I understand to be true, but the final arbiter of faith and faithfulness can be God alone." Not content with that, humans seem to have expended a lot of effort over the years trying to draw clear "lines in the sand" delineating who's got it and who's not.

The word "creed," of course, comes from the Latin "credo" which simply means "I believe." So at its simplest a creed is simply a summary of those things an individual or group believes to be true. Depending on what follows the "I believe" statement, however, a creed can--and often has--become a list of what is important to the particular believer(s) to the effectual exclusion of those things not on the list. At its worst, then (and here I'm speaking strictly of Christianity, though I am sure similar things can be said in and of other faiths), subscribing to a creed may tend toward a form of reductionism whereby any concerns not on the list--however relevant or scriptural--are excluded as of lesser (or no) import.

Creeds need not be reductionist. The only creed that we have recorded in the Gospels as being endorsed by Jesus himself is simple, yet all-encompassing:

Hear, o Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. . .and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Mark 12:29-31

I have represented this as a creed, and yet that's not entirely accurate. Jesus actually spoke these words (quoting from the Hebrew scriptures), not in terms of "what should we believe?" but rather "what is the greatest commandment?" This difference is actually quite important, because particularly in our current definitions of faith, "believe" is something one does in one's head, while a "commandment" implies action. In fact, the love of God and neighbor are necessarily active things that cannot exist in an intellectual vacuum apart from deeds and lifestyle. This is vitally different from, for example, the statement of faith recently adopted by the denomination of the church I currently attend. Have a look at this fairly-typical evangelical statement of faith here. Interestingly, nearly all of the points in this statement, and certainly all of the specifics, involve propositions to which one must give intellectual assent to be a member in good standing. Very little is said about the way one might live as a believer, and what is said is in the most generic of terms. (To those who would suggest I'm selling the church short by oversimplifying its SOF I would add that in my personal experience, I have been excluded from certain opportunities to serve based solely upon my failure to give assent to points in that statement about which we can do nothing EXCEPT agree or disagree intellectually)

The history of creeds in the church needs far more detailed analysis than I shall attempt here, but I think it's interesting to note an unsubtle trend in the church's use of such statements. We begin, of course, with the concise, yet all-encompassing "Love God, love your neighbor" summary Jesus himself preached. The early church was similarly broad but simple with its revolutionary claim "Jesus is Lord," which could not have been mistaken by any first-century hearer--"Caesar is Lord" being both a theological and political pledge of allegiance in the Roman empire of the day (citations welcome; I don't have one readily at hand).

But by the time of the second century, looking at Iraneus' Rule of faith and the Apostles' Creed, we see something interesting has happened. Gone from Iraneus are any references to discipleship, lordship of Christ, or anything of the sort (the Apostle's Creed still calls Jesus "our Lord"), replaced entirely by things one either thinks are true, or not. The Nicene Creed, a hundred-plus years later, perpetuates this loss while further defining what must be believed, but it gets really interesting in the sixth century when we look at the Constantinople "anathemas," in which we are informed that (if I may crudely, but not inaccurately, paraphrase) "if you don't believe and say these things, you can go to hell, and if you aren't sure that certain people (names are listed!) are going to hell, you can go to hell, too!"

(Lest the reader fear that I am overdoing the sense of "anathema," have a look at this document which clarifies what the term means and meant in the time those anathemas were written. Consider this language from the anathematizing ritual: "...we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church...")

I am sad to say that this latter has pretty much become the standard. Sure, just what is on or off the list has varied somewhat through the centuries, but the core is still there: what counts is what you think and say, and if you don't think and say the right things, you can (and will!) go to hell.

How far we have strayed from Jesus' "Come to me!" And how many may we have driven FROM him with our creeds? Christe eleison (Christ, have mercy)!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Atonement as Evangelism???

We have it all wrong when we invite people to follow Jesus. The typical Evangelical invitation to Christ is, of course, summed up most fully in the so-called "Four Spiritual Laws." In short, they are (and partially in my own words):
  1. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life;
  2. Because you are sinful, you can't experience God's plan for your life;
  3. Jesus has the solution to your sin and is the only way you CAN experience God's plan for your life; and
  4. You must "receive" Jesus so that he can put God's plan in action for your life.

