The Mirror & the Telescope, Part IV

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART IV:  THE HERMENEUTICAL KEY

The dual subject view of biblical revelation obviously raises questions of how we should understand what the Bible is disclosing to us and how we may use Scripture to theological ends.  Witherington proposes that, in reading Scripture, we need to ask the question “in what sense, and in regard to what subject, is this text telling the truth?” He sees value in distinguishing between genres as a starting point for understanding the subject of revelation:  “In oracles [prophetic words], we can expect the will and character of God to be most clearly reflected.  Prayers and songs that come from the human heart may well tell us the truth about ourselves rather than about God’s character.  And narratives can reveal both of these sorts of truths.” (25) While this is moving in the direction of the approach I am advocating, I’m not certain that these broad strokes are completely helpful.  First, prayers and songs may indeed reveal God’s nature or plans, not merely human experience.  Second, Witherington’s generic distinctions still leave the largest portions of Scripture, which are narratives, in an ambiguous position.  Finally, sometimes we find false prophets speaking in oracles, so even the trustworthiness of prophecies require some level of discernment.

Pinnock points to the classical rule of context in hermeneutics:  “We must pay attention to who is speaking and what is being said to us in each place [in the Bible].” (84) However, if we put our confidence exclusively in the character of the speakers, we may find that sometimes those who are opposed to God may end up revealing truth (e.g. the pagan prophet Balaam in Numbers 22-24 or the Jewish high priest Caiaphas in John 11:49-52) while those who are God’s prophets may utter something questionable.  An example of this is found in Aaron’s commendation for the Hebrews to worship the golden calf he had fashioned as YHWH.  We also find in Habakkuk 1:2 and 1:13 an example where the prophet, speaking in an oracle, says that God does not listen to his cries for help and that God’s “eyes are too pure to behold evil, and…cannot look on wrongdoing.”  Although we may say this reflects a human emotion or desire to lift up God’s holiness, it is uttered in a form where we would expect it to be theologically accurate—yet we can see that God did hear Habakkuk’s cries and in fact does see evil and wrongdoing.  So sometimes where we may expect to find corrupt fallible humanity, we may actually discover divine truth; where we expect to hear God’s perfect voice, we may find the truth of human longing, pain, or other experiences.

Sometimes, even an ass can speak the truth (painting by Rembrandt)

Though this dual-subject theory of revelation adds a great deal of tension to our biblical interpretive strategies, there does exist a key that may help us understand and clarify the revelation of humanity and divinity in Scripture:  the God-man, Jesus Christ.  As we saw in the original analogy of the mirror and the telescope, we may see Jesus as the mirror in the telescope—perfect humanity who is near to us, revealing the perfect divinity of the transcendent Godhead who is far off.  Pinnock uses this analogy himself as he proclaims, “in Jesus Christ, the divine nature is mirrored.”  In a lengthier quote, he says

Jesus Christ is and must be the centerpiece of the Christian revelation, because in Jesus God entered our world within the parameters of a human life…The Scriptures exist to bear witness to him (John 5:39), and he is the sum and substance of their message.  No mere emissary of the prophetic sort, the Son is God incarnate, dwelling among us, the revelation of God without peer.  Of all the forms of revelation, this is the best. (Scripture Principle, 36)

As we consider the human and divine subjects in the totality of Scripture, we can measure them against the One who was perfectly human—understanding our experiences and tendencies while remaining sinless—and who was also perfectly divine—the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb. 1:3).  So, for instance, when we look at Psalm 137 and wonder if smashing babies’ heads against rocks represents God’s desire for humans, we can look at the words and actions of Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44) and who, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:23).  As Jesus exemplified true humanity, we can derive our understanding of the anthropological ideal from him and discern whether other Scriptures reveal true examples of fallen human behavior or examples of redeemed human character which we should emulate.

By the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, we must undertake the project of properly understanding revelation as God both making himself known to us, as well as revealing the truth of our own humanity to us, by using Christ himself as the hermeneutical key to distinguish between what is true of humanity and what is true of God (and conversely, what is false about both).  While this is not a simple operation, I believe that this provides the best basis we have for understanding the anthropological and theological dimensions of Scripture.  How do we do this exactly?  I’m not fully sure.  This is indeed the experiment which I am seeking to undertake:  re-reading the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, and discerning between human and divine subjects, with Christ as the hermeneutical touchstone (while also necessarily leaving room for some unanswerable, ambiguous passages along the way).

In his book, Incarnation & Inspiration, Peter Enns describes what he calls a “Christotelic hermeneutic” for reading the Old Testament (which deals with the New Testament use of the OT).  I echo the sentiments he shares about pursuing his method as I contemplate the dual-subject approach outlined above; he writes that a coherent reading of the OT using his hermeneutic “is not achieved by following a few simple rules of exegesis.  It is to be sought after, over a long period of time, in community with other Christians, with humility and patience.” (170) I would love to read alongside any others who are willing to consider this approach and together rediscover, perhaps more accurately, what the Bible has to say about God and humanity in its pages.

Works Cited:

  • Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation, (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1994).
  • Peter Enns, Inspiration & Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).
  • Carl F.H. Henry, “Revelation, Special,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 1021.
  • I. Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration, (1982; repr., Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2004).
  • Clark H. Pinnock and Barry L. Callen, The Scripture Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible 3rd ed., (1984; Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2009).
  • Ben Witherington III, The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible, (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2007).

The Mirror & the Telescope, Part III

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART III:  EXAMPLES OF DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN DIVINE & HUMAN SUBJECTS

We will now consider several biblical passages in light of the dual-subject approach to Scripture.  In Psalm 137:8-9, an exilic or post-exilic author writes:  “O daughter Babylon, you devastator!  Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!  Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”  We must ask whether this text reveals to us theological source material that we may to develop a doctrine of God’s severity in paying back evildoers, or if it reveals anthropological source material in which we primarily see the human desire for brutal retributive justice (if not merely revenge)?

"By the Rivers of Babylon" by Eugène Delacroix

This passage in particular was what stimulated Witherington’s observation that Scripture may “be as much a revelation of human character as of divine character,” in that, we must consider how this text “comports with the idea of a God who loves all humankind and is especially concerned for the weak, the vulnerable, and the young.” (Living Word, 24) Witherington’s thought process hints at a hermeneutical key we will explore subsequently, but we may for now say that there is evidence to suggest that the divinely inspired author of Psalm 137 was revealing human nature to us rather than depicting God’s attributes.

Dealing with this passage in terms of anthropological source material, we must then ask whether it represents a revelation of positive human character that God is commending, or whether it is a negative attribute that is merely being accurately recorded.  To determine where this passage falls, we could see if the author had cited God’s approval of this desire for revenge; if so, then we may consider this a model of human behavior that God finds acceptable.  However, we do not see this, so without this divine endorsement, we must remain ambiguous toward the text:  it may be a legitimate human response to evil, or it may represent an attitude that is contrary to God’s will for humanity.  Overall, we can say that God certainly allows humans to express their feelings of anger, even in the extreme.  Also, this text reveals to us historical background on the plight of the Jews in exile—their experience must have been incredibly dreadful to elicit such a monstrous response.

