The Senses of Scripture Pt. 1

28 Jan

I recall a time in high school when I really wanted to know the truth about something.  The issue was baptism.  Many of my friends were a part of a church (that I started going to later in high school) that taught that baptism was the primary point at which one became a Christian, rather than the usual Evangelical approach (which I had grown up with) that a person is “saved” when they pray something usually known as “the sinner’s prayer” (something oddly absent from the Scriptures) where one confesses that they are sinful, that they believe in Jesus’ salvation, and that they intend to follow him with their whole life.  So there I was, poring over the New Testament and all the passages I could find about baptism, trying to read it objectively, the way someone would read it if they had no preconceived ideas or biases or pre-knowledge, just the bible and what it said.  Needless to say, my quest for objective, unbiased knowledge came up short.  While I eventually came to have a higher view of baptism, there certainly wasn’t a slam dunk case for the one view over the other.  Some verses seemed to support one side, while others had to be explained away, and the other view had their verses and explained away the others.  But it seemed that one could honestly hold either view based on the Bible, and not just because one side was biased by their preconceived ideas and doctrinal biases.

Fast forward several years to when I found myself attending a Christian college, taking class after class on the Bible.  I began to realize that with enough creativity and rhetorical flourish, one could make the Bible say just about anything you wanted.  Systematic theology became frustrating to endure as I saw how verses and passages were employed to support points their authors would have never intended to make.  It’s not that those who used the Bible this way were intending to twist it, but that if you take the Bible as a series of self-standing propositional truths and view systematic theology as the practice of organizing these truths the way a scientist organizes empirical data into categories and theories, then you can end up using the Bible with little concern for its literary, historical contexts.  When you use the Bible this way, to support certain doctrinal ideas with “proof texts” (Bible verses used to support a point whether or not that was the biblical author’s intent), you end up with opposing ideas, all supposedly supported by the Bible, as was the case with my example of baptism from high school.

As I went on in school I began to learn more solid interpretive methods that appreciated the historical, literary, cultural, and linguistic contexts of the author, and learned rules like “A passage can never mean something now that it didn’t to its original audience.”  All of these approaches distanced me from the proof-texting and “creative” use of Scripture found in some systematic theology and poorly prepared sermons.  This approach, which centers on learning what the human author of Scripture intended, I came to learn, is called the grammatical-historical method.  It was the foundation of all sound biblical interpretation.  This at times created some tension with previously held views, like how can the Prophets be speaking of Jesus if they were speaking to issues of their own day and had no idea their writings would be used the way they were to apply to Jesus.  Over time, I began to see that this approach, consistently applied, made my previously held Evangelical views of Scripture seem untenable, naive, unrealistic.  Seeing so clearly the very human dimension of Scripture made it difficult at times to see where the divine element came into play, especially since I knew it couldn’t be the way that my old Evangelical way of seeing things (inerrancy) that severely downplayed the human element.


This is not, you may be able to tell, a true part one in a multi-part series; this is the first half of a really long blog that I cut in half.  Why would I cut it in half?  Because people don’t read long blogs.  Also because Jeff Spiehs always complains about it when my blogs are long.  So I will soon post the second half for you all to enjoy.  You better be happy, Jeff, you better be happy.

Religion vs Jesus?

11 Jan

I recently came across this video on Facebook, and then after a short while saw it posted by more and more people.  While there is nothing in this video that hasn’t been said time after time by many Christians in the last few decades, it still has a message that many Christians connect to.  So I’d like to give my response to the video, but first, here is the video if you haven’t already seen it:



I would like to state up front that on a personal level, I find the creative, artistic merit of this poet to be lacking (and I have nothing against the genre of spoken word poetry).  But what bothers me more than this artist not meeting my aesthetic standards, is the message of the poem.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the entire message of the poem is build around a false dichotomy.  Jesus vs religion.  Grace and love vs ethics/rules.  God’s reaching out to humanity vs humanity’s reaching out to God.  Jesus work on the cross vs Jesus’ followers making any effort for good.

The other primary problem I see is that the religion is used as a scapegoat.  Everything that one sees wrong with Christianity, such as judgmentalism, self-righteousness/self-justification, and legalism, is used to define the word “religion”, which then has scorn heaped upon it, as if this makes the Christian doing this less judgmental, self-righteous and legalistic.  If it does anything, this promotes an alternative form of spiritual pride that says “I thank God I’m not like those judgmental, legalistic, Christian religious people.  I thank God I know about grace and forgiveness unlike those other people.”

Another problem is that he critiques how religion “is just behavior modification”, and that it’s all about what you do, but then goes on to say, “If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars, why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor.”  So is what you do important or not?  You can’t critique religion for caring too much about what people do and then critique it for not caring enough about certain things people do or don’t do.  And for the record, the Church does feed the poor, there are many good things like that that “religion” does to help people, often going unnoticed.  And if you critique the Church for not being welcoming enough to sinners, how can you be upset when it “starts wars”, because of the sin of those within the Church.  The Church is the home for both saints and sinners, and if we kicked people out every time they didn’t measure up, we’d all get kicked at some point (I know I definitely would).