Now, at least numbers one and three have some basis in fact--I contend 2 is distorted and 4 is totally off-base--but the biggest problem here is not the accuracy or inaccuracy of the Four Laws as factual propositions, but that they have been represented and taught as the way one who has not previously believed in Jesus Christ comes to be his follower. I must hasten to add that, like all flawed human endeavor, God in his grace has frequently used the Four Laws in all their faulty inadequacy as a "foot in the door" to bring people to him, but this is a testimony to God's mercy, not to the efficacy or truth of the Four Laws or the underlying doctrine they promote.

The doctrine to which I refer, of course, is the concept that coming to Christ is primarily about dealing with this sin barrier between God and humanity. I've seen it expressed in other places that a holy God cannot abide or associate with sin, and only by having his Son die on the cross to atone for our sins, can God even look at us. In its most foolish form, people describe the imputation of Jesus' righteousness on us as almost some sort of adolescent trick where Jesus aids those who are "in" with him in some cosmic bait-and-switch on his Father, whereby the Father sees only his Son's righteousness and not the actual filth of his Son's buddies. I think that's an insult--God isn't that gullible or blind.

But there is a bigger issue here. Ancient religions, Judaism included, had a real issue with sin. Much, if not most religious practice involved appeasing the appropriate deity somehow--usually through sacrifice--in order to atone for some slight or anger or offense that the humans had caused. One didn't have to be Jewish to realize that God or gods were upset with human behavior and required payment.

Characteristically, Jesus came along and turned that whole concept on its head. He actually had the audacity to up and forgive people's sins unasked, as he did for the paralytic in Matt. 9:2-7. No sacrifice, for that matter no demonstration on the part of the forgiven man that he had either asked for forgiveness, or acknowledged his sinfulness. No, Jesus just flat-out forgave him, citing as his authority his ability to heal the man.

I think we miss the significance of Jesus' behavior in this situation when we get all wrapped up in doctrines of the "atonement." Atonement, or sacrifice to pay the debt of sin, is not an unknown concept in the old or new testaments, to be sure. Nor, as I said above, was it at all strange to the people of Jesus' time, even the pagans. But Jesus offered FORGIVENESS, not atonement. His authority to deal with sin was already established long before his trip to the cross.

Importantly, however, while Jesus definitely and repeatedly preached forgiveness of sin, it was not the core of his message the way it has become in Christianity. Jesus' own message was one of repentance and the simple call to "follow me." The key point of both of these things is that they involve an active change of lifestyle and direction, not simply of belief. Sure, you have to believe something pretty radical about Jesus if you're going to submit to his lordship, but it's that submission, not the belief, that is Jesus' call. Never in all the gospels or Acts do Jesus or his apostles invite people to acknowledge their sinfulness and "accept" Jesus. No, they are called to repent (turn around), be baptized, and follow. When "belief" is part of the equation, for example Paul & Silas preaching to the jailer in Acts 16:31, the phrase is "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ." Given the common usage of "Lord" as the term for Caesar in those days, the jailer (himself a government functionary) could not possibly have confused this command with a proposition for intellectual or spiritual assent. He was being invited to change his ultimate allegiance--perhaps even to go AWOL.

Back to my main point. I am contending that, while Jesus certainly did and does forgive our sins, that fact is not the centrality of the gospel, that Christianity has made it. Even the many Pauline discourses on Jesus' atoning death, I have observed, occur in the context of Paul defending the gospel he preached to the Gentiles, against the legalism of the Judaizers--people who were trying to drag the Way of Jesus back into the old paradigm of rituals to atone for sin. When Paul speaks of Jesus' death atoning for our sins, he is trying (hopelessly, it sometimes appears) to demonstrate that the whole model of sin and sacrifice-atonement has been done away with by Jesus.

For us to turn around and make sin and its atonement a central element (at times it seems, the ONLY element) of our gospel is to preach a gospel fundamentally at odds with the one Jesus and the apostles preached. And we know what Paul said about that. . .see Galatians 1:8.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Required reading by N.T. Wright

I have just got to promote this article by N.T. (Tom) Wright, bishop of Durham in England:

Thanks to my friend Ben for sharing it. Wright has outlined so many things in this piece, that have also been bugging me, that I don't even know what highlights to quote. It's long and a bit heavy at times, but seriously, take the time to digest it.

