You Don’t Need Chapter and Verse for This

In the previous post we looked at typical evangelical ways of handling Scripture.  Scripture is the product of a specific people at a specific time and in a specific cultural context, yet is also a living Word that speaks to us today.  Yet evangelical ways of handling Scripture do violence to this, reducing Scripture to a set of propositional truths covering everything from theology of atonement to proper financial management, all with chapter and verse to back it up.  Today we shall zero in on a specific issue, namely the question of whether young children go to heaven, and how a specific subset of evangelicalism, the Neo-Reformed, would approach this.

Last week Mark Driscoll did a daily devotion addressing this subject.  He comes to a good enough conclusion:  “I do not have a clear biblical answer as much as I have God who is a loving and gracious Father whom I trust.”  But the process by which he gets there…ugh.  It is as if truth does not exist unless it is in the book, spelled out explicitly, with chapter and verse to back it up.  Who needs a “clear biblical answer” on whether or not an infant who dies is safe in God’s care?  Based on what you know of the character of God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ, you already know.  Can you even begin to imagine that the same God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, could damn an infant to eternal suffering and be just in doing so?

For some things, you don’t need chapter and verse.  You already know.

A Few Posts About Inerrancy

Today we are going to talk about inerrancy, and more broadly, about the general evangelical way of handling the Bible.  If you’ve been hanging around here long enough, then you already know that the concept of biblical inerrancy is on my shit list.

Our first stop on today’s journey is at Pete Enns’ podcast The Bible For Normal People where he has an interview with noted biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann.  This will take you about 45 minutes but is well worth a listen.  Brueggemann routinely addresses both mainline and evangelical audiences, and has challenging words for both.  In his view, the great failing of the mainlines is that they have become completely infatuated with the historical-critical method of handling Scripture and have never attempted to move beyond that.  They are not asking the question “Okay, now that we have come to recognize the Bible as the product of a specific people at a specific time within a specific cultural context, how can we look through that to see it as a living Word that speaks to us today?”  Whereas the great failing of evangelicalism is its tendency to reduce the Bible to a package of truths and principles.  Whether you’re looking for a theology of atonement or a practical guide to managing your finances, it’s all right there, spelled out word-for-word on the pages of that book you hold in your hand.  Neither approach serves Scripture well or respects the actual nature of the book that is before us.

For our next stop we go to Slacktivist for a post entitled “Captain Kirk, the Green Woman, and the Bible“.  His starting point is Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and his persistent reputation as an intergalactic womanizer of the first order, which has no basis in fact or in the original series.  Yet this reputation persists, a phenomenon which he refers to as “Kirk Drift”, borrowing the terminology from an article which he links at the outset.  From there he goes on to explain how “Kirk Drift” colors our understanding and interpretation of the Bible, giving as a specific example the subject of hell, which he explores in greater detail in a follow-up post.  Though the Bible says precious little about hell other than that it is not exactly the kind of place you would want to take a girl on a first date, that has not stopped us from constructing elaborate theories about it and claiming those theories as incontrovertible truth drawn from a plain reading of Scripture.

Our next and final stop on today’s tour is at PostBarthian, entitled “Errors of Inerrancy #9:  Inerrancy turns the Bible into a Paper Pope“.  Quoting Karl Barth, who himself was not a fan of biblical inerrancy, the post argues that inerrancy flattens the distinction between the text of the Bible and a particular interpretation of said text, thereby asserting that not only is the Bible free from error, but such-and-such interpretation of the Bible is free from error as well, because the meaning of the Bible is so plain that one will inevitably arrive at the preferred interpretation.

The recurring theme here is that the typical evangelical handling of Scripture attempts to turn it into something it isn’t while disrespecting the nature of the book that is actually in front of us.  God has given us a collection of books which tell the story of His plan for redeeming humanity and remaking creation, putting right a world gone horribly wrong, the story of the people whom God chose specifically for this purpose, told in their own words, how that story came to its unexpected climax in Jesus and his death on the cross, and how we get to be part of the new community Jesus is building and its ongoing work of reconciling humanity and creation with God.  We have spent the entire Lenten season looking at N. T. Wright’s latest book, which draws out all these themes and more in unpacking how the events of Good Friday changed the world.  Yet this is not what we want, and so we insist upon the Bible as a repository of propositional truth containing everything from cosmic origins to the theology of atonement to seven steps for a successful love life, all with chapter and verse to back it up.  In so doing we dishonor the Bible by disrespecting the nature of the actual book in front of us.