One of the main criticisms, however, is that religion is supposedly all about human effort to earn one’s way to God, while Christianity (read “true Christianity”) is about God’s initiative alone.  While there are many different definitions for religion, the best one I’ve come across is something like “religion is the human attempt to relate to the divine.”  So this brings up a basic question: is religion a matter of humanity reaching out to the divine, or the divine reaching out to humanity?  The poet seems to believe the latter, however, I would contend that it is both.  Christian faith is not a passive event that happens in spite of us (unless you’re a full Calvinist, holding to its deterministic theology), but it is something that we partake in.  God makes the gift of faith possible, and we choose faith.  It is not an either/or, but a both/and.  So too with the big question of faith and works.  It is not a matter of whether faith alone or good works is the means of salvation (God is the source and power of salvation), but rather a real faith that shows itself in love and good works is what saves us, and we participate in that salvation becoming a reality in our lives.  Again, not an either/or choice.  So yes, Christian faith is both something that is “done” for us, by Jesus’ doing on the cross what we could not do, and something that we “do”, living out the implications, feeding the hungry, welcoming the rejected, as our salvation becomes realized in our lives.  This in no way contradicts Jesus’, “it is finished.”


What this view of faith seems to really be seeking, however, is a faith that is completely between the individual and Jesus, without all the messiness of Christian history, the Church, and religious practice and tradition.  But without this history, our history, we have nothing.  Everything we have as Christians, including the Bible itself, is given to us by our Christian ancestors.  And while our family history might be messy and embarrassing at times, it is our family, our home.  Christianity, without the Church, is not much of a faith.  While it often does not measure up to its best principles, we ought, rather than rejecting and distancing ourselves from it, to embrace it and work to strengthen it however we can, beginning with ourselves.  God has chosen to do His work of reconciling the world to Himself especially through His people; that is good news, and that is the Christian religion.



Great books (for lack of a better title)

24 Dec

I recently purchased a book, 25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Christian Classics as a holiday gift.  This got me thinking about making a list of some of my top books relating to Christianity and the Christian life.
The book’s top 25 list is as follows:

1. On The Incarnation by St. Athanasius
2. Confessions by St. Augustine
3. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
4. The Rule of St. Benedict by St. Benedict
5. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
6. The Cloud of Unknowing by Unknown
7. Revelations of Divine Love (Showings) by Julian of Norwich
8. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
9. The Philokalia
10. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
11. The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila
12. Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross
13. Pensees by Blaine Pascal
14. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
15. The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
16. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law
17. The Way of a Pilgrim by Unknown
18. The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
19. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
20. The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
21. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
22. A Testament of Devotion by Thomas R. Kelly
23. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
24. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
25. The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J.M. Nouwen

In preparing my list I have realized some things.  First of all, I have read and been influence by more newer books than old.  While many of the authors I read are drawing on a deeper tradition and interacting with older works many times, this still has shown me that my reading needs to not just be wider, but also deeper (in history.)  Also, it reminded me of something I already knew, that I am much more drawn to books of a theological/intellectual bent rather than the spiritual/formative types.  This comes naturally as I tend to be more analytic and less emotional, but it also reminds me that I need to keep both sides in balance, loving God with both my mind and heart.  Also as a reminder, this is not a list of the greatest Christian books, it’s a list of books that have been influential and important for me.  The books are rated both on the quality of the message and the importance and scope of the subject, as well as how influential it has been for me (This means that some of the books will not be widely influential in Christianity at all, but just for me, while others are recognized “Christian classics”).  I realize that these are muddled criteria, and may seem arbitrary, but that’s because the choices kinda are, but that’s what you get.  And without further ado, my list (which in the interest of shortness is my top 12, not 25):

  1. .
    Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
     by N.T. Wright.
    I can think of few books I’ve read that have been as influential and paradigm shifting for me as this book has.  Wright, an impressive New Testament scholar, discusses explains the Christian message in terms of God redeeming and restoring all of His creation and explains the Christian mission in this context.  A great book that gives a theological paradigm that has full room for issues such as social justice, ecology, war and peace, etc.  A very healthy (and biblical) corrective to the shallow “personal salvation”-focused version of the Gospel.

  2. .
    The Cost of Discipleship
     by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
    One of the greatest books of the 20th century, Bonhoeffer begins this book by expounding on the difference between what he calls “cheap grace” and “costly grace”.  He says “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. ” (underlines added) It is one of the most convicting and inspiring books I have ever read.

  3. .
    The Irrisistable Revolution: Living Life as an Ordinary Radical
     by Shane Claiborne
    In my sophomore year of college, this book was (to steal the term) revolutionary.  I discovered it in a time of revolution in my faith, and when I was discovering some of the implications of the Christian faith in terms of social justice and other issues.  It is written by Shane Claiborne who is a part of the “New Monastic” movement, which appropriates monastic practices while being active in mission and living in community in inner cities (Shane lives in the inner city of Philadelphia).  Very radical stuff for someone raised on the Evangelical salvation gospel.