I will offer a couple excerpts that, to me, resonate with some of what I've been trying to say here:

Consider: How does what we call ‘the authority of the Bible’ relate to the authority of God himself – and the authority of Jesus himself? When the risen Jesus commissions his followers for their worldwide mission, he does not say ‘all authority in heaven and earth is given to – the books you people are going to go and write.’ He says that all authority is given to him. When we say the closing words of the Lord’s prayer, we don’t say that the kingdom, the power and the glory belong to the Bible, but to God himself. And when Jesus commissions the disciples for mission in John 20, he doesn’t say ‘receive this book’ but ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. Authority, then, has a trinitarian shape and content. If we want to say, as I certainly want to say in line with our entire Anglican tradition, that the Bible is in some sense our authority, the Bible itself insists that that sentence must be read as a shorthand way of saying something a bit more complicated, something that will enable us to get some critical distance on the traditional shouting-match.

And a little further down:

When we say ‘the authority of scripture’, then, we mean – if we know our business – God’s authority, Christ’s authority, somehow exercised through the Bible. But what is ‘God’s authority’ all about? To look again at scripture itself, it is clear that one of the most common models assumed by many in today’s world simply won’t do. We have lived for too long in the shadow of an older Deism in which God is imagined as a celestial C. E. O., sitting upstairs and handing down instructions from a great height. The Bible is then made to fit into the ontological and epistemological gap between God and ourselves; and, if it is the Deist God you are thinking of, that gap has a particular shape and implication. The Bible is then bound to become merely a source-book for true doctrines and right ethics. That is better than nothing, but it is always vulnerable to the charge, made frequently these days, that it is after all only an old book and that we’ve learnt a lot since then. The Left doesn’t get it, and often all the Right can do is to respond with an ever more shrill repetition of ‘the Bible, the Bible the Bible’.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Spiritual Innoculation

One of the things that originally got me on the subject of what the Bible actually says about itself was my frustration about how people in the church use it. . .and these are things I have encountered in a wide variety of Christian settings, not just evangelical/fundamental ones. I refer here to the devotional rituals described by some as "time with the Lord" or "quiet time" or "time in the Word." Whatever the terminology, conventional usage has invested a regular, periodic time of Bible reading with the power of a "Spiritual Discipline" that may be anything from a source of divine guidance to direct communion with God. Perhaps the worst, most insipid form of this practice is in the statement "the Bible is God's love letter to you."

I do not discount that familiarity with and study of the Biblical texts is essential to anyone who intends to model his or her life after Jesus--for as I said before, the Biblical record is the most complete account we have of Jesus' life and teachings. Nor do I disallow the possibility that the Holy Spirit may prompt vital thoughts or guidance in the believer while reading their Bible, though I believe the Spirit may just as well guide one's thoughts while one is reading non-Biblical literature (even the news). But the mystical properties often ascribed to the Bible are silly at best, and are certainly not supported by the texts themselves.

The most compelling argument against the mystical efficacy of Bible reading has got to be the ol' "by their works you shall know them" one Jesus used so effectively in his dissertation about false prophets in Matt 7:15-20. The "wolves in sheep's clothing" likely refers to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, as he used similar terms to describe these groups elsewhere. They were among the most scripturally-trained and studied individuals of the time, and perhaps any time. These were the guys of whom he said:

"You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf." (John 5:39, NRSV)

Just as in Jesus' time, so also in ours, there is no correlation between people who regularly read their Bibles and discipleship behavior. Though there are certainly many people trying their level best to follow Jesus, many of the purveyors of the greatest hatred and vitriol in the name of Christianity today, are people who at least publicly subscribe to the regular-time-in-the-word discipline. I'll bet that George Bush reads his Bible regularly, and it didn't help him in the slightest to see past the perpetration of endless lies and the shedding of a great deal of innocent blood in the name of a "Christian" nation. Nor did it prevent him from blasphemously replacing Jesus with America when he misquoted John on 9/11/02 "the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it" (last line of the speech--cf. John 1:5), or when he misquoted Isaiah while promoting his education program (note, this document is no longer on the White House website and I can't find another online archive - it was Bush speaking at the White House Education Summit in 2005 or 2006, I believe) "children living in darkness would see a great light" (cf. Isaiah 9:2). Not only Bush, but American Evangelicals, also supposedly regular readers of their Bibles, have failed to call him on repeated, blasphemous conflation of America with Jesus.

Of course I'm not blaming the Bible for the sins of its readers. I'm merely arguing that it's got no intrinsic power apart from (1) the working of the Holy Spirit in the mind of the reader, and (2) the openness of the reader to be worked upon. But it's worse than that. Misuse of the Bible--that is using it other than it was intended, can actually work at cross purposes to God. Here, finally is perhaps one of the greatest insults to God's word committed by the church.