Good Friday: Suffering, Redemption, and Love

This year during the Lenten season, we are working our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright.  I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.

If you’re just joining us now, you are coming in on the end of the movie.  For the past several weeks we have been coming around Wright’s big idea that something happened on Good Friday such that by 6 PM that evening, the world was a completely and totally different place than it had been a few hours later.  What happened on Good Friday was nothing short of the start of a revolution, even though it certainly did not look like it until a few days later, and we who are Christians get to be part of this revolution.  I will not stop to catch you up on this in any greater detail; you can go back and read the prior posts for yourself, they will be there for ever and ever or at least as long as there is an internet.

As we bring the plane in for a landing, I wanted to circle back to one idea that we have cruised past but which is crucial to everything we have looked at up to this point.  It is this:  When God acts to redeem his covenant people, he is doing it out of love.

This is missing in a lot of Western Christianity and evangelicalism in particular.  So much of it is about going to heaven when you die, and thus the “works contract” way of looking at things.  (I won’t stop to catch you up on this; you can go back and look at the prior posts.)  As Wright would say, we have Platonized our eschatology by substituting the notion of saved souls going to heaven for the new creation which is what the Bible actually offers, we have moralized our anthropology by substituting the notion of a qualifying moral examination for our actual human vocation as laid out in Scripture, with the result that we have paganized our soteriology by making God out to be an angry deity who kills Jesus to satisfy His wrath.

Of course this runs contrary to the deepest themes of the New Testament.  Not that God is not angered by human rebellion or the rebellion of his chosen people–far from it.  But there is a difference.  Pagan religion says that we have to try to pacify God or the gods ourselves.  Christianity according to the “works contract” way of looking at things says essentially the same thing, with the twist that we can’t do this and so Jesus steps in and takes the wrath of God in our place.  But the truth of the matter is that God himself is acting to redeem his people on his own, for his own sake, for the sake of the covenant he made with his people, and out of the unchanging, unshakeable love which he has for his people.  And not only is this divine love for Israel, it is divine love through Israel for the rest of the world.

Here we note how important the Christian idea of the Trinity is to all of this.  With the Trinity, it means that, as Jesus kept on saying to his closest followers, if you had seen him you had seen the Father.  And with the Trinity, when Jesus dies it is as if part of God dies as well.  This is worthy of pondering.

Thus Jesus and God are inextricably linked, so everything Jesus does to redeem humanity God does as well, through Jesus.  Thus when God acts, he acts on his own.  It is his initiative, his accomplishment.  It is his love.

Scot McKnight on the Language of Mission

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Scot McKnight on the language of mission.  In this post McKnight reviews a book by Michael Stroope which analyzes the history of how the word “mission” and other related terms, such as “missionary”, came to be used within the context of Christianity.  Stroope’s big ideas are to figure out why the Bible says so little about “mission”, to examine where the concept of “mission” came from, and to contend that we should replace “mission” language with “kingdom” language.  Stroope contends that the term “mission” came about via pilgrimage traditions but morphed over the course of history into colonialism, imperialism, and territorial concepts.  Because the language of “mission” is imported into the Christian tradition, it is in continual need of defending and propping up, and if it rises to the level of sacred language it can obscure kingdom priorities.  Instead of using the language of “mission” and thinking of ourselves as “missionaries”, we should think of ourselves as pilgrims and witnesses to the coming kingdom as we seek to follow Christ.  The Church is a community of such pilgrims and witnesses who surrender personal agendas and desires in order to live in community with each other, thereby providing a poignant counterwitness to the pervasive individualism of modern life.

Read:  Why Do Christians Speak of “Mission”? by Scot McKnight

Lent Week 5: The Revolution Continues

This year during the Lenten season, we are working our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright.  I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.

For the past few weeks we have been coming around Wright’s big idea that something happened on Good Friday such that by 6 PM that evening, the world was a completely different place than it had been just a few hours earlier.