  4. .
    The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture
     by Christian Smith
    A very impressive and sharp critique of the primary way the Scriptures are handled within the Evangelical tradition, a way known as “biblicism”.  He shows how because of what he calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism”, the Scriptures do not functionally serve as an authority for Evangelicals.  This is because one can simply choose whatever interpretation one likes the best (because there is no higher authority to appeal to).  Smith, who has become a Catholic since writing the book, explains precisely what he means by “biblicism” and then shows its many problems.  To finish the book he offers a few suggestions for better approaches to the Scriptures, but the best part of this book is how he reveals, explains, and then shows the impossibility of the biblicist approach.
    Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament
     by Peter Enns
    A great book that provides a paradigm for understanding Scripture in which discoveries of OT studies in the last century fit.  It discusses the similarities of the OT to other ancient Near Eastern mythographies, literature and culture, the theological diversity (read: contradictions or apparent contradictions) in the OT, and the NT authors’ seemingly cavalier usage of OT passages in their writings.  In all of this his central message is simple, just as Jesus was and is both fully divine and fully human, so the Scriptures are both fully human (fully bearing the marks of the cultures and time periods from which they came), and also fully divine (inspired by the One God).  This understanding of Scripture makes sense of issues brought up by biblical scholarship that would be problems in a simple “biblical inerrancy” framework of thought.
    The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann
    In this book, Brueggemann provides a framework for understanding what prophetic ministry is all about.  It is critiquing the present reality (of whatever kind) and energizing (providing hope) for an alternative reality.  He sees the current conservative tendency to be good at energizing for an alternative reality, but poor at critique, and the liberal tendency as good at present critique, but poor at energizing for an alternative reality.  In the context of the OT prophets it was the theological as well as sociopolitical situation, in Moses’ context it was the Exodus from slavery in Egypt.  But he explains this in a way that is practical for understanding how prophetic imagination and ministry might work today (without giving any concrete applications).

  7. .
    Evil and the Justice of God 
    by N.T. Wright
    A great work of theology that looks at the problem in the scriptural narrative.  The basic answer that Wright gives is that the Bible doesn’t so much explain why evil exists as it shows what God is doing about this problem in creation.  What God is doing is first calling Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12 and following) to both be blessed and bless the whole world, and after this to send His Son to fulfill everything Israel was called to do (the idea of Messiahship, of representing God’s people).  This book is incredibly biblical and yet seems revolutionary at the same time.  Well worth the read.

  8. .
    The Politics of Jesus
     by John Howard Yoder
    Yoder, a Mennonite, and one of the great 20th century theologians (who studied under Karl Barth), begins this work by arguing that the Gospel cannot be understood as being apolitical because it proclaims an alternative politic or social ethic.  The book expounds on this alternative, pacifist ethic.  It is a thorough and theologically impressive book that all would do well to read.

  9. .
    The Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster
    This classic on Christian spiritual disciplines contains something within it that eludes so many books that are filled with intelligent arguments, logic, wit, and humor; and that factor is wisdom.  This book reads like words of instruction from a wise soul to another.  Practical, yet profound, it reintroduces a variety of disciplines to a generation of Christians who have grown up without these practices

  10. .
    Mere Christianity
     by C.S. Lewis
    The first book of serious or theological nature I ever read, in fact the only book of such sort I read while in high school.  I convinced by dad to buy it for me while we were in a book store one time on the condition that I read the whole thing.  He agreed.  I thought it was the greatest thing since the closing of the canon.  While in retrospect I would now see Lewis as being overly influenced by Greek (esp. Platonic) philosophy (to the book’s detriment), it is still impossible to deny Lewis’ genius in writing and thought, and this book has reintroduced the Christian faith to generations of both believers and non-believers.
    Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church by James K.A. Smith
    Smith shows in this book the many ways in which postmodern philosophy, which is most often understood as being in opposition to Christianity, can be incorporated into Christian thought in a healthy, orthodox way.  This book played a huge part in my life in beginning to question my own antipathies towards such things as authority, ritual, and tradition (especially authority), and realize that those attitudes may well be a product of influence by modernist philosophy (a philosophy that is at least as anti-Christian, if not more, than postmodern philosophy).  By accepting postmodernism’s critique of modernism’s idea of objective, universal knowledge, the Christian is freed to embrace the whole of Christian tradition, realizing that all knowledge is in some way a product of culture and tradition.  Without oversimplifying, this book is accessible enough for a wide audience.
    Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals 
     by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw
    Written in order to “provoke the Christian political imagination”, this book is impressive both in content and (especially) in its creative design (flip through a copy of the book to see what I mean).  It is a stroll through the Old Testament, the life of Jesus, the early Church, and a look at the future, all through the lens of the idea that the people of God are called to live as an alternative community with an alternative social ethic as a witness to the outside world.  It is heavily influenced by Anabaptist theology/politics.  Whether you agree or disagree, it is worth the read.  Very thought-provoking.

Just missing the cut: Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation, Pope Benedict’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, a whole bunch of other books by N.T. Wright (most of which I own), Richard Hays’ The Conversion of the Imagination, John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, Brevard Childs’ Old Testament Theology in Canonical Context, John Howard Yoder’s Body Politics, and, When War is Unjust, Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis, Wendell Berry’s Sex, Economy, Community, and Freedom, Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and many more.


25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essentil Christian Classics on Amazon:

Just an observation.

5 Dec

Is it just me, or does 20th century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner…

















Look like this guy?

Walter Brueggeman’s The Prophetic Imagination: Alternative Community

25 Oct

In this post, I will summarize and discuss the first (and central) chapter of  Walter Brueggeman’s book The Prophetic Imagination, entitled “The Alternative Community of Moses.”  In this chapter he sketches the outline for his understanding of prophetic ministry (both of the historical prophets, and what that sort of ministry might look like today), and he looks to Moses as the prototype for prophetic ministry.