My professional background is in public health, and for a number of years I worked in the field of immunization. As most readers will know, the process of immunization involves taking a bacterium or virus that causes disease, either weakening it or killing it, and then innoculating a person with a small, controlled quantity of that weakened (attenuated) or killed disease agent. When the body is exposed to the vaccine, the immune system generates antibodies which are then available to respond to the full-strength "wild type" agent if ever it is encountered.

This is such a parable for the way the Bible has been used on and by Christians. Our sermons, Sunday Schools, and devotionals extract bits of the Bible, strip them of any properties that might do any harm, and then repeatedly expose believers to this attenuated gospel until we've built up such an immunity that the real thing has no effect on us.

Like most analogies, this one breaks down if pushed too far, so I will refrain from expanding it further. However, we do need to carefully re-examine our use of the Bible, not only to discern the will and word of God within it, but to be sure that we are not perpetuating the process of innoculating ourselves or others against the genuine movement of God.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A different take on Inspiration - Blumhardt

While looking for the source of the quote in the previous post, I came across the entire text of Vernard Eller's compilation of the writings of Johann Christoff Blumhardt and Christoff Heinrich Blumhardt, Thy Kingdom Come: A Blumhardt Reader. This excerpt from the section entitled "The Bible" is relevant and interesting:

People speak much these days about "the inspiration of scripture"; and this is good. However, I prefer to speak of "inspired people." God be thanked that we have scriptures that came from those through whom God's Spirit spoke the truth. Yet it is the prophet who is inspired, not the letter of scripture. And if the letter is to lead to the truth, so must you also be led by the Spirit of God as you read.

Conversely, today's natural man knows nothing of the Spirit of God and so gets himself quite confused regarding the words of the inspired prophets. But thus, also, a man like Luther could, for his time, personally witness to the God-intended truth of that for which other writers of his time could find no meaning nor make any sense. He was ruled by God and the Spirit, not by biblical texts. But if we all attend only upon the revealed life of God, and if each person is zealous only for his own gifts regarding God's truth and steadfastness, then we do not need to be in conflict over the inspiration of scripture. We then can find ourselves in reciprocal agreement.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why it matters

Though I'm far from exhausting the issue of Biblical inspiration, I think it might be useful to turn aside for a moment and look at why I'm going down this road at all. I already stated at the outset that one primary reason is that we have no business making a doctrinal-level claim that cannot be conclusively supported on Biblical texts alone. That is, if the Bible itself does not define itself as the word of God (and I contend it does not), then we have no business so defining it.

Nevertheless there is another reason to which I have alluded several times: Many (perhaps most) of the doctrines taught in our churches today, are based on a few Biblical passages--even single verses--taken out of their larger context and expanded into complex theologies. (I should clarify here that I use the term "doctrine" not in the literal sense of the Greek didache, which is simply "teaching," but rather in the more-common English sense of basically a synonym of "dogma:" that is, a proposition to which the believer is asked--or even required--to give intellectual assent).

By contrast, the passages highlighted in both Old and New Testaments as the "word of God" tend to have a great deal more to do with how we live, than what we think (I know, this brings up works-vs-faith salvation for many of you. I'll address that in a few days). Particularly with the prophets, but also in Jesus' own words, we learn a great deal about what makes God happy, and what pisses him off. A reasonable person, reading these words, would probably conclude that making God happy is a good thing, while upsetting him, not so much. It's not rocket science.

Let's look at a couple of examples. According to at least one source, the Bible references money over 800 times, and whether his numbers are correct or not, he's on the right track. Quite a few such references are by Jesus himself, or in the prophetic "thus saith the Lord" passages I referred to in my prior post. Even a cursory survey of such verses gives us a pretty good clue what God thinks about money: we shouldn't be driven by it, we should be careful not to harm others in the acquisition/use of it, it easily becomes an idol, etc. In other words, taking these passages seriously leads to ACTION: doing some things, and not doing others.