Let us consider another example, from Psalm 13, which evinces a more specific claim about God that we must discern as being either theologically absolute or an example of human experience.  The author, presumably David, cries out, “How long, O LORD?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me? (Ps. 13:1).  Do we see this as theological source material from which we can develop a theology of God’s “hiddenness”—was David correct in asserting that God was hiding from him?  Had God indeed forgotten him, not literally, but relationally? Or does this reveal an anthropological picture of David’s experience of feeling like God was hiding from him and that God had forgotten about him?

There is more ambiguity here, due to the fact that many Christian thinkers (e.g. Luther, St. John of the Cross) see evidence for a theology of God’s hiddenness in the pages of Scripture.  While we cannot rule this out as being true of God, it does seem obvious that the passage is primarily speaking of David’s experience of feeling and thinking particular emotions and thoughts, so it would be safe to say this reveals more about the human subject than the divine.

We may wonder, then, if Psalm 13 is actually more about an experience of human perception than divine actuality, could we say the same about Psalm 139, where David makes claims that have been used to support a number of theological doctrines:  God’s omniscience (“Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely” v. 4), omnipresence (“Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?” v.7), and human predestination (“In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed” v. 16).  Could all of these examples reveal David’s human sense of God’s intimate involvement in his life without necessarily being absolutely true of God’s being or plans?

One could ask the rather blunt question of David:  how exactly do you know all of these things?  What access do you have to God’s mind to comment upon what he knows?  Have you been to heaven or Sheol, or have you seen God’s book in which your days are numbered?  We can logically assume that none of these questions could be answered positively to support David’s assertions and yet we also find no evidence that David has actually been told these things by God, as we see in other parts of Scripture where it is claimed that “the Word of the LORD” came upon an author.  This is an argument from silence going in both directions—we don’t know whether God revealed these things to David or not, though they do seem in line with other theological claims we see in Scripture.  Ultimately, there is tension, particularly in a genre like lyrical poetry, between being able to clearly discern what is reliable theological source material and what are examples of human experience (such as doubt, fear, or anger) that contribute to an inspired and accurate anthropology.

We could also look beyond claims or statements in poetical works to accounts and narratives in Scripture in order to raise questions of whether the Bible is telling us about humanity or God.  For instance, when Noah curses Canaan to become “lowest of slaves” to his brothers in Genesis 9:25, do we take it to be the case that God approves of this curse, which was later used to promote racism and the practice of enslaving Africans (who were purported to be the sons of Ham)?  It is interesting to note from the text that Noah does ask God to bless Shem and Japheth and make Canaan their slaves (Gen. 9:26-27)—but we do not see evidence of whether God endorses Noah’s curse or not.

"Noah Curses Ham for His Mockery" by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

From a human perspective, we can see that Noah is angry, embarrassed, and struggling with a hangover—it would be natural for him to lash out at his son, as many of us would do in this situation.  We must not assume that merely because God commends a biblical actor at some points in the Bible that it means everything they do subsequent to that time is approved by God.  Noah’s reaction may clearly serve as anthropological source material, but to put a divine stamp of approval upon this curse is not necessarily justified from the text.  So why should we allow critics to place the blame of Christian use of this verse to support racism on God (even though the identification of blacks with the sons of Ham is nowhere in the text as well)?  Noah spoke the curse and we have no reason of which I am aware to believe God fulfilled it.  This stands in contrast with God’s specific promise to Abram to “bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3).

[In Part IV, we will consider the problem of discerning between the two subjects in biblical interpretation.]

The Mirror & the Telescope, Part II

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART II:  THE NEED FOR REVELATION ABOUT HUMANITY TO HUMANITY

[Part I available here]

Before delving into the issue of how we may make distinctions between claims about the divine and human subjects of Scripture, we must address the question of why we would need to have revelation about humanity, particularly since part of the intrinsic concept of revelation is that it is “the disclosure of what was previously unknown.” (Dictionary of Evangelical Theology, 1031) It is obvious that we need God to reveal himself to us because he is outside of our common experience, his nature and being are not evident to us, and as YHWH himself says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Is. 55:8).  In contrast, we have a great deal of understanding about humanity:  we ourselves are humans, we see evidence and examples of humanity all around us, and we have created our own reflections on the human race in philosophy, history, and cultural artifacts.  So why would we need for God to write down an inspired account of humanity for us in the Scriptures?

Subliminal shout-out to Gregg TenElshof's book, I Told Me So

First, we tend to lie to ourselves about ourselves.  The prophet Jeremiah declares, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).  The apostle Paul asserts that in our human wickedness, we have suppressed the truth, become futile in our thinking, and our minds were darkened (Romans 1:18-21).  Though Paul specifically refers in this passage to deceiving ourselves about God’s person, it seems reasonable to believe we do the same with our own self-knowledge (cf. 1 John 1:8).  We need revelation about the human subject because we need God to show us hard truths about ourselves that we are often unwilling to acknowledge.

Second, revealing the truth about humanity, particularly our sinfulness and inability to fully obey his commands, ultimately exposes our deep need for the Gospel and for holistic transformation.  In this light, an accurate anthropology both plays a part in the overall biblical story of redemption, as well as offering an unvarnished portrait of fallen humanity to which we can relate (for we do not only see examples in Scripture of perfectly holy people who do not make the same errors to which we seem prone).  This reason for revelation about humanity would explain the presence of lies, wickedness, and bad theology cited in our introduction.

Third, and more positively, disclosing the truth about humanity reveals occasions where persons do respond in faith and obedience, which we may imitate, as well as many other instances where God still chooses to use and bless people who are living contrary to his desires, which demonstrates his love, patience, and grace toward his creation.