Keep in mind, especially those with any sort of charismatic/Pentecostal background, that by “prophetic,” he, nor I, mean receiving some direct word of revelation from God, but rather a kind of posture of faith and ministry, which will  be explained.  Please do your best to dissociate yourself from definitions of prophecy that you may have in mind while reading this post, because otherwise there may be a tendency to read those definitions onto what Brueggemann says (and what I say about what Brueggemann says), which will end up very confusing.

To begin his discussion on the ancient prophets, Brueggemann starts, of course, with our present situation.  This actually makes perfect sense when we realize that the prophets were always about addressing their own contexts, not just prophesying about some distant future, disconnected from the present.  Thus, a discussion of what prophetic ministry was, is necessarily intertwined with what prophetic ministry is today.  Brueggemann states that bluntly in his second paragraph that, “the contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act.” (1)  He goes on to diagnose that, “the internal cause of such enculturation is our loss of identity through the abandonment of the faith tradition.” (1)  He goes on:

The church will not have power to act or believe until it recovers its tradition of faith and permits that tradition to be the primal way of our enculturation.  This is not a cry for traditionalism, but rather a judgment that the church has no business more pressing than the reappropriation of its memory in its full power and authenticity.  And that is true among liberals who are too chic to remember and conservatives who have overlaid the faith memory with all kinds of hedges that smack of scientism and Enlightenment. It is the task of prophetic ministry to bring the claims of tradition and the situation of enculturation into an effective interface.” (2, bold added)

 Brueggemann then goes on to discuss the different misunderstandings of prophecy by both conservatives and liberals.  He says, “The dominant conservative misconception… is that the prophet is a fortune teller, a predictor of things to come (mostly ominous)… While the prophets are in a way future-tellers, they are concerned with the future as it impinges upon the present. Conversely, liberals who abdicated and turned all futuring over to conservatives have settled for a focus on the present.  Thus prophecy is alternatively reduced to righteous indignation and, in circles where I move, prophecy is mostly understood as social action.  Indeed, such a liberal understanding of prophecy is an attractive and face-saving device for any excessive abrasiveness in the service of almost any cause.  Perhaps our best effort would be to let the futuring of such conservatives and the present criticism of the liberals correct each other.” (2-3, bold, underline, and italics added)

He then states his hypothesis, which is the center of this chapter, and of the whole book.  “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” (3, italics original, underline added)

He goes on, “Thus I suggest that the prophetic ministry has to do not primarily with addressing specific public crises but with addressing, in season and out of season, the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient, of having our alternative vocation co-opted and domesticated.” (3, italics added)  Brueggemann then defines the two key activities in nurturing this “alternative consciousness”.  “The alternative consciousness… serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness.  To that extend, it attempts to do what the liberal tendency has done: engage in the delegitimizing of the present ordering of things.  On the other hand, that alternative consciousness to be nurtured serves to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move.  To that extent, it attempts to do what the conservative tendency has done, to live in fervent anticipation of the newness that God has promised and will surely give.” (3, italics original, underlines added) He later reiterates the relative strengths and weaknesses of both liberals and conservatives, saying, “Liberals are good at criticism but often have no word of promise to speak; conservatives tend to future well and invite to alternative visions, but a germane criticism by the prophet is often not forthcoming.” (4-5)

Brueggemann then returns to Moses, who he holds up as the prototype of a prophet, and specifically the story of Moses, Pharaoh, and the birth of the nation of Israel.  He writes,

“The radical break of Moses and Israel from imperial reality is a two-dimensioned break from both the religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation.  Moses dismantled the religion of static triumphalism by exposing the gods and showing that in fact they had no power and were not gods… The mythic claims of the empire are ended by the disclosure of the alternative religion of the freedom of God…. At the same time, Moses dismantles the politics of oppression and exploitation by countering it with a politics of justice and compassion.  The reality emerging out of the Exodus is not just a new religion or a new religious idea or a vision of freedom but the emergence of a new social community in history… The participants in the Exodus found themselves… involved in the intentional formation of a new social community to match the vision of God’s freedom.” (6-7, italics original)

“We will not understand the meaning of prophetic imagination unless we see the connection between the religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation.” (7, italics original)  Brueggemann explains how in many ways the religion of a society props up and legitimates the politics and social structure of that society.  Thus in imperial Egypt, their gods upheld their social order, under which the Hebrews suffered in slavery.  So Moses’ attack on the gods of Egypt (the plagues were aimed at undermining the power (and perception of power) of the Egyptian hierarchy and their gods) was in reality an attack on their entire social order.  Brueggemann writes, “the gods of Egypt are the immovable lords of order.  they call for, sanction, and legitimate a society of order, which is precisely what Egypt had…. Thus the religion of the static gods is not and never could be disinterested, but inevitably it served the interests of the people in charge, presiding over the order and benefiting from the order” (7)  “It is the marvel of prophetic faith that both imperial religion and imperial politics could be broken.” (7)  Brueggemann further explains the connection between theology and sociology: “Our sociology is predictably derived from, legitimated by, and reflective of our theology.  And if we gather around a static god of order who only guards the interests of the “haves, ” oppression cannot be far behind.  Conversely, if a God is disclosed who is free to come and go, free from and even against the regime, free to hear and even answer slave cries, free from all proper goodness as defined by the empire, then it will bear decisively upon sociology because the freedom of God will surface in the brickyards and manifest itself as justice and compassion.” (8)

