Monthly Archives: January 2016

Scripture and the Authority of God

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N.T. Wright is trying to answer three questions, let’s see how he does.

  1. In what sense is the Bible Authoritative?
  2. How does one understand and interpret the Bible?
  3. Assuming accurate interpretation is possible, how does one manage to bring the authority of Scripture to bear upon the church let alone the world?

In what sense is the Bible authoritative? 

It means God’s the boss. Biblical Authority is shorthand for the God’s authority somehow exercised through Scripture.  Wright does not want us to think that God’s word is a synonym for the written Scriptures (27) It’s not, It’s much bigger than that. The written word is the expression and embodying of the living word. John didn’t proclaim that the word was written down, he proclaimed the the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us.  When the Apostles refused to wait on tables because they wanted to give themselves to the Word of God and prayer, its wasn’t extra time in the Torah scrolls that they were angling for. It was the story of Jesus, particularly his death and resurrection, as the climax of God’s grand story that they needed to focus in on and preach about. Jesus as the fulfillment of all that had gone before could now be teased out of the Torah scrolls with greater clarity if they had opportunity to read them, but make no mistake the Word they were after was the knowledge of Jesus wrapped up in God’s grand story. Wright uses the word “story” 83 times to help us understand that the authority for the Christian is God’s grand story, climaxing in Jesus — this story is the “word of God” which by divine providence came to be expressed in written form through the work of the early writers and compilers.  The Bible is the charter which forms the basis for the fulfilled telling of the story of God at work among his people.

How does one understand and interpret the Bible?

Totally contextual, multilayered, critical realist approach. Everyone got that? We good to move on? I suppose an explanation is in order. First however, Wright takes us on a world wind tour of the history of Biblical interpretation. It’s always good to know where one is coming from!

Marcion made the Scripture into two totally different stories with two altogether different God’s, he tried to “de-jew” the Christian story, and debunk the Jewish one. Allegorical interpretation was a dramatic counterbalance to Marcion’s throw out the bad stuff mentality.  Basically everything in Scripture became a mystical representation of Jesus with absolutely no care for the context. This was a wayward albeit sincere attempt to stick with Scripture, even when Scripture was problematic. (particularly O.T. Scripture) because of it’s lack of control. Once you can make scripture stand on its hind legs and dance a jig, it becomes a tame pet rather than a roaring lion. (51)

The reformers, bucked against the nauseating allegorical interpretations of their predecessors, but their emphasis on grace over law inadvertently set the story improperly against itself at times. The following generations of reformers played around with various interpretive strategies in which they would make distinctions to help with interpretation, for example, Jewish moral law was seen as distinct from Jewish ceremonial law, making the moral applicable and the ceremonial not applicable. Wright gives this the thumbs down, citing that ancient Jews would have made no such distinction. He dismisses dispensationalism as a fanciful notion, and leaves it at that.

Totally contextual means that the cultural context of a Scripture must be considered at all times. Multilayered means that Scripture is like a five act play with each act stacked up on top of the other, with the whole communicating one grand story. The implication is that some Scriptures will mean something in there original context but will also mean something more in the broader context of the story as a whole. It also means that some portions of Scripture will be less important. To quote Wright:

The key point of the whole model, which forms the heart of the multi-layered view of how ‘the authority of scripture’ actually works, runs as follows. Those who live in this fifth act have an ambiguous relationship with the four previous acts, not because they are being disloyal to them but precisely because they are being loyal to them as part of the story. (89)

He fails to define critical realist, even though he twice calls himself one. He uses the term in reaction to postmodern thought which says one persons interpretation is as good as another’s. The term, I think, means that there is an actual true meaning in the text that can be determined with careful study. One interpretation is not as good as another.

As mentioned earlier Wright acknowledges that some parts of the Scriptures are no longer relevant for the ongoing life of the church —not, because those parts are bad, or not God-given, or less inspired, but because they belong with earlier parts of the story which have reached there climax. (39) He captures the idea well with the following illustration:

When travellers sail across a vast ocean and finally arrive on the distant shore, they leave the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good, or because their voyage had been misguided, but precisely because both ship and voyage had accomplished their purpose. During the new, dry-land stage of their journey, the travellers remain—and in this illustration must never forget that they remain—the people who made that voyage in that ship. (41)

Assuming accurate interpretation is possible, how does one manage to bring the authority of Scripture to bear upon the church let alone the world?

Read the Bible out loud together. To quote him directly:

“The whole of my argument so far leads to the following major conclusion: that the shorthand phrase ‘the authority of scripture’, when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community.” (83)

It feels perhaps a bit simple, but if we want to bring the authority of Scripture to bear on the church and the world we must read it together out loud. Wright laments how churches have cut out Scripture reading in worship gatherings in order to speed things up, or make things more palatable for seekers. Wright will have none of that. Read, read read he says. Read it in the liturgy, read it in large chunks together, have good preachers preach it regularly. He doesn’t dismiss the notion of personal private study, but that is not what he is driving at, for Wright the proclamation of the word is the heart of Church life and the only way it will ever be brought to bear upon the church and the world.

On the need for ongoing interpretive work

To affirm ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, ‘We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions. (67)

On the relationship between Scripture, reason and tradition:

Scripture is the shelf full of books; tradition is the memory of what people in the house have read and understood (or perhaps misunderstood) from that shelf; reason is the set of spectacles that people wear in order to make sense of what they read—though, worryingly, the spectacles have varied over time, and there are signs that some readers, using the ‘reason’ available to them, have severely distorted the texts they were reading. (74)

Become a Muslim Like Jeff?