All of these reasons make the inclusion of humanity as a subject of revelation a somewhat non-controversial addition to our understanding of Scripture.  What is more problematic, and likely more unsettling for the conservative, is the question of how to distinguish which parts of special revelation are about God and which are about humanity in the biblical texts.  The difficulty of parsing between theological claims in Scripture that reflect humanity’s perspective on God (such as Job’s friends) and those that accurately reflect Divine truth becomes a daunting proposition.  Indeed I. Howard Marshall despairs at the attempt:

The books of the Bible contain what are clearly regarded as the words of human actors telling about human actors and on occasion reporting what people said to God.  They also contain what are identified as the words of God [including divine communication to humans and prophetic announcements].  In many cases it would be hard to decide just where God stopped speaking and the human author took over—and indeed meaningless and futile to try to do so.  How could one distinguish between the more personal expressions of Paul’s emotions and his more direct statements of what he believed to be divine revelation? (Biblical Inspiration, 21)

This reticence on Marshall’s part may be due to his feeling that if one begins to identify human aspects in Scripture, then the “inspired” notion of the Bible becomes unintelligibly bifurcated into some parts human and some parts divine.  Clark Pinnock is more comfortable with dividing Scripture into levels of revelation:  “In the so-called ‘Writings’ of the Hebrew Bible…there are far fewer claims of divine revelation [than in prophetic works], only occasional references at best.”  Pinnock goes on to assert that “in the Old Testament collection there are different kinds of literature, some that make a powerful claim to divine origin and others that do not, some that stand on the high ground of revelation and others that occupy a little lower position.” (The Scripture Principle, 62)

While Marshall is reluctant to potentially split the inspiration in Scripture, Pinnock is willing to sort between “kinds and degrees of inspiration” (64) in biblical revelation; however, the approach I am proposing contends that indeed all of Scripture remains inspired, it simply reveals inspired truth about different subjects.  What we must distinguish is between the Divine or human subjects of revelation and not whether the things written in Scripture are fallible human statements or inerrant divinely inspired words of God through human authors.  We cannot limit ourselves to Donald Bloesch’s approving citation of the notion of a biblical “double truth” that must be held when he says, “the Bible is both God’s testimony about himself and the human writers’ inspired testimony about God.” (Holy Scripture, 67)  We must instead say that the Bible is both God’s testimony about himself and humanity, and the human writer’s inspired testimony about God and their fellow humans.

In a simple example of distinguishing between the two, we can clearly tell that the fool who says “There is no God” in Psalm 14:1 is an instance where a human perspective of bad theology is accurately and truthfully revealed in the biblical text, thereby evidencing that humanity is the subject of this portion of revelation.  However, when Moses says, “Hear O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” in Deuteronomy 6:4, we may be sure that it is not Moses’ human opinion that is evident, but rather an instance of an inspired truth claim regarding the Divine subject.  We trust that Scripture provides us with some tools to distinguish between a fool and a prophet of YHWH.  Unfortunately, it is not always as easy to distinguish as in these two examples!  Indeed, we must face a greater deal of the complexity in the hermeneutical enterprise this position advocates, which we will do in Part III by looking to several passages from the Psalms.

The Mirror & the Telescope, Part I

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART I:  TOWARDS A DUAL-SUBJECT APPROACH TO BIBLICAL REVELATION

Here is a trustworthy statement, worthy of full acceptance:  The Bible is filled with lies, wickedness, and bad theology.  [Pause]  Now before you begin gathering wood to burn me as a heretic, it must be said that this sentence is an accurate assertion that any signer of the “Chicago Statement on Inerrancy” could affirm.  Of course, there is some equivocation in the phrasing:  I should say, “the Bible is filled with examples of lies, wickedness, and erroneous theology.”

Now I know how Joan of Arc felt...as the flames rose to her Roman nose.

We see lies in Scripture, accurately recounted, from the beginning until the end:  in Genesis alone we see deception in the words of the serpent in the Garden, as well as from the mouths of Cain, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob’s sons, Potiphar’s wife, Joseph, and many more.  Examples of wickedness in Scripture include murder, brutality, rape, gang rape, incest, incestuous rape, and attempted genocide.  We may also find many examples of bad theology in the form of worship of idols (sometimes led by Israel’s leaders, such as Aaron in Ex. 32:4-5), false prophecies from those who claim to be true prophets of YHWH, and even the claim in Psalm 14:1 that “there is no God” (don’t worry, we’ll qualify this later).

The existence of these elements in the Bible is unquestionable; however, the purpose they serve in the text may sometimes perplex the thoughtful reader, particularly when one considers the classic concept of Scripture as “revelation.”  Most Christian definitions of “revelation” look similar to what we find in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology:  “the term is used primarily of God’s communication to humans of divine truth, that is, his manifestation of himself or his will.”

The question then is how do examples of lies, wickedness, and bad theology serve to reveal a “manifestation” of God or his will to us?  How does the presence of these disturbing aspects in the written “Word of God” act as divine self-disclosure?  In order to answer that question, I would like to argue that the Bible actually has two subjects of its revelation:  God and humanity (see footnote 1 below).  To use an analogy, Scripture acts as a mirror and telescope:  it is a mirror that accurately depicts and evaluates the human condition; and it is also a telescope, revealing the transcendent, eternally “other” Divine Being.  And ultimately, Christ serves as the mirror in the telescope, perfectly imaging near to us the fullness of God in heaven.

How a reflecting telescope works...

While many treatises on revelation focus primarily on the Divine subject, there are some theologians who have noted the significance of the divinely inspired revelation of the human subject in Scripture.  Ben Witherington poses the idea that “maybe the Bible is meant to be as much a revelation of human character as of divine character, and how the two do and should interact.” (Living Word, 24)  Although this is more of an aside for Witherington, his comments touch upon the need for students of Scripture to reconsider what it is exactly that we see the inspired Word as revealing to us: only God’s nature, or humanity’s as well.

I believe that we need to make more of Witherington’s conjecture that the Bible is indeed “as much” about humanity as it is about God, for the simple reason that as we consider the whole of Scripture, we see that large sections, particularly in the historical works and poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures, focus much more on revealing humanity than divinity.  For instance, God tells Job’s friends that “they have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7); does this then cast much of this book’s contents into theological suspicion?  Being that the reader has seen what caused Job’s suffering in the prologue, we know at the very least that their accusations against Job are faulty—what about their theological ideas?  Could it be that Job’s friends serve as examples of bad theology, but they speak in ways which still accurately reveal authentic human perspectives?  This example suggests that we must distinguish in Scripture between theological source material (what we can say about God) and anthropological source material (how we see human beliefs and experiences depicted).  Furthermore, we must differentiate accurate theological ideas from erroneous ones (i.e. persons may say something about God in Scripture, but it does not mean it is true), as well as between accurate or positive anthropological material (including those Biblical figures we should emulate) and false ideas about or negative examples of humanity. (Footnote 2)

[In Part II, we will explore why it is that humans would need revelation about…humans.]

Footnotes:

  1. Of course there are more subjects in Scripture, such as animal and plant life, the cosmos, angelic beings, etc. but God and humanity are clearly the primary subjects of revelation
  2. It must be said that the Bible exists as more than informational “source material;” it also “performs” God’s covenantal actions (as Kevin VanHoozer has suggested) as well as transforming us into people who are “on mission” with God to heal and redeem the whole creation (as N.T. Wright has proposed).

See PART IV for Works Cited

A Brief Commentary on September Eleventh

I remember exactly where I was ‘when it happened’. Whilst many other major American tragedies like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster happened before I was born, I was in my second year of high school on 11 September 2001. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the only thing that compared in my lifetime, but it is all but forgotten in the shadow of ‘September Eleventh’.