Brueggemann talks in more depth about the two primary activities of prophetic ministry: criticism and energizing.  Criticism is often expressed in grieving, in the mourning of the current situation, and a call to the God who is free to act on a people’s behalf.  This criticism is the astute awareness of the brokenness of a particular situation, and the voicing of that brokenness rather than sweeping it under the rug.  He notes how our society has a tendency to silence criticism by pretending that everything is just fine, because recognizing a problem demands something of us, to work towards a better reality.  We see this in Exodus 2:23-25, which reads, “…the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew”  This is where energizing comes in.  He notes how closely energizing and hope are linked.  Energizing is that positing a vision of an alternative reality, of something different.  “It is the task of the prophet to bring to expression the new realities against the more visible ones of the old order….We are energized not by that which we already possess but by that which is promised and about to be given.” (14)  This new reality (as sociology is connected with theology) is understood as that which is not just brought about by the prophet, but which is a gift of God, it is something given.  This energizing comes not just from a realistic appraisal of what a person or people are capable of accomplishing on their own, but on a future that God alone can bring about.  In the Exodus narrative, the freedom from bondage and birth of a new nation is God’s own gift, something which energizes and provides hope for the Hebrew people.

And lastly, prophecy, when it has brought about the alternative reality, culminates in doxology, that is the praise and worship of God.  The story of the Exodus contains Moses’ song of praise, containing these words: (Ex. 15:9-13)

The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’
You blew with your wind; the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

“Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand;
the earth swallowed them.

“You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;
you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.

So now for a few thoughts on Brueggemann’s formulation of what constitutes prophetic ministry.

First of all, I really appreciate how he shows both the strengths and weaknesses of the liberal and conservative tendencies, of criticism and energizing, of sociology and theology.  He shows that these belong together.  Those with liberal leanings will inevitably focus on the here and now, and make theological concerns and eschatological concerns secondary.  Those with conservative tendencies focus very much on the truth about God, and eagerly await the day of God’s inbreaking into history, and can often miss what God is already doing in history at the present moment.  And because the conservative tendency can often miss the importance of making criticisms of the social order we find ourselves in, it can often unwittingly support whatever order exists, even if it often only serves to support those in power and those with the most to gain from the present situation.  This balanced tension between focus on the present mission and future hope is crucial, I believe, for a healthy Christian faith.

Second, I appreciate how this paradigm of prophetic ministry can be applied to so many different situations.  One can use this structure of criticism and energizing both within a faith community, and in the broader society, as well as on a personal level.  Brueggemann’s chapter remains quite vague as to specific applications for Christians today, but in many ways this is helpful, because it allows for its application to diverse situations.

Third of all, well, I kinda said this in point one, but I think we often how intertwined our theology is with our sociology.  We can view our theology, beliefs about God, as being in one category, and our views about sociology, politics, and interactions with others as being in another category.  But as Christians we look to Jesus as providing us with an alternative vision of how we are to interact with others.  Our values are transformed, our methods are transformed, and, we hope, our hearts are transformed.  This does not mean that we attempt to promote a triumphalistic, dominating politics of coercing everyone around us to adhere to “Christian values”.  It means that we precisely don’t do that because triumphalism and domination over others are not what we as Christians are called to.   Ok… I feel myself getting off topic.  Thoughts?

P.S. Thing I like #4: I like how Brueggemann corrects the idea of the prophet as the person who makes ominous predictions about the future, and shows that the prophets were always concerned about their present contexts, and were specifically concerned with the future precisely as it “impinges upon the present.”  Without this appreciation that the OT prophets spoke to their own contexts, people can create some pretty wild interpretations of the prophetic books of the bible.

Ecumenism and the Stone-Campbell Movement

19 Oct

Read this:

And now read this:

Well now that you have read those two Wiki articles, (in their entirety, I’m sure) I’ll begin my post  The topic is, as you may have gathered from the title, ecumenism, and specifically the approach to ecumenism and Christian unity advocated by the Stone-Campbell movement (also called the Restoration movement; I’ll abbreviate it here as the SCM).  Some of you are familiar with the SCM, where the Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and Disciples of Christ all find their ancestry.  The Christian Churches is the group that the college I went to, Nebraska Christian College, descends from.  I also have attended Christian Churches from some time in high school to somewhere around my sophomore year of college (and I have also worked with many Christian Church congregations for various ministry things through NCC).  So through all of this, I am quite familiar with this particular tradition and it’s approach to attempting to unify Christianity (I even took a course on the history of the SCM in college).

But, to take a step back, what is ecumenism?  Wikipedia says that it, “mainly refers to initiatives aimed at greater Christian unity or cooperation.”  Approaches to ecumenism vary, and goals vary from group to group, but a greater unity within Christianity is the common factor within ecumenism.  While most Christians would agree that unity is a good thing, some Christians view the problem of the disunity with a far greater sense of urgency than others.  For many Christians, this problem isn’t something that much thought or concern is given to.  This is not to say that they don’t care at all about it or that they are against unity, but rather that it isn’t as high up on their list of important things.  So why is a greater unity within Christianity important?