Unfortunately much of Western Christianity, and evangelicalism in particular, does not see it that way.  So much of Western Christianity has made it all about going to heaven when you die.  This is the “works contract” way of looking at things:  the end goal for humanity is heaven, where heaven is defined as a state of disembodied spiritual bliss apart from this corrupt world, and the problem for humanity is sin, where sin is defined as bad behavior which is deserving of punishment.  It all works out something like this:  God gave us a moral test (“Don’t eat that fruit” for Adam and Eve, “Keep the Law” for Israel), we all failed miserably and as a result deserve God’s righteous wrath and hell.  But Jesus stepped up and took the wrath that should have been ours.  His perfect righteousness is now credited to our account and now we get to go to heaven when we die, provided we believe all this and can articulate it with satisfactory theological precision, not to mention that we prayed the prayer at some point along the way.

As a result of all this, Wright says, we have committed a threefold error:  we have Platonized our eschatology by substituting the notion of saved souls going to heaven for the new creation which is what the Bible actually offers, we have moralized our anthropology by substituting the notion of a qualifying moral examination for our actual human vocation as laid out in Scripture, with the result that we have paganized our soteriology by making God out to be an angry deity who kills Jesus to satisfy His wrath–a notion more in line with paganism than anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity.

We have seen that humanity’s vocation was to be God’s image here on earth, representing him to all of creation and presenting the praises of all creation to God.  But this went badly off the rails when humanity refused its vocation and instead worshiped idols, created things.  These created things thus took on a power they were never meant to have and enslaved all of humanity, running amuck and turning our world into a hell on earth.  Israel was intended as the means by which God would rescue humanity, but they too failed to live up to their vocation and wound up in exile.  Jesus entered the picture as the representative of Israel, and with his death he defeated the forces of sin and death in the universe, thereby robbing them of their power, and rescued Israel and humanity–a new Exodus, if you will–and restored them to their proper vocation.  To be a Christian is to enter into this revolution, to step into the role which God intended for humanity and to bring God’s rule to pass here on earth as it is in heaven.

We have looked at Jesus and the cross, in an attempt to understand it all in the same way the first Christians would have.  We saw that the first Christians saw Jesus’s death as the unexpected fulfillment of all that God had promised Israel.  Jesus, as the representative Israel-in-person, fulfilled Israel’s vocation where Israel had failed.  All of evil gathered itself into a single head of steam and came at Jesus on the cross, only to be completely and finally crushed.  The end result was the new Passover and the forgiveness of sins by which Israel was restored to its proper vocation, and with it all humanity.

We have looked at the writings of Paul, with a specific focus on Romans, and how they fit in with all of this.  We have seen that Paul does not simply offer a roundabout way of saying “We sinned, God killed Jesus, it’s all good now”.  What Paul offers instead is more along the lines of “We all committed idolatry and sinned; God promised Abraham to save the world through Israel; Israel was faithless to that commission; but God has given us the faithful Messiah, his own self-revelation, whose death has been our Exodus from slavery”.

So now we come to this week’s burning question:  Where do we fit into this story?  If Jesus’s death was in fact the start of a revolution, what does it mean for us to be part of it?

When the first Christians looked back on Jesus’s death they saw that this event in and of itself had been the great victory over the evil powers of this present age.  But as this victory came not at the end of the age, but right smack in the middle of it, with evil and sin and darkness still running rampant all around, this could only mean that it was a two-stage event.  The jailer had been overpowered, now someone had to go and unlock all the prison doors and tell all the prisoners that they were free.  This task had to be accomplished by a new kind of power, the cross-resurrection-Spirit kind of power, the power of suffering love.  The first Christians would struggle to learn what it meant to use this power, to work for the kingdom of God in a world that neither wanted nor cared for any such thing.  This is what we know as “mission”.

But here we note a glaring problem with the enterprise of missions:  Just as modern Western Christianity treats the notion of saved souls going to heaven as the end-all, be-all of the Christian faith, so Christian missions have been made to serve this way of looking at things.  It wasn’t always so:  up until about two centuries ago Christian mission was consumed with the idea of bringing God’s kingdom here on earth.  As Europeans traveled the earth in that era and discovered places heretofore unknown, they had a sense of carrying Christian civilization with them.  The mood of that time was one of great optimism, that as Christian civilization went out to more and more of the world the kingdom of God was truly coming on earth as in heaven.