My older sister came into my room that morning to wake me up as she normally did, but this time she added, ‘An aeroplane crashed into the World Trade Center.’ ‘What?’ She was just as confused as I was and had merely heard the headline on her alarm clock radio. I thought at first, ‘The World Trade Center [near our home] in Long Beach?!’

We went into the family room and turned on the television. We saw live feed of the first tower, billowing smoke, then suddenly another jetliner appeared on screen. My first thought was, ‘Oh God, they actually got video of the crash.’ We knew nothing of a terrorist plot — at this point we assumed it was merely a single tragic aviation accident. But then I realised that we were still watching the live feed; a second plane had hit the second tower of the World Trade Center just after 6 AM, Pacific Standard Time. We watched in horror as reporters pointed out that what appeared to be small pieces of the building falling to the ground were not actually small pieces of the building, but were people. Before we had to leave for school the first tower collapsed.

I would find out later that the second tower collapsed, another plane had hit the Pentagon and yet another plane had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Throughout the day my teachers suspended their normal lessons. We sat in mourning, much of it in silence. We didn’t know the details of the tragedy, but we did know—and it was stated very explicitly by one teacher that day—that from now on the world would be a different place.

We would all eventually learn that the attacks were the plot of the terrorist group al-Qaeda (which has since become an infamous household name in America) and that in the end nearly 3000 people had been killed in the attacks and an additional 6000 were injured. These tragic events would come to justify the ‘War on Terror’ and the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and eventually Iraq. Western society underwent a metamorphosis almost immediately. Alongside institutional changes in national security policy, there was a massive shift in public consciousness. The radical Sunni Islam al-Qaeda was grouped with all Muslims and all people of Western Asian descent—your classmates, your neighbours, your doctor, etc.—could be potential terrorists. We were made to believe that al-Qaeda wanted to kill every last American simply for being American.

People will believe what they want — that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda are merely an example of what ‘true Islam’ looks like when fully embraced, that the West is oppressed merely for ‘being different’, that the events of September 11 were primarily a demonstration of a religion and not a political ideology. I cannot buy into these things.

God and the Christian religion are not so small and weak that we need to demonise every other belief system in order to justify our faith. I know why I am not a Muslim. It’s not because Islam is violent or necessarily archaic (and this is in no way a support of so-called ‘fundamentalist’ Islamic nations). I am not a Muslim because in many ways, the the teaching of the Islamic faith about God is different from the teaching of the Christian faith about God. It is the acts of the teaching of the Christian faith about God that call for any sort of adherence. This teaching espouses that God has invested in the creation to the utmost degree through the Incarnation and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is an expression of God’s love for and solidarity with the world, not merely a honourable prophet, as is held by the teaching of Islam. This teaching affirms all people in this solidarity and extends an invitation into the Kingdom and an intimate friendship through the Holy Spirit. The only proper response to such love and grace is a life of love, grace and service.

But the September 11 attacks were not simply attacks on one religion from another religion. America is not a Christian nation and—if you talk to the vast majority of Muslims around the world—al-Qaeda and any who would terrorise others in the name of Allah are not true Muslims. I don’t have a solution for the problems that have been introduced as a result of the tragedy that transpired nine years ago today, but as a Christian I do know that my responsibility is to love, to be just and to seek peace.

May all those who perished on 11 September 2001 rest in peace and may their loved ones be comforted by the God who so thoroughly loves the world.

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Imaging the Kingdom IV: The ‘Self’ in the kingdom of God

Let me begin by stressing that this post is by no means an exhaustive or thorough look at this particular issue, but rather a starting point for a conversation and potential implications we can draw out for understanding the our existence in the kingdom of God, thus impacting the way we approach life in the kingdom, as is the case with all Imaging the Kingdom.

The concept of the ‘Self’ is one of great importance in the conversation of modern philosophy and Western society at large.  This can take the form of investigations regarding the composition of the Self, for instance, a Scientologist might argue that the Self is composed of one’s ‘thetan’ (similar to the concept of one’s ‘spirit’).  But what composes the Self in this particular sense (essence) is not the concern of this post.  We will rest upon our holistic assumptions from previous ‘Imaging the Kingdom’ posts: God is the Ruler of the universe that he has created, visible and invisible.  An individual will not be broken down into separate parts, as God is concerned for and invested in both in the Christian tradition.

Many modern philosophers have concerned themselves with the concept of the Self as if we can attain it through our own clever thought processes.  Just as one cannot repair a hammer with said hammer, so one cannot, as a Self, step outside of said Self.  In his Treatise on Human Nature, Hume writes,

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of hear or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure, I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.

(David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, Book I, Part IV, Sec. VI)

According to Hume, the concept of the Self can amount to, as Russell put it, ‘nothing but a bundle of perceptions’.  This non-religious observation can actually assist us in our kingdom-oriented task as it can be deduced that the confidence with which, say, I perceive my Self as an individual should be softened.  But the case is not closed there by any means.  Hume’s conclusion does not entirely negate the value of this ‘bundle of perceptions’, but rather redefines it.  As long as we are redefining the Self in light of our inability to look inward in any objective sense, I believe that the principles of the kingdom of God have profound implications for our definition.

In exploring the answer to the question ‘What is man?’ in his essay ‘The Christian Proclamation Here and Now’, Barth states,

Man exist in a free confrontation with his fellow man, in the living relationship between a man and his neighbour, between I and Thou, between man and woman.  An isolated man is as such no man.  ‘I’ without ‘Thou’, man without woman, and woman without man is not human existence.  Human being is being with other humans.  Apart from this relationship we become inhuman.  We are human by being together, by seeing, hearing, speaking with, and by standing by, one another as men, insofar, that is, as we do this gladly and thus do it freely.

(Karl Barth, God Here and Now [London: Routledge, 2003], 7.)

Although Barth is answering the question ‘What is man?’ and not ‘What is the Self?’, we see community as a God-given (and necessary) setting for human existence.

Writing more specifically regarding the Self in the opening pages of The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard describes the ‘Self’ as,

The self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself.  The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself.  A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.  In short a synthesis.  A synthesis is a relation between two terms.  Looked at in this way a human being is not yet a self.

In a relation between two things the relation is the third term in the form of a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation, and in the relation to that relation; this is what it is from the point of view of soul for soul and body to be in relation.  If, on the other hand, the relation relates to itself, then this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

(Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death [London: Penguin Books, 2008], 9-10.)

In this way the self is fully understood in the relationship.  This is a relationship with the Self and relationship with the creator of the Self.  Relationship is the basis for any human understanding of anything and no less for a proper understanding of the Self.

In light of Barth and Kierkegaard’s insights, a human is only truly human in community with God and man.  This conclusion very closely resembles the Greatest Commandments (Matthew 22:36-40).  In the kingdom of God an understanding of the Self ought to be similarly characterised by God’s intentions for the Self.