On the other hand, the contention that God knows the whole future (whether because of his planning or simply divine foreknowledge), while not absent from the Bible, is much less common. Though I have yet to do a full survey of the subject, I strongly suspect that:
  • It's mentioned a lot less than 800 times and probably less than 100
  • Mention of God's foreknowledge generally (not exclusively) is not in the "thus saith the Lord" parts of the Bible so much as in literature of other types
  • Most importantly, it does not occur in passages--regardless of who's talking--that carry an expectation of behavior that would change because of God's knowledge.
It is this last point I would emphasize the most strongly. Whether or not one believes (as in, gives intellectual assent to the proposition) that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of events that will happen is an entirely intellectual mind game, while on the other hand, whether or not one believes (as in recognizes it matters to God) in the Biblical view of money can and must have a direct impact on our behavior.

Nevertheless, I have heard more teaching on God's omniscience than I have on God's opinion about economic justice. If you attend (or know someone who attends) an American evangelical church (maybe a lot of other churches too), I'll bet you've been exposed to a similar imbalance. This is one way the church grossly misrepresents the God it claims to worship.

When God actually took the time to speak, and to make clear to his hearers that he was speaking, it was not to get their "doctrines" as we use that term, in order. It was to get them to do something or to stop doing something else. Perhaps the greatest violence that theology has done to the faith of Jesus, is by re-defining faith as a mental exercise in believing propositions, more than a lifestyle of discipleship. Though this redefinition has many roots, I believe one of the keys has been the misapplication of the "word of God" imprimatur to the Biblical canon, which in turn resulted in theologians feeling the compulsion to tease out the meanings of isolated phrases and concepts found in every corner of the text.

Years ago I was given a quotation that I have since lost, which says it best. I believe that the author may have been one of the Blumhardts, but sadly I cannot say for sure, and so far Google has been useless in turning it up. If anyone can help me with a citation I shall be grateful:

"God's word is given in order that we shall act in accordance with it, not that we shall practice the art of interpreting obscure passages."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Biblical Inspiration part 4 - Rightly Dividing the Word

I have contended in previous posts that the conventional Christian position designating the entire Biblical canon to be the "Word of God" is in error. But this is not to say that we do not have the Word of God available to us. . .quite the contrary. The role of the "workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15, KJV)" is to understand what, out of all the Biblical writings, is God's own word, and be sure to live by it.

If we simply let the Biblical texts speak for themselves, this isn't really terribly complicated. First and foremost, of course, as John makes abundantly clear at the beginning of his gospel, the ultimate word of God is Jesus himself, the Word become flesh. Anything we presume to understand from the written Biblical texts (or for that matter from anywhere) must be subjected to the character of Jesus as he lived and taught while present on earth. In any case where there is any perceived disagreement or discrepancy, Jesus wins because Jesus is the fullest revelation of God in history. So for example, when Jesus taught a variety of "you have heard it was said. . .but I say to you" throughout the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), it doesn't really matter whether what he was doing was clarifying an earlier point that God had revealed, or correcting a human doctrine. Either way, Jesus' own authority was and remains paramount. It is impossible to make a Biblical case for rejecting or discounting a teaching of Jesus, and it is equally impossible to be obeying Biblical teaching in any way that leads one to live or behave contrary to Jesus' character.

In this regard, we must operate under the faith position that Jesus' words and actions, as represented in the four gospels, are faithfully recorded. Without these, Jesus is no more than a significant historical legend who may or may not have taught certain things or done certain deeds. The various revisionists that try to parse out the "historical" Jesus from that recorded in the Gospels may be performing an interesting academic exercise, but faith in Christ depends on a faithful account of who Christ was.

(I should note here that there are plenty who get into the subject of apologetics to determine the historicity of Jesus. This is an interesting subject, and one I may take on at some point. But it's not the point of this series. I am speaking here to those who accept--or at least are willing to entertain the possibility of--the divine nature of Jesus' life and work on earth. My argument is which parts of the Biblical text are to be taken as the word of God, which PRESUPPOSES that there is a God, there is a word of God that must be followed, and so on. This is hermaneutics, not apologetics).

Parenthetics out of the way, what am I saying? Very simply, if there is a "word of God" at all, at the very pinnacle it must be the words of Jesus, God's incarnate son.

After Jesus, there are other places where the Biblical texts explicitly say that what they are relating are the words of God. We find this mostly in the prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and others say over and over in their texts "this is what the Lord says," or "the word of the Lord came to me," or similar phrases. These designators--highlighting that here it is no longer merely man's thoughts but God's own communication--are followed by very clear condemnation of evil, occasional praise for faithfulness, and unmistakable directions for action.