But towards the end of the eighteenth century there was a shift.  Though there were still a great many concerned with social and cultural reform and advancing the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, there was an ever-increasing number who came to see all this as a distraction from the true work of the Church:  “preaching the Gospel” (read:  “saving souls for heaven”).  As this shift was happening the Enlightenment gained traction in the secular world; the optimism of the earlier Christian era was now harnessed by the forces of an ever-increasing secularism which believed that it could have all the benefits of the kingdom of God while believing that God was either remote or nonexistent.  This split-level world, with God up in heaven and the earth and all the people in it left to their own devices down here, is very widely assumed to be the norm, even to this day.

The prior era’s approach to missions led to a triumphalism which assumed that the Kingdom of God would advance in our world without having to deal with saving people from their sin.  The approach to missions in our day, in which saved souls going to heaven is the end-all, be-all of the Christian faith, brings forgiveness of sins but leaves the evil powers of our world to continue ruling uncontested.  What is needed is an approach to missions that integrates both the Kingdom of God and forgiveness of sins.  The New Testament insists on both and in their proper relation.  This is what the book has been all about.  Get this right, and the Church’s true vocation emerges:  To announce the victory of Jesus Christ on the cross and the forgiveness of sins which had become the new reality in our world by the end of the day on Good Friday.  To announce that the forces of sin and death which had previously ruled the world have been overpowered and all of humanity is now free to resume its vocation as bearers of the image of God to all of creation.

Progressive Christians: This is Unacceptable

ICYMI:  Tim Keller was to have been honored with a major award from Princeton Theological Seminary this year.  Princeton is a mainstay of the PCUSA, the liberal wing of American Presbyterianism.  Keller was until recently pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, one of the largest and most influential congregations in the PCA, the conservative wing of American Presbyterianism.  The PCA does not ordain women or gays.  Because of this, the decision to honor Keller stirred up no small amount of controversy in PCUSA circles.  Many felt that a school like Princeton had no business honoring someone of Keller’s political/theological commitments.  Princeton heard its critics and chose to rescind the honor.

Is it at all possible, in this day and age, to honor someone for actual achievements, regardless of whether said person is in agreement with our political/theological commitments?  Is it at all possible to listen to a reasonable argument, such as that made by seminary president Craig Barnes that it is “a core conviction of our seminary to be a serious academic institution that will sometimes bring controversial speakers to campus because we refuse to exclude voices within the church. Diversity of theological thought and practice has long been a hallmark of our school”?

Nope.

Progressive Christians:  This is unacceptable.  This is just like that fiasco a couple of years back when Louie Giglio was to have given the invocation at Obama’s inauguration, until some of you went snooping around in the sermon archives and found some things he had said about homosexuality–over a decade ago!!!!!!!!!!–that you did not like, and just like that he was off the program.

Progressive Christians:  If you behave like this, you become just as intolerant, just as close-minded, just as unwilling to listen to reason as you have ever accused us conservatives of being.  That is unacceptable.

Lent Week 4: Paul and the Cross

This year during the Lenten season, we are working our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright.  I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.

Wright’s big idea is that something happened on the afternoon of Good Friday which changed the world.  By six o’clock that evening, the world was a completely different place than it had been just a few hours earlier.

As we saw earlier, humanity’s vocation was to be God’s image here on earth, representing him to all of creation and presenting the praises of all creation to God.  But this went badly off track when humanity refused its vocation and instead worshiped idols, created things.  These created things thus took on a power they were never meant to have and enslaved all of humanity, running amuck and turning our world into a hell on earth.  Israel was intended as the means by which God would rescue humanity, but they too failed to live up to their vocation and wound up in exile.  Jesus entered the picture as the representative of Israel, and with his death he defeated the forces of sin and death in the universe, thereby robbing them of their power, and rescued Israel and humanity and restored them to their proper vocation.  To be a Christian is to enter into this revolution, to step into the role which God intended for humanity and to bring God’s rule to pass here on earth as it is in heaven.