Perhaps the greatest theological tenet in the Christian tradition to attest to the necessary communal aspect of existence can be found in the Trinity.  Two contemporary theologians who have some very helpful insights for this discussion are John Zizioulas and Leonardo Boff.  Zizioulas represents an important bridge between the Eastern and Western traditions (drawing from the work of Vladimir Lossky).  Heavily influenced by the Cappadocian Fathers, Zizioulas derives that communion is an ontological category and that God exists in communion. Therefore, Vali-Matti Kärkkäinen summarises, “there is no true being without communion; nothing exists as an ‘individual’ in itself…Human existence, including the existence of the church communion, thus reflects the communal, relational being of God.”  (Vali-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives, [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007], 90.)  In this way, without the doctrine of the Trinity there would be no God.

In Trinity and Society, Boff states, “The Trinity is not something thought out to explain human problems.  It is the revelation of God as God is, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society [Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1998], 3.)  Boff argues that humanity is given a guide through this specific revelation by which to structure society.

Gathering the tools before us we can develop a picture of what the Self might properly look like in the kingdom of God:

  • From Hume we can argue that an individual cannot objective conceive of the Self, but rather ‘a bundle of perceptions’ that fall short of the Self.
  • From Barth we can argue that it is God’s intention for the individual to find fullest existence in community.
  • From Kierkegaard we can argue that the Self is only properly understood in Hegelian relational terms – the individual, the creator and the witness of that relationship.
  • From Zizioulas we can argue that the communal aspect of God is absolutely essential to his being, that the Trinity is not an appendix to Christian theism, but its heart.
  • From Boff we can argue that human society ought to be structured based upon the community of the Trinity.

So where does this leave us?

Perhaps the reason for the philosophical dilemma of the Self is the fact that we’ve been taking our cues from the wrong place.  If it is God’s nature to necessarily exist in the communion of the Trinity, perhaps it is no surprise that our being is also of a communal nature.  In the kingdom of God the individual is not called to be alone but in community.  In such a way a fuller understanding of the Self is possible, for instance:

As I relate to myself I experience all that is unique to that experience.  As I relate to, say, Greg, he is able to see and experience something unique to his perspective of me.

As we relate, these things are synthesised and a fuller picture of the Self is possible.  Through the differences that Greg and I encounter in one another God has designed us to act as signposts for one another to himself and his ‘otherness’.

As we look toward God we discover that Christ has come to redeem the entire world and to give humanity a new paradigm to live out of, including a new method of ‘discovering the Self’.  A member of the kingdom of God has a new identity, one independent of who we once thought we were and who we may still think we are.  As we relate to God we are transformed into his design for the Self.  To consider us as individuals the supreme experts regarding our ‘Self’s outside of God’s intentions as demonstrated in the establishing of his kingdom through the Gospel is to ignore the reign and active investment of God in our lives.  To embrace the concept of the Self that finds its fullest meaning in relating to God and to others in love we will experience the greatest blessing ­– the blessing that flows from active participation in and submission to the kingdom of God.  In this way we ought to take seriously the call to relate to others, for it is antithetical to ‘the Self in the kingdom of God’ when we do not.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

The Serpent and the Woman

This is a narrative reflection I wrote for a class on Genesis, where the assignment was to choose a character from the book of Genesis and outline their thoughts on a particular occasion.  I chose the serpent preparing to tempt the woman in the garden, Eden (Genesis 3:1).  [Note: the use of plural pronouns with singular verbs in what follows is an attempt to convey the serpent/Satan’s awareness of the trinitarian reality of God.]

from Gustave Dore's illustrations for Paradise Lost

“The eternal One knows I am here in Their garden, but as yet They has done nothing to acknowledge my presence.  I know that I am neither welcome nor forbidden in this fecund new world, but I had expected my visit to, at the least, elicit some Divine comment.  I did feel the backside of the Breath, at once both cold as the empty heavens and hot as the greater light, move past me when I was hiding in the goat, eavesdropping on Their final act of making:  the pathetic dirtlings.  Hah!  Made in the image of Their holy perfection?  No host will ever ring out in anthem in praise of those lumpy bipeds…I guarantee it, not one single gloria.

But when They knelt next to the inert form of the man, I shuddered with horror at the tenderness with which Their hand cupped the thing’s head and pushed its hair back from its brow—at that moment, I began to stomp and whinny with such disgust that the she-goat at my side snuffed, bared her teeth at me, and wandered off—and then, as I looked back again, They leaned in toward the earth creature, so close as to kiss its face.  And They held Themself there, breathing softly over it for a time.  I had to turn away from the choking revulsion and burning in my eyes, as if a thorn had just scratched my face.  I made to leave the goat, but glanced over, just for an instant, only to see the man staring into Their face.  As much as I hate this creature, and the next one who came out of him, and though I mean to destroy them both, I will acknowledge that there was a glimpse of something like the purity and beauty I remember from the court reflected in its eyes as it gazed into the love of the eternal One.  I could stand the recognition no longer and fled the bewildered and agitated goat.

Now I wait for the woman, in a serpent, near the edge of the gentle river where she wades and dips under the water.  I’ve taken notice that she likes the serpent, as it is slender and smooth in her soft hands and as the man once tickled her tender heel with its flickering tongue.  She feels no intimidation with its size and therefore will sense no coercion when I speak to her about the prohibited tree, one of only two ancient things in this nascent land.  She goes to the center of the garden sometimes to gaze at the tree, with mostly a happy curiosity and yet also a little fear, as she never comes close enough to really look at it with more than a squint.  I mean to escort her right up to its limbs, close enough for her to see a different reflection in the luster of its fruit—her own beautiful face.  I can see her, already, pulling the branch down and yanking off the fruit, sinking her teeth deep into its flesh, juice and seeds dripping down her neck.  Will she feel as I did:  a surge of power and then terror?

But how to get her from here to there…

She shakes her head, like the beasts, to send the water back to its source, which indicates she means to walk to the shore.  And I now I need to find the words to get her to go with me to the tree.  If I command her, she will simply laugh at me and stick out her tongue, saying, “Who are you, serpent, to command me, your queen and keeper?”  If I say I wish to walk alongside her, hoping to subtly lead the way to the center, she will likely want to find the man to accompany us—she is drawn to his presence like rain to the earth—and he lacks any desire to go that way, as he avoids the tree altogether (the prohibition was among the first things They said to him, after all, and he heard it directly from the Voice, unlike the woman).  I could deceive her and tell her the eternal One asked me to bring her to the tree, but then if They was not there, she would call out for Them and all would be for nothing.

But perhaps, and here she comes, perhaps if I asked her a question, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” she will want to take me to the place and correct my ignorance by pointing to the one forbidden thing, telling me this alone is the tree.  And then, when we are close enough, I will tell her what I know, what I have tasted.

And she will want to know as well.

She will want to taste as well.