While this could be developed much more extensively, I would like to briefly look at a couple of places in Scripture that speak of the importance of the unity of the Church.  In John 17, Jesus prays to the Father for His followers in what is commonly referred to as the high priestly prayer.  He says: (20-26)

“…I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,  I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.  O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me.  I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

While this passage ought to be given a much more extensive treatment, I will suffice to make a couple brief points.  First of all, Jesus’ followers being “one” is very important to Him.  Second, Jesus relates the unity of His people, to the unity between Him and the Father.  Just as their is a unity of love between the Son and the Father (and all of the Trinity, we would believe, though not stated in this passage), so there is to be a unity of love between those who belong to Jesus the Son.  Third, this unity serves in order that the world will believe that Jesus is sent of God.  Peace and unity between Christians shows the world the truth of its message.  Experience tells us that the converse is equally true, Christian disunity serves to make the Christian message of reconciliation less believable.

Another passage of Scripture that speaks to the importance of Christian unity is St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  Read this passage from Chapter 2, verses 11-22

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,  in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

 A few observations from this passage: First, the context within which Paul talks about Christ’s work here (and in other places) is the Jewish-Gentile issue.  He is addressing the question of whether the Gentile converts to Christianity need to adopt Jewish practices such as food laws and circumcision.  He refers to these as “the dividing wall of hostility” and emphatically answers this question with a “no”.  Paul places his teaching here on salvation (soteriology) within the context of his teaching on God’s people, the Church (ecclesiology), which for him are inseparable.  Ephesians is known for having a very high ecclesiology.  There is no room here for an individualistic, “just me and Jesus” approach to the Christian faith.  Being a follower of Jesus (if we believe Paul) is a matter of being a part of God’s people.  Thus, the unity of this people is of crucial importance.  Here Paul connects the oneness of the Church to the fact that “through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father”.

The Wiki article on ecumenism describes the approaches by ecumenism by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Anglican and Protestant churches.  While I would like to get into these differences, that must be left to another post.

Now that we have seen why ecumenism/Christian unity is so important, and why so many Christians realize this, the time has come to take a look at the SCM’s approach to this problem.  The movement itself was a response to this problem.  To quote Wiki, “the movement sought to restore the church and “the unification of all Christians in a single body patterned after the church of the New Testament”  What this means is that the movement took the approach of what has been called “primitivism,” the idea that the Church should look back to the 1st century, to the roots of the Church, and restore it to a more pure form of Christianity (with the implication that subsequent developments and traditions have only served to corrupt this original, “pure”, form of the Church).  This approach also has the assumption that the New Testament contains an authoritative, prescriptive blueprint for how the Church is to organize itself, and that it is the only necessary source for Christian doctrine (thus their rejection of all creeds as being impediments to unity since they are not Scripture).  So the plan to unify Christianity was to take the essentials of what the Bible taught clearly (in their view), and to strip away all extra things that got in the way of Christian unity, such as denominational structures and identities, and creeds and theology as essential for fellowship. The unifying factor for the SCM was the Bible itself.  Their rejection of denominational identities led them to simply call themselves Christians or Disciples, however over time “Christian Church”, “Church of Christ,” and “Disciples of Christ” became their own labels for denominating a particular kind of church congregation.

Now while not universally applicable, one way of judging the truth of something is to look at its results.  I can recall one of my professors at NCC (who was not particularly gung-ho about the SCM tradition) saying that he found it ironic how the movement was founded upon Christian unity when in practice it has been one of the most anti-unity groups in Christianity.  While this may be a bit of an overstatement, the movement has been average at best when it comes to fostering Christian unity and cooperation.  Sometime after the civil war, the movement split between more conservative congregations, called Churches of Christ, who were against any sort of innovations not specifically prescribed in the NT, such as the use of instruments in worship services, and the more progressive Christian Churches, who accepted innovations.  In the early to mid 1900s, much like many other Protestant denominations, the Christian Churches split along the lines of the Liberal/Fundamentalist divide.  The more liberal side became known as the Disciples of Christ, and the conservative side, while not as conservative as the extremely conservative non-instrumental Churches of Christ, were still relatively conservative.  Thus, you have a movement formed on the idea of creating Christian unity, that has split into three main factions, not a very impressive record when it comes to bringing about unity.  In practice today, many Christian Churches tend to do very poorly when it comes to practicing Christian unity, often focusing on differences between themselves and Evangelicalism more broadly on issues such as the relation of baptism to salvation, church polity such as the rule of a local group of elders, congregational autonomy from denominational structures, as well as Calvinist and Arminian theological disagreements, weekly celebration of communion, and many other issues.  While those within these churches would say that they believe in Christian unity, they would say that the unity is based on what the Bible “clearly” teaches.  In practice this means what they interpret the Bible to be saying.  In the end, this says, “We can have unity when you agree with my interpretation of the Bible,” which serves to bring Christianity no closer to unity than any other Christian group does.