Frankly, if our churches spent as much teaching and study effort on these parts of the Bible where it actually says it's God's word, instead (or even in addition to) their emphasis on other parts that make no such claim, we would be looking at a radically different faith. The troubling, encouraging, exciting thing is that the places where we have these words recorded, tend to be passages that talk a lot about justice and right behavior, and not so much about belief in doctrinal propositions.

On the other hand, and in stark contrast to these declaratory passages, the Psalms are a man's words. They are full of David's praise to God, as well as his prayers, the venting of his frustrations, and so on. In many ways it might be accurate to look at parts of the Psalms as David's "prayer journal." But the Psalms also relate plenty that is flat-out un-Godly. Probably the best examples of this are the so-called "imprecatory psalms" such as Psalm 109.

When he is tried, let him be found guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin. May his days be few; may another seize his position. May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. (v. 7-10, NRSV)

When David is saying these things he's being bluntly honest with his feelings toward his enemies. But no one who's paid any attention to the character and teachings of Jesus can make the case that these feelings are remotely Godly--certainly they're not something we are taught to emulate or bring about.

So are they in error? No, it's not an error to have included them in the text. While God may not have inspired David to write those words (evil thoughts like those have a very different inspirational source), I do believe God inspired the canonical council to include them. They are profitable for teaching, because they give us an unvarnished look at the range of feelings--perhaps the range of depravity--of a man who served God faithfully for much of his life. But this rant cannot in any stretch be characterized as God's word. It is, in fact, antithetical to God's very being.

So study your Bible, and learn to "rightly divide" that which is God's word from that which is also profitable for teaching. We'll talk more about what this division may mean in future posts. Peace until then. . .

Monday, July 14, 2008

Biblical Inspiration Part 3: But what about 2 Tim. 3:16?

Note, please see the follow-on to this discussion linked at the end of this article.

"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. . ." (NRSV).
Doesn't this verse conclusively state that our Bible comes straight from God?

Well, not exactly.

First of all we have to look at the word "Scripture." While in modern English that word has the meaning of "sacred writing," the Latin word "scriptura" is much more pedestrian--it just means the written word. In addition to the religious word "scripture," we also get our words "scribe" and "script" from the same root. Similarly the Greek word "graphe" used in the original text is a pretty generic word. You're reading my "graphe" right now, but at least it has some spiritual content. If my wife puts a note on my dashboard reminding me to pick up milk on the way home from work, that's "graphe," too. I doubt the grocery list is inspired by God!

Now it's true that in the first century a lot fewer people were literate. Added to the fact that pens and paper were a whole lot rarer and more costly, and writing back then was likely reserved (mostly) for more significant stuff than the grocery lists, but we have plenty of examples of "graphe" from Paul's time that were most certainly not holy!

But the real key to this passage leaped out at me when I first read it in the old American Standard Version from 1901. Though it's not the most readable version I've ever seen, the 1901 ASV is regarded by many scholars as possibly the most literal translation ever, of the Bible into English. Here is the same verse from the ASV:

Every scripture inspired of God [is] also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness.

Notice the difference? That little verb "is" got moved three positions to the right, and it completely changes the character of the sentence. Instead of declaring that "every scripture comes from God," the ASV tells us the somewhat-obvious fact that "anything that comes from God is profitable." The ASV's translation is equally valid because the verb "is" doesn't appear in the original text at all, in either place. A literal translation of the Greek text is more like ". . .every (or "all") writing God-breathed and profitable. . ." Both the translators of the ASV and other English translations inserted the "is" because the sentence doesn't make much sense in English without it. But with apologies to Bill Clinton, where the "is" is, makes a huge difference in the meaning!

The more I think about it and look at this passage, though, the more I suspect that both sets of translators got it wrong. Their error (besides "already knowing what it means" before examining the text) was assuming that verse 16 and 17 are a single sentence separate from verses 14 and 15 before them (and forgetting that Paul is legendary for run-on sentences). If, instead, verse 16 is a dependent clause in the same sentence as 14, we don't need an "is" at all to understand it. Consider this alternate reading of the passage (picking up in verse 15):

". . .from childhood you have known the holy writings (which have the power of wisdom to produce faith in Christ Jesus): every writing inspired by God and useful for teaching. . ." etc.

In other words, the writings which Paul is saying have the power of wisdom to produce faith are those writings which (1) are inspired by God, and (2) are therefore profitable for teaching and all the rest of it. That is, Paul is using the fact that a given writing is God-breathed (as opposed to all th other writing "out there"), as a point of qualification for it's being used for teaching the believer. Stated plainly, "If God inspired it, then it's worth using for teaching." Put that way, it's kind of a no-brainer, don't you think?