She stands now before me, unaware of her naked flesh for the last time.

Imaging the Kingdom III: Homosexuality & the kingdom of God

The issue of homosexuality is probably one of the more heated social issues facing the contemporary Church.  Among different denominations (and even within single denominations) the issue divides on a scale from peaceful disagreement to violent hatred.  Perhaps the most visible and widely despised of these positions is illustrated by the antics of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church and their signature slogan: ‘God Hates Fags’.

Needless to say, this is a MASSIVE conversation in the Church and society at-large.  Unfortunately the debate within the Church—the topic of this post—frequently results in an ever-divergent hatred for the opposition.  One view (we’ll call it ‘Perspective I’ to avoid confusing, overused and unhelpful ‘conservative’ vs. ‘liberal’ labels) essentially believes that the Church and the Scripture attest to the opposition of homosexuality in the kingdom of God.  In this view God has designed sexual relationships to take place in a particular way – in other words, heterosexually.  This is often supported with social and psychological analyses of homosexuality in Western culture.  The ‘slippery slope’ is often appealed to here, concerning the possibility in a culture that grows more accepting of public homosexuality.  An example of how this view sees homosexuality adversely affecting the Church follows: homosexual marriage is made fully legal, churches will lose tax-exempt benefits for teaching portions of Scripture that seem to attest to the prohibition of homosexuality in the kingdom of God and ultimately conservative priests will be prosecuted and imprisoned for merely teaching what the Church has generally held to for nearly two-thousand years.

Another view (which we’ll call ‘Perspective II’) essentially believes that the Church is mistaken and that the Scripture is not explicitly clear regarding homosexuality, oftentimes appealing to socio-historical evidence for the manner in which homosexuality was practised in the Scripture’s first-century-Roman context.  In this view homosexuality is not generally considered a choice, but a specific sexual orientation that defines a significant part of what makes an individual an individual.

There are numerous positions around and about these two views (including two views based upon the assumption that homosexuality is natural – one view holding that homosexuals are called to celibacy in the kingdom of God while the other holds that homosexuality is natural and should be openly embraced in the kingdom of God) and it is would be impossible to explore them all, but I believe we’ve got a moderate sample of the two major ‘sides’ of this argument within the Church in Perspectives I and II.

One interesting thing I feel the need to point out is the general historical oppression of homosexuals in Western society.  Even today, with the elimination of laws prohibiting homosexual practise in Western countries (though these are still quite present in many nations today), massive stigmas and stereotypes are used to oppress homosexuals.  In my experience I have heard many-a-Christian rants on how homosexuality has ‘infiltrated our culture’ and is being used to ‘pervert our youth’.  I don’t know how fair that assessment is, but I am generally sceptical of such sweeping statements regarding a group of people who by and large don’t even have the legal right to marry in the vast majority of American states.  Homophobia is rampant and this (like other forms of xenophobia) oftentimes leads to very aggressive mistreatment of homosexuals.  Even the recent claim by Cardinal Bertone that homosexuality was to blame for the Catholic abuse scandals ignored the fact that many of the abused were in fact females (and also that the large number of males abused might be a result of the general pairing of girls with nuns and boys with priests) in exchange for trying to oppressively pin the failure of the Church on a whole people group.

My honest opinion is quite open in general, although my tendency is to lean toward Perspective II.  Whilst I hold Church tradition in high esteem, the Church has certainly been wrong in the past with numerous issues and our trusty Nicene Creed makes no mention whatsoever concerning the nature of sexual relationships in the kingdom of God.  For now I merely want to pose two brief lines of questioning to the two main camps on either side of the issue of homosexuality.  These questions are not meant to pull the rug out from either side, but to promote a more compassionate and gracious way of thinking about the debate.  I do not necessarily agree with each one of these questions on either side, but they seem to be valuable things to address.

Perspective I

  • Is it possible that in the Church homosexuality is often treated very differently than other issues that are considered sins (even other sexual sins) in an unfair manner?
  • In Mere Christianity, Lewis argues that the nature of particular sins can make them more or less cancerous within the Church.  For instance, pride involves sinfully elevating oneself above another.  Is it possible that an egotistical zealot might be more divisive and harmful to the community of a local church than a homosexual couple in a committed relationship?
  • Can the few passages in Scripture that are often associated with anti-homosexual views be interpreted in any other manner?  What are we to make of the lack of teaching regarding homosexual relationships in the teaching of Christ found in the Gospels?  Let me stress that I do not believe that these issues alone make or break Perspective I (the general tradition of the Church might be able to provide some added strength to this view), but I do believe that these possibilities might serve to soften the tone of Perspective I.

Perspective II

  • Is it possible that many of the people who espouse ‘Perspective I’ are not hatemongers, but Christians who genuinely care about the well being of homosexuals, even if possibly misguided?
  • Drawing from what I believe is Christ claiming that marriage will not exist in the Resurrection (the eventual fullness of the kingdom of God) when responding to the Sadducees in Matthew 22, shouldn’t we as Christians place far more emphasis on our identity in the kingdom of God and not with regard to sexual orientation?  I generally believe that we discover the greatest fullness of who we are as individuals as we relate to God and to the community of the kingdom of God.  Is this the process in which one finds his or her identity?
  • Is it possible that God’s will as revealed in Scripture and through the Church might be that homosexual practise is not part of the kingdom of God?  If it became clear that it was God’s will that his people would not practise homosexuality would it be easier to walk away from homosexuality or to walk away from God?

I have many thoughts on these issues, but I’ll cease my questions and open up the discussion.  What I hope and pray for in this conversation is mutual respect and beyond everything else, love and compassion.  Profound love is what ought to characterise the words, thoughts and actions of a member of the kingdom of God who has been profoundly confronted by the immense grace and love of God as demonstrated in the life, death and Resurrection of Christ and the advent of his holy and inviting Church.

There are many good thoughts and perspectives on either side of this debate.  Please share your input, but take care to use gracious language and to neither demonise nor dehumanise the opposing perspective or your comment may be deleted.  I am not demanding that everyone shares my views or that no one holds firmly to his/her own view—I encourage you to share your convictions with a loving and gracious passion.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

Read more of Imaging the Kingdom.

An added treat:

[Greg adds: One more?]

Reformed and Always Reforming, Part III: The Essence of Christianity

Sorry to delay the next installment of this series so long (also see part I and part II), but I’ve been busy wrapping up the end of my seven years on staff at Biola University, so now I can TOTALLY come out of the closet as a raging liberal (kidding…kind of?).  On the note of “liberals*,” namely those people of whom many at conservative institutions like Biola would say are not actually Christian (perhaps a little residual “phantom limb” reflex from the amputated Bible-thumping arm of our fundamentalist heritage), Olson explores in the next section the idea of what truly constitutes “authentic Christianity.”