Part of the problem with this approach is its underlying philosophical approach.  It is widely recognized that the philosophy underlying this movement is what is known as “Scottish Commonsense Realism”.  This approach has a very high view of human rationality, and believes that with a little common sense, any person can understand and interpret anything objectively, and have objective knowledge.  Also, from this objective knowledge, any person should be able to logically deduce truths from the facts found within the Bible, and come to the same understanding on issues relating to Christian doctrine and Church polity.  The application of this is that any Christian should be able to read the Bible and come to the same understanding on basic issues that those of the SCM did.  However, as has been shown in the history of the movement, this simply does not work in practice.  Not only have these philosophical ideas been abandoned in philosophical circles, but its application in the Church has proved its impossibility.  The fact is that genuine Christians, trying to seek nothing but the truth, reading the Scriptures, trying to be as unbiased as possible, not just to support a preheld theological commitment, still continue, time after time, to come to very different understandings of what Scripture teaches.  The problem with having only the Bible as the center of Christian unity, is that all this does is leave us with the question of what the Bible actually teaches.  There is no such thing as “just the Bible”; every reading of the Bible is by necessity an interpretation of the Bible, and interpretations differ.  For this reason, we have 50 bazillion (speaking in hyperbole) different versions of “just the Bible”.  How on earth does this provide a foundation for Christian unity?  Without any authority to judge the legitimacy of certain interpretations of Scripture over others, there will not be Christian unity on the basis of the Scriptures.  While many, including those in the SCM (and much of Protestantism more broadly) would recoil at the idea of an authority governing interpretation of Scripture, impinging on the rights of individual Christians to interpret the Bible as they each see fit, I see no way around this.

The SCM, while being founded upon the noble idea of bringing unity to Christianity, has not only failed to do this in practice, but I believe was destined to fail because the method at its foundation is faulty.  The Bible cannot serve as the authority that is at the center of Christian unity, because it never sets out to do that.  It never claims to be the only authority for Christians.  It never claims to set out a systematic, exhaustive, repository of teaching on Church polity, doctrine, and practice.  So to assume that the Bible tells us everything we need to know in a prescriptive way will leave us coming up with our own prescriptions, and finding them very different than our brothers who take the exact same approach.  To assume that because we read the same Bible, we will come up with the same conclusions on even fundamental issues, is a philosophically and practically flawed assumption, and has shown itself to not work in history.

While I have (I think) shown the impossibility of the approach to unity of the SCM, this does not solve the problem.  Please comment with any thoughts on either defending this approach or positing an alternative approach.  My only claim that I am making is that unity of the Church must be centered around some form of authority, and that the Bible cannot, and was never meant to function as that authority.  Agree or disagree?

P.S. Hopefully some more posts will come on the topic of ecumenism, but we’ll see.

N.T. Wright on Paul pt. 2

1 Oct

This will be the second post in a series about a book by N.T. Wright, entitled Paul in Fresh Perspective, and I may also look a bit at his book entitled Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision when necessary, as the latter is a more in depth book, while the former is relatively brief.  Wright is an Anglican who served as the Bishop of Durham, but has now returned to full-time academic work, serving as a research professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland.  In addition to serving in the Anglican church, he is one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars.

Here is the Wikipedia article on N.T. Wright, which is unfortunately not particularly well written and documented, but good enough to give you some general info on him.

I have not written any posts specifically dedicated to any of Wright’s books, but as he has been profoundly influential in my own thought, you will likely recognize many of his ideas in much of my writing.

Wright is considered to be within a strand of New Testament scholars who are a part of what is called the “New Perspective on Paul.”  Check out the Wiki article on the New Perspective, which defines it at the outset as, “a significant shift in the way some scholars, especially Protestant scholars, interpret the writings of the Apostle Paul.” (  I would even go so far as to say that that the New Perspective is not only a significant shift within Protestantism, but even away from classic Protestant theology, especially Reformed theology.  However, as a matter of clarification, there is a fairly wide spectrum of beliefs within the  New Perspective, and many still hold to key Protestant and Calvinist beliefs, albeit understood quite differently.

Within the book, Wright looks at a bit of background, a few themes within Paul’s writings, and then looks at a few ways Paul transformed the existing Second-Temple Judaism thought of his day in light of Jesus.


This second post will deal with Wright’s second chapter in which he deals with the themes of creation and covenant.  Wrights sees these two themes as lying implicitly beneath much of Israel’s thought, and as “the fundamental structure of his (Paul’s) thought.” (21)  He shows these two themes by looking at some Psalms, one being Psalm 19, which begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (v.1), and continues on the theme of God’s glory being shown through His creation, and then in verse 7 takes a sudden turn and says, “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple,” dealing with Israel’s faith in particular, and their particular revelation, their Torah, which is “the covenant charter of Israel.” (21-22)  So you see both of these themes as key in Israel’s self-understanding.  Seeing God as the creator helps Israel to see God as being powerful over all that is, to have a universal understanding of God; seeing God as the God of the covenant helps Israel to see God as the God who has revealed Himself in very particular ways, and is in a particular relation to Israel that is different than the nations.  So tied together are ideas that are both universal and particular in scope.