To use this passage as it has been used for centuries, as a divine imprimatur over a Biblical canon that did not exist for another 200-plus years is nonsense. I have been told before that "God intended to inspire the canonical council to put all these books together as His word, and so inspired Paul to state that's what they were." This is circular reasoning. . .saying that "the Bible is the Word of God, therefore it says it is the Word of God" only makes sense if you start with the assumption that it's the inspired, inerrant word of God. Paul in this passage said no such thing.

For a correction based on better grammatical analysis, please see this follow-on article.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Biblical Inspiration - Part 2: The Foundation of our Faith

One might reasonably ask whether, when I argue against the inerrancy doctrine of Biblical inspiration, I might not be undercutting the very foundation of our Christian faith. To this I answer an unequivocal "no." At its core, our faith is not in any text, but rather in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh who dwelt among us, "For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11, NRSV).

Greg Boyd said it better than I can, in a recent blog post (note that he qualifies his use of the term "infallible"):

"My belief that Jesus is the Son of God isn’t rooted in my belief that the Bible is God’s infallible Word. Rather, my belief that the Bible is God’s infallible Word is rooted (mostly) in my belief that Jesus is the Son of God. I don’t believe in Jesus because the Bible says so. I believe in the Bible (mostly) because Jesus says so."

We have got to realize that the Bible's authority depends on God, not the other way around. The old song

Jesus loves me, this I know
for the Bible tells me so.

actually has it backwards. Put another way, you could take the Bible away and still have a sovereign God; but take God away and the Bible is meaningless.

This is not to discount the value of Biblical texts--after all, most of the little we know about God's very identity and character, we learn from the Bible. I said in my last post that anything we can't derive from Biblical sources (as opposed to extra-Biblical) dare not rise to the level of doctrine, and I stand by that statement.

But I don't think that it's accidental (or in error) that one of the oldest creeds of the Christian faith, the Apostles' Creed, begins

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord.

There is no mention of the scriptures at all in that early creed. This is right, because it isn't the Scriptures in which we believe. . .they are the source of information and teaching and the words of the One in whom we believe. It's not an idle distinction.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Biblical Inspiration, Part 1 - The Error of Inerrancy

Most Christian churches teach a doctrine about the Bible that comes from outside the Bible itself. The Bible is variously described as the Word of God, the Inspired word of God, and similar terms. Many (most?) Evangelical and/or fundamentalist churches hold to a doctrine they call "Verbal and Plenary Inspiration," ("verbal:" the words are inspired, and "plenary:" all the words are inspired) which to many means that God directed the human writers of the Biblical texts to write the very words, grammar, etc. they used, so that the Biblical texts are "without error (inerrant) in their original writings" (a phrase found in many Evangelical statements of faith including the denomination I currently attend--here is an example).

There are, of course, widely divergent opinions even among those who claim to believe in Biblical inerrancy, as to exactly what they mean by the term. At the most rigid end are those who insist that every word and phrase in the Bible came directly from God, and must be literally true in the plain reading of it. At the other end are a number who develop a complex system of hermaneutics (fancy word for interpretation) that acknowledges that the Bible contains many forms of literature, including not only direct reporting, but also prophecy, apocalyptic (symbol-laden) writing, poetry, parable, and so on. This latter group may suggest that no Biblical passage is in error in what it says, though the immediate literal meaning may not be what it intended to say. One can debate whether this methodology really deserves to appropriate the "verbal and plenary inspiration" label (I think it's strained) but they still frequently make that claim.

Certainly, lots of Christians do not accept such rigid definitions of inerrancy. Some approach the Bible more devotionally than didactically; others interpret it all in terms of the culture of the times and/or try to adapt its message to our own culture and times. Among the more so-called "liberal" denominations there does not (to me) appear to be much of an issue with Biblical authority at all--if it doesn't seem right or reasonable, it must not be relevant today. It is not to this group that I speak.

But for those who consider Biblical authority important, I maintain that the doctrine of the Bible is still fundamentally flawed. Simply to apply the term "the Word of God" to the Biblical canon requires extra-Biblical authority, for nowhere in the entire text is there any evidence for that label. I have not yet had the time to research the historical use of the terminology, and I'd welcome comments with source material on this point, but I suspect that both the description of Biblical texts as "divinely inspired" and the label "Word of God" (not at all the same thing) come much later in church history--particularly as those words are now understood (more on Paul's use of "inspired" in another post).