Postconservative evangelicals (PCE) “believe that conservative evangelicals (CE) tend to place too much emphasis and value on facts” and that “authentic Christianity is too often equated with correct grasp of information” and the “propositional nature of revelation and the cognitive aspects of Christian discipleship.”  Olson is quick to point out that PCE thinkers AGREE that there is an important cognitive and propositional content to our faith–it is simply that many CE thinkers have overemphasized and indeed become obsessed with this dimension as THE essence of true Christianity.

My boy MILLARD's classic one-volume systematic...

He cites examples of this from the works of two CE theologians, Millard Erickson & D.A. Carson, whom Olson expresses admiration for even while disagreeing with their elevation of “cognitive knowledge and affirmation of correct doctrines as the hallmarks of authentic evangelical faith.”  Olson points out that the CE view tends to “highlight the didactic side of Scripture and interpret revelation as primarily communication of information about God.”

Olson quickly points out the common ground between CE & PCE thought:  “both believe that there is a gospel supernaturally communicated to human beings by special divine revelation and that apart from this gospel people cannot know God as they should.”  The difference lies, he says, in whether the transcendent source of of authority for believing and living, as well as the Christian identity it creates and preserves, is primarily a content of information or a means of transformation.  (He concludes that it is indeed BOTH, but that the CE view is out of balance in it’s overemphasis on the informational component.)

Olson continues by digging at the dual roots of contemporary evangelicalism:  Puritan Reformed theology, with its emphasis on confessional preservation of orthodox belief & the Pietistic/Revivalist emphasis on the experience of God’s transforming power.  He describes how a growing awareness of this duality led to the two groups beginning to “snipe at each other and take potshots at each other in print” (pointing specifically to Carson’s The Gagging of God & David F. Wells No Place for Truth).

Olson begins to defend the PCE view, and in particular his friend, the late Stanley Grenz, from the attacks and suspicions of CE thinkers, specifically refuting any “shallow interpretations” that would try to link the PCE movement to liberal theology and the ideas of the first liberal theologian, Friedrich Schliermacher, who emphasized feeling and experience over reason and ideation.  Indeed Olson says PCE’s have “no interest in being liberal” but rather desire to free evangelical theology “from captivity to the Enlightenment culture’s rationalism and obsession with ‘facts’ to the exclusion of truth in experience and personal knowledge.”

While acknowledging the role of information in the Christian life, PCE’s “do not believe that facts constitute the essence of authentic Christianity or true evangelicalism, both of which are primarily expressions of the transforming power of a relationship–the relationship between God in Jesus Christ manifested through the Holy Spirit and the person in community.”  In this perspective, doctrine is the “second-order language of the church that brings to expression this [supernatural] transforming experience.”  Doctrine serves experience, and not vice versa.

A quote from Alister McGrath points in this direction (though McGrath does not go as far as identifying experience as the essence of evangelical faith):

It is a travesty of the biblical idea of ‘truth’ to equate it with the Enlightenment notion of conceptual or propositional correspondence, or the derived view of evangelicalism as the proclamation of the propositional correctness of Christian doctrine (from A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism).

More explicitly, Stanley Grenz pointed toward the concept of “convertive piety,” which is “a certain experience of God that is supernatural, personally transforming, and centered around the cross of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the holy spirit.”  Olson goes on to point out, and this is what makes some squirm, that “a person who has this experience may be a real Christian–and an evangelical–without yet being orthodox doctrinally.”  While “doctrinal systems have their value,” it is “a distinctive spirituality that forms evangelical Christianity’s essence.”  Grenz succinctly stated in his groundbreaking 1993 work, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, that “the truth of the Christian faith must be personally experienced truth.”

Grenz points out that while “doctrinal systems and worldviews inevitably arise within communities and shape individual identity and group knowledge…[they] cannot replace or stand in for spiritual experience [but are] expressions of it.”  In Grenz’s view, “the ultimate authority for developing Christian belief and life is the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures in the context of the community shaped by a common spiritual experience of convertive piety.”

So what about doctrinal correctness?  Olson replies that while it is important, correct doctrine does not trump the experience of a converted believer.  “Apart from the transforming experience, authentic evangelicalism does not exist even where doctrinal correctness is present.  And where right experience and right spirituality are present in Jesus-centered living, authentic Christianity may be present even if doctrinal correctness is not yet fully present-provided that movement in the right direction is clearly discernible.”

The difference between CE and PCE thinking on this point may be hard to detect…Olson lays out a few areas of competing emphasis:

  1. CE proponents “assert that the basis of our Christian beliefs must not be experiential because experience is subjective.”  For them, “the basis of our [faith] must be reason grasping divine revelation [and that] the system of beliefs drawn from [divine revelation] is rationally superior to all competing systems of belief.”
  2. PCE thinkers (and allies such as McGrath) fear that CE theology is “turning evangelical faith into a philosophy and the Bible into a book of facts to be organized into a coherent system.”  (I’ve seen this mentality at work many times in my experience with the CEE.)  PCE thinkers hold narrative up as an alternative to CE overemphasis on the propositional.  “Narrative is meant to transform and does transform; it creates identity in a way factual statements do not…The point of this announcement in story form is to transform people; it is a story about salvation and brings about salvation.”  The cognitive dimension is not dismissed, but is rather relegated to secondary status.

This does allow for more uncertainty and ambiguity as to who is “in or out” of evangelicalism and makes heresy hunting a bit more difficult, but PCE’s are comfortable with this tension without becoming “relativists.”  Rather, Olson says they are “critical realists”:  “Absolute truth is what God knows; our grasp of truth is always from a certain finite perspective and infected with finitude and falleness.”

This emphasis on intellectual humility is one of the aspects of the PCE that appeals so much to me and I find myself willing to live with greater tension and ambiguity as I look at other people who claim to follow Christ.  Do you find, however, that too much is lost in making an experience of “convertive piety” the essence of Christianity rather than assent to a set of doctrinal propositions?  I’d love to hear your thoughts…

*[update:  I just finished two classes where we explored in a bit more depth the history, methodology, & theology of classical Christian liberalism and its modern descendants…goodness & mercy, I am no liberal!]

Imaging the Kingdom II: Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy

I believe that Greg and I were exercising a subconscious experiment to see if we could go the entire month of May without a post, but I am pleased to continue the Imaging the Kingdom series.

The terms ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’ are tossed around a lot in contemporary Christian circles.  Among Protestants two groups seem to gravitate toward one or the other: Emergents (Post-modern Christians) toward orthopraxy (emphasising the practise of religion) and Evangelicals toward orthodoxy (emphasising the belief of religion).  It might seem obvious to you, my beloved readers, that any branch of Christianity that is exclusively given over to one of these two positions is incredibly weak.  Perhaps you’re not so convinced that both are absolutely essential to members of the kingdom of God (which they are) or you want to explore how the two relate to one another in the kingdom of God (like me).  This is a long conversation that goes back through the ages.  It seems that within the Church people are often reacting to one side, then to the other.  This is especially evident since the Protestant Reformation, which I will expound [crudely for the sake of brevity].