Last week we looked specifically at Jesus and the cross, in an attempt to understand Jesus’s death in the way the first Christians would have.  We looked at what the Jews of Jesus’s time were hoping for and how Jesus fit into that.  We looked at how the first Christians came to understand Jesus’s death as the unexpected fulfillment of all that God had promised Israel.  We looked at how all this contrasts with the “works contract” way of looking at things which is so prevalent in present-day Western Christianity, in which Jesus sacrificed Himself to pacify the wrath of a God who was rightfully angry because of our sin (read: failure to live up to God’s moral demands) and now we get to go to heaven when we die.  In reality, sin is much bigger than a failure to live up to God’s moral demands, it is a failure of worship.  It is refusing the vocation which God has given us as humans, worshiping all the wrong things so that those things take on a destructive power they were never meant to have and all of humanity becomes enslaved to that power.  It means that God’s plan for humanity and for creation is not moving forward.  Jesus’s death is much bigger than just a sacrifice to appease a rightfully angry God:  it was deliverance for all of humanity and creation from the dark powers ruling over the world, a new Exodus if you will.  It meant that God’s plans for humanity and creation were back on track.  It meant that the original human vocation of being God’s image here on earth was once again a possibility.  It means that God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven, and we get to be a part of that.

This week we turn to Paul.  Paul is the first place most people think to look when seeking to understand Jesus.  Paul’s writings contain a bewildering variety of imagery regarding Jesus and the cross, and it is easy to fit Paul into one’s favorite theological framework, such as imputation or penal substitutionary atonement which support the “works contract” way of looking at things.  But that involves softening or else ignoring a lot of what Paul says that doesn’t quite fit the mold.  If we look at Paul straight out, we find that he fits right in with what Wright has been saying all along:  We are not saved for heaven–that is, a state of disembodied spiritual bliss with God–but for the new creation, that is, the new heaven and the new earth that are part of the coming age.  This is accomplished by Jesus’s death, by which the powers of sin and death are defeated.  Representing Israel, and by extension all humanity, Jesus took upon himself the full force of the divine condemnation of sin itself, so that all those “in Him” would not suffer it themselves.

Wright looks at several key passages from throughout the writings of Paul which bear this out.  He eventually gets to Romans and spends a couple of lengthy chapters there.  It is in Romans, the first four chapters of it, that the “works contract” way of looking at things finds much of its support.  Wright unpacks Romans in great detail to show how it supports what he has been saying all along:  Israel had been faithless to its divine vocation of bringing healing to all the nations, but God has dealt with this failure in the proper way, that is, the reality toward which the Day of Atonement had been pointing all along.  Jesus the Messiah had accomplished in his death the purpose for which Israel had been called.  The covenant purposes of God for Israel and for the entire world through Israel were established, with Jesus’s blood as the blood of the new covenant.

Paul’s writings, and Romans in particular, do not simply offer a roundabout way of saying “We sinned, God punished Jesus, it’s all good now”.  Instead what Paul is saying is “We all committed idolatry and sinned; God promised Abraham to save the world through Israel; Israel was faithless to that commission; but God has put forth the faithful Messiah, his own self-revelation, whose death has been our Exodus from slavery”.  If we get away from that, Wright says, we Platonize our eschatology and moralize our anthropology with the result that we paganize our soteriology.

So what would Paul say happened by 6 PM on Good Friday evening?  First, he would say that the age-old covenant plan of God for humanity had been accomplished; the new Passover had taken place, in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.  Next, he would say that all this had been done by God himself, acting out of his covenant faithfulness or love.  Next he would say that people of all sorts, Jews and Gentiles alike, were now free of past sins and free to come together as part of God’s family.  Next, Paul saw this new Passover as the dealing with sins by which Israel’s state of exile was undone, where Passover and “Day of Atonement” come together.  Finally, Israel’s representative Messiah was “handed over for our trespasses” in the sense intended by Isaiah 53, thus robbing the powers of sin of their power.  This is the key that unlocks all the other doors.

So where do we fit in the story?  If Jesus’s death marked the start of a revolution, what does it mean for us to be part of it?  We will take up these questions next time.