So if the theme of covenant is such a particular idea, what exactly is it, and what does it mean?  Wright goes back to Genesis, to the covenant established with Abraham. He says:

“The book of Genesis demands to be read in this way: the promises to Abraham echo the commands to Adam, and the whole argument of the book, the whole point of the narrative, is that God has called Abraham and his family to undo the sin of Adam, even though Abraham and his family are themselves part of the problem as well as bearers of the solution.” (23)

So God’s calling to Abraham (see Genesis 12) to be a blessing to the whole world is in response to, and in order to set right, what has gone wrong earlier in the Genesis narrative.  It is both specific, in that it is a call to Abraham and his descendants, and universal, in that the blessing will go out to all the earth, and is in response to what has gone wrong in all of creation (Genesis 3-11).  So covenant is not just God arbitrarily deciding to form this special relationship with Abraham and his descendants, it is precisely in response to what is wrong with the whole creation.  Covenant is God’s response to the problem of evil in the world.  But the problem with this is that the bearers of this solution, those who are a part of the covenant, the people of Israel, are just as much entrapped in the problem of evil as anyone else.  As Wright said, they are, “part of the problem as well as bearers of the solution.” (23)

So Israel, seeing this problem, looks back to the God who created the whole world as the only one who could set the whole world right again.  Wright writes:

“Israel goes back to Genesis 1, and to the story of the Exodus, in order to pray and trust that YHWH will do again what, as creator, he has the power and the right to do, and what as the covenant God he has the responsibility to do, namely, to establish justice in the world and, more especially, to vindicate his people when they cry to him for help.” (24)

Wright says that, “Paul constantly goes back to the Old Testament, not least to Genesis, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and Isaiah, not to find proof-texts for abstract ideas but in order to reground the controlling narrative, the historical story, of god, the world, humankind, and Israel.” (24-25)  The was the question of the day in second-Temple Judaism in the first century.  What is God going to do with this mess we’re in?  Will he be faithful to His covenental relationship with His people.  Wright sees these ideas and these questions implicit behind the phrase “tsadaqah elohim” (“צדקה אלהים”) in Hebrew, and in Greek, “dikaiosune theou,” (“δικαιοσυνη θεου”, often translated “the righteousness of God”) which Paul uses.  This idea of the righteousness of God, or the covenental faithfulness/justice of God is the idea of “the fact that the creator and covenant God can be relied upon to act in accordance with his creating power and his covenant fidelity, to put the world to rights.” (25)  This is the world from which Paul came, from which he thought, and to which he wrote.

Wright looks at a few Pauline passages which illustrate this.  The first is Colossians 1, which reads (about Christ):

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (15-20, emphasis added)

In this passage, you see Paul speaking of Christ as the one who created all things, and the one through whom all things are being reconciled to God.  Jesus is held up as the one who is all-powerful, the creator, and the one through whom all that is wrong in the world will be set right again, “whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross”.

Wright also looks at 1 Corinthians 15.  Look at verses 20-28

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, thenat his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

Wright says of this passage, “This is how the problem within the existing creation, namely sin and death, has been dealt with through the Messiah, more specifically through the way in which the Messiah has been the means of fulfilling the promises of a great victory through which evil would be overthrown…  Paul is going back to creation itself, to Genesis, and is showing how God’s fulfillment of the covenant promises has established creation’s renewal.” (28-29)  To the question of what God will do about what’s gone wrong in the world (sin and death, the sin of Adam), Paul says that because of the Messiah’s (Christ’s) resurrection, all who are “in Christ” will partake in resurrection, and all enemies, including death itself, which is at the core of what’s gone wrong in God’s creation, will be defeated, and God will be “all in all”.  This passage must be read as the answer to the question of what God is doing about what’s gone wrong with God’s creation, and the question of what God the creator will do about it (in order to be faithful to His covenant people).

Wright also discusses Romans 1-11, but the argument there is a bit too dense to really get into here and do any justice to it.  So I’ll move on the the next section, in which he goes into a bit more detail as to how Paul understand Jesus to be the fulfillment of God’s covenant plan to bless the world through Abraham (and his descenden(s)).  Near the beginning of this section, entitled “evil and grace, plight and solution,” Wright says, “The particular solution God proposes – that of beginning a family and promising them a land – shows that what is wrong concerns, in a central way, the fracturing of human relationships and the fracturing of the relationship between humans and the non-human creation.” (34-35) Wright goes on to give three propositions that explain this covenental narrative.

“(1) God made the covenant with Abraham as the means of dealing with evil within the good creation, which meant dealing in particular with evil within human beings, God’s image bearers… (2) The family of Abraham, who themselves share in the evil, as well as in the image-bearing vocation, of the rest of humanity, treated their vocation to be the light of the world as indicating exclusive privilege… (3) When God fulfills the covenant through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, thereby revealing his covenant justice and his ultimate purpose of new creation, this has the effect both of fulfilling the original covenant purpose (thus dealing with sin and procuring forgiveness) and of enabling Abraham’s family to be the worldwide Jew-plus-Gentile people it was always intended to be.” (36-37)

What I love about how Wright explains the idea of the covenant is that you see that what Jesus has done if the true, though unexpected, fulfillment of what was God’s plan all along.  He does a great job of showing that the new covenant, and with it the new testament, is deeply connected to the “old covenant” and with it, the old testament.  It is not a matter of there being a religion of legalism and works-righteousness in the old testament, and now there is a religion of grace, which understands the whole of Israel’s history as being a giant  parentheses, which really is superfluous now.  The way many explain Christianity is in such a way that you could skip straight from Genesis 3 (the fall) to Matthew 1 (Jesus), with the whole covenant with Abraham/Israel not having much of an important place.   I think Wright does a great job of showing that Jesus is the answer to the question Israel had been asking all along, but an incredibly unexpected answer.