There are numerous places within the Biblical record where certain messages are represented as God's word. Paramount of these are the recorded words of Jesus in the gospels. Close behind are the prophets in those instances where they state "Thus saith the Lord" or "the word of the Lord came to . . ." The apostle Paul himself clearly delineates places where he believes he has a word from the Lord vs. his own thoughts (see 1Cor. 7:10, 7:12, 7:25). Such delineation would be wholly unnecessary if the entire text were God's word.

I will get into specifics as to why I maintain the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy are incorrect, in future posts. For now let's look at why our doctrine regarding the Bible matters. Bottom line there are three reasons:
  1. I maintain that if one is truly to respect Biblical authority, one must not assign doctrinal status to any proposition that cannot be derived exclusively from the Bible itself. In other words, if the Bible doesn't say itself that it's the Word of God, then we better not say it either. We must not go beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6).
  2. The reverence with which many people approach the written word of the Bible, at least in its most extreme form, comes dangerously close to idolatry. The Bible is not God; it is not a fourth person of the Trinity (we may discuss the trinity in a later post, but that's another subject). Many Evangelical statements of faith actually have the doctrine of the Bible as the first point on their list. . .even before a statement of belief in God himself. It may be paradoxical, but "no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3) includes images, representations, even books of God himself, not just idols from other religions.
  3. Insisting on Biblical inerrancy provides the targets and the ammunition for numerous unnecessary fights and controversies within the church, and between the church and the world. Let's face it, much of the battle over creation vs. evolution would be a total non-issue if we weren't trying to defend Genesis. The raging debates between churches about millenialism are of no consequence unless one has to build a doctrine around two obscure phrases in Revelation. Requiring the belief in inerrancy produces lists of doctrines to which one must give assent, but it does nothing to advance the cause of behaving like a disciple of Jesus. It is at best a distraction; at worst it actually drives people from genuine faith.
I want to close by clarifying something I am categorically NOT saying. I am not trying to build a case against the authority of the Bible. In fact, I hope that future posts will demonstrate that I am actually advocating a HIGHER authority for what the Scriptures actually say about themselves, in contrast to what Christians conventionally teach about them. The Biblical canon is a faithful record of God's dealing with his people throughout history, and "our full and final authority for faith and practice." That should be enough, without assigning to the entire collection, a divinity that it never claims.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Nailing it to the door

Those of you fans of church history have probably already guessed the reason for the title, but for the rest:

In 1517, a Catholic priest named Martin Luther realized through his study of the Bible that the current doctrine in his church was messed up--so messed up that some pretty central teachings of the church flew completely in the face of the God he saw in the Bible. For Luther, the issue was the way the church saw repentance and forgiveness: to make a (very) long story short he realized that nobody but God (and certainly not a priest or the Pope) can accept a person's repentance and forgive their sins. Luther drew his "line in the sand" on these teachings by writing up 95 "theses" or propositions for debate, and nailing them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany (see this wiki for a nice summary).

The events set in motion by Luther's declaration and subsequent study/teaching/debating (as well as the work of others) grew to become what we today call the Reformation. While the Reformation was in many respects political as well as ecclesiastical, it represents a fundamental re-examination of basic, deeply-held beliefs about God and the church. A great deal of the teaching that Christians (Catholic and Protestant both) hold to be indisputable today stems from the Reformation, and would have been considered heresy by the church before that time. In short, it was a "soup-to-nuts" re-examination of some basic beliefs of the faith.

I believe that we need a similarly radical re-examination today. I am not so arrogant as to claim anything remotely like Luther's mantle. Heck, I don't think I could come up with 95 issues if I tried. But I'm growing increasingly convicted by several really basic differences with conventional Christianity that I believe desperately need to be rethought. In the following posts, I hope to nail a few of my own theses to the door, and invite your debate as Luther did.

Let me say at the outset that I welcome constructive dialog (whether you agree with me or not) on these issues. However, this is not a place for screaming matches about who's right and who's a heretic. If you aren't willing to consider that you may not have the handle on all revealed truth, save your breath and mine by finding somewhere else to shout. But if you, like me, have this inescapable feeling that there's more to the way of Jesus than His church has allowed people to experience in centuries, by all means come along for the ride!

In the meantime, Pax Christi vobiscum (may the peace of Christ be with you)!