In his Ninety-Five Theses (written in 1517 – the document that sparked the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, essentially) Luther argues against clerical abuses and explicitly states that both outward and inward repentance is important.  Luther believed—and I would say believed rightly—that the Church was abusing authority primarily with regard to specific gifts to the Church (indulgences) that were being used to fund the building of the papal palace.  In return for these gifts, people were given pardons from certain amounts of time in Purgatory (as is the purpose of indulgences in the Catholic tradition).  In his Theses Luther also argues against the demotion of the Scripture in Church worship for the sake of things like said pardons.  At the time it was not Luther’s intention to break away from the Roman Church, but to reform it.  Still, Luther’s refusal to back down from his increasingly hostile criticisms against the Catholic Church brought about his excommunication in 1521.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Luther’s teachings in the Protestant world involves his principles of sola fide (‘by faith alone’), sola gratia (‘by grace alone’) and sola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’).  Luther was convinced that the Church had drifted from the Pauline teaching of salvation by faith in Christ alone, instead opting for additional works in order to ‘acquire salvation’.  The Council of Trent in 1545 made clear the belief in the Catholic Church that it was exclusively by God’s grace that salvation came to the believer, but by this time the teaching of Luther and the reformers that followed after him had done its damage.  One of the central tenets of the ‘Lutheran view’ is that the epistles of St Paul dealt with the issue of the Jewish understanding of ‘salvation by works’ (a controversial notion that I believe is an inaccurate read of both Second Temple Judaism [6th century BCE to the 1st century CE] and the writings of Paul).  When Luther looked at Paul’s writings he saw his situation (a Christian dealing with the false teachings of an established religion based upon salvation by works) coupled with Paul’s dealings with the ‘Judaisers’.  As a result of this interpretation the Lutheran and Reformed traditions have had what some consider an disproportionate aversion toward the concept of ‘works’ ever since.  Luther’s view has been criticised by those that hold a more traditional view and the recent work by Protestants like  Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn and Tom Wright (the ‘New Perspective on Paul’), which in itself is a 20th century reaction to the Protestant Reformation.

As the Protestant Reformation made its way across Europe it opened the door for the replacement of the feudal social system with a more mercantile (eventually capitalistic) social system.  The Enlightenment came to pass, which generally pressed that the right beliefs (essentially by way of right logic) precede right actions.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries The Romantic and Counter-Enlightenment movements reacted against the Enlightenment, stressing the inadequacy of bare logic and doctrine.  Friedrich Schleiermacher played an important role in the intellectual history of Europe at this time.  He held that experience was to inform doctrine.  Theological liberalism followed Schleiermacher and dominated Western Christianity for the next century.

In the early 20th century we see the birth of Modernism and WWI.  Karl Barth, reacting against the endorsement of the Weimar Republic’s expansionistic ambitions by his liberal theological mentors, rejected the conclusions of Schleiermacher.  Barth, inspired by Hegel and Kierkegaard, instead proposes a dialectic approach in which the unknowable God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and it is through Christ alone, the Word of God, that a Christian might experience God.  Modernism pressed forward after the First World War, critiquing orthodoxy, which prompted the Fundamentalist Evangelical reaction.  This movement made way for the surge in popularity of the Restorationist Movement (emphasising ‘proper’ action) and the anti-intellectual Jesus Movement (emphasising ‘correct’—though not necessarily orthodox—beliefs).

Post-modernism has found expression in the Emergent Movement, which emphasises ‘belonging before belief’, prompting yet another Evangelical reaction emphasising ‘belief before belonging’.  In reaction to this whole mess we also have those who try to hold onto something universal and unchanging – ‘Ecumenists’, like me.

In looking very briefly at some Western intellectual history over the last 500 years I hope to have not offended too many readers.  If you feel my incredibly brief summary has not treated your views equally I apologise profusely and ask that you would please comment if you’d like to add something relevant – I might have more detailed reasons for much of what I did write and we can engage in an enlightening (excuse my language) dialogue.

So where are we now?  We’ve determined that [Protestant] Christians have frequently shifted between emphases on orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  We’ve also determined that two prominent Protestant movements are currently in conflict over this very issue.  What does the Gospel of the kingdom of God have to say about these two things?

We can look to Scripture for some insight, but I quickly want to express a few things with regard to Scripture.  We must understand that Scripture was written by different people at particular points in time, in particular geographical locations, for particular reasons.  This is not to say that the Scripture has become entirely inaccessible to anyone in our present age.  I believe that God has given the Church authority and therefore as a product of the Church, the Bible has authority.  God is also a living and active God and his Holy Spirit can provide guidance and insight in our explorations, potentially.  Still, the Scripture is not a treatise on everything – that is not its purpose.  I believe a sure way to orient ourselves in order to see the world (and this issue of orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy) in light of the kingdom of God we must look toward our example of proper living in the kingdom of God: Jesus of Nazareth.

With regard to the life of Christ, the primary focus of Christian tradition and the Scripture is the three-year period leading up to his death and Resurrection.  This is considered Christ’s public ministry.  When we look at Christ’s ministry, what is it characterised by?  Do we see an exclusive emphasis on orthodoxy?  What about orthopraxy?  It is quite clear that Christ valued both things and didn’t paint one especially important over the other.  Instead it is more of a process.

Some might say that works are necessary for a member of the kingdom of God.  I would say that works are inevitable for a member of the kingdom of God.  We do not enter the kingdom by our works, neither do our good works merely demonstrate that we are part of the kingdom.

I actually propose that our good works are a reaction in themselves, a reaction to the grace of God through the Gospel.  Some might say sceptically, “Oh great, the obscure ‘Gospel’ card again,” as if it is some inexplicable and abstract notion.  Others might argue that this emphasis on the Gospel seems to imply a preeminence of belief over works.  It is true that the Gospel is composed of data in part – historical facts regarding the actions of God, culminating in the death and Resurrection of Christ and the advent of his Church.  But instead of viewing the Gospel as brute facts I would rather see it as something we perceive with our whole being.  We do not merely hear its words and think, ‘I believe that.’  The Gospel is the effective power of God through his Holy Spirit and the invitation to participate in the redemptive mission of the creator of the universe as members of God’s family, the Church.  Therefore I would see this reaction to the Gospel not as a reaction to bare facts or experience, but the entirety of what it is to begin to comprehend the grace of God for his creation.

The God of history has entered into history and has redeemed all things, visible and invisible, and in this we cannot see a serious Christian faith without a balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  In other words, Christianity is not merely about doing the right thing or believing the right thing.  Christianity is about doing the right thing based upon the right motives.  It is an active faith, that does not exclusively demand our beliefs, nor does it exclusively demand our actions – it demands all that we are, visible and invisible.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)