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Jeffrey Lang grew up in an abusive home, his nominal Catholic faith provided him no solace for the suffering he endured. By his mid teen age years he had become a convinced atheist. In his 20’s a friend handed him a Quran, he started reading, over time he left atheism and embraced the way of Islam. Why?

According to Lang, Islam is better because unlike Christianity, human suffering is not a result of God’s angry judgement. In the beginning according to Lang’s interpretation of the Quran, there is no great sin that brought condemnation to the human race. There was only a little “slip up”. God didn’t get angry or feel threatened by this inconsequential eating of unauthorized fruit.

The big idea of the ancient Adam and Eve narrative is not one of divine judgment and human brokeness, rather divine mercy and human preparation. God does not punish Adam and Eve, rather he blesses them and tells them not to be afraid or sad. The “slip up” was part of their training. Now they must use their reason to choose God in the midst of suffering.

The choice between right and wrong is always a struggle (Jihad), but by using the facility of reason & intellect the right choices can be made and the relationship with God strengthened. Salvation comes through the work of the mind. Lang confesses that the greatest problem with unbelievers (non-muslims) is their inability to think properly  “Unbelief in Islam, is an infirmity of the mind” Lang says.

The point of Islam is to have a close relationship with God. Since God is transcendent how is that even possible? The Quran describes God as compassionate, merciful, forgiving, just, protective, wise, generous, truthful, and peaceful. All of these attributes are the seeds of God that reside in every human. When we love God by living out these attributes in the everyday God loves us back. These seeds of divinity grow into full flower as we yield to the will of God and this is how we find ourselves in close relationship with him.

Suffering is good because with out it, we could never learn to use our reason and make the right choices to live out the attributes of God. When we fail to water the seeds of divinity in us, we destroy ourselves, thus sin is simply self destruction. Hell then is not so much a punishment from God, as it is the ultimate self destruction

I’m happy for Lang, in that he certainly seems to have found the solace he was looking for. I think he misunderstands the Christian story and I am not entirely sure he’s got the Muslim story right either. But lets assume for the sake of this article he has the Islamic story correct. What are the big differences?

  1. Christianity emphasizes human brokeness, Lang’s Islam does not. At first, this dismissal of sin and all of it’s attendant guilt and shame might seem to be a great idea. But for me, it does not ring true. We all swim in oceans of guilt and to shrug off our bad choices as insignificant “slip ups” doesn’t actually help us understand justice or even address what is wrong in our lives. Through the cross we understand clearly both the justice and mercy of God.
  2. I appreciate Lang’s emphasis on the need for human reason and choice, however, as a Christian I know that even the deep thoughts of my heart are often corrupted. Even my virtue in the blink of an eye can become vice. I need a Saviour to redeem me. In the Christian story it’s not the long hard climb upwards towards God through rational thought that’s beautiful, It’s God’s condescension to me. In my blindness he gives me sight, In my sickness he makes me whole, in my weakness and inability he empowers me. I love the idea of God coming to the rescue, and that’s what happens in the story of Jesus.

A curious observation: I agree with Lang about the need for the human to choose. Islam is the better story to him and he has chosen it, it makes the most sense to his mathematical mind. I respect that choice, even though I don’t agree with it.  I wish all Muslim’s would be so generous when it comes to the matter of religious choice. Let’s turn the story around a little bit. Is there any doubt as to what would have happened to Jeffrey Lang, if he had been born Mohammed Al Ghamdi in Saudi Arabia? Let’s imagine, for a moment, that someone gave him a Bible in his mid twenties and through secret study he decided that Christianity was the better story. In his enthusiasm for his new religion he begins to speak out in his home town of Medina that Jesus is his Saviour. I am certain we wouldn’t be listening to his speeches for long, we would be visiting his grave site instead. In our pluralistic world of today, something is wrong when a religion forces it’s adherence to believe on pain of death. I hope Lang’s message of free choice goes a long way in the house of Islam.

Jeffs islam vs Christianity

“Big Time” 

Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’ (Luke 7:22-23)

 It is not the glamorous & popular things that you do in the name of Jesus that impress God. Miracles? Demon hunts? Prophecy? God yawns. There are plenty of religious showmen in this world, God is impressed with none of them. God, on the other hand, sits up and takes notice when he sees a person on the long, slow, faithful walk of obedience in the every day. There is talk in heaven when you quietly put others in front of yourself, and serve in the shadows. God is standing now, applauding wildly. “Yes!” says God as he high fives the other members of the Trinity. The roar of the angel crowd in heaven can be heard when you are in a quiet corner praying fervently for others and resisting temptation during rigors of daily life on planet earth. Can you hear them cheering? Despite doubts, you’ve continued to love and worship the unseen God. That’s what they call “Big time” in heaven.  

A Story about the Trinity

Holy_TrinityFrom the very beginning the early church understood the trinity as a mystery that was honoured and respected.  Jesus claimed deity, and yet he was distinct from God, the promised Spirit who came at pentecost was also distinct from God and Jesus and yet was clearly divine. Before Constantine, it wasn’t a hot debate, amazement was preferred over explanation. Love for Jesus and survival were the priorities of those first Christ followers. That all changed however when Christianity became legalized under Constantine. His plan to unify his massive and fragmented empire under the banner of this burgeoning new religion known as Christianity had worked incredibly well, perhaps to well. Christian people began to fight amongst themselves now that they had the time and freedom to attempt an understanding of this great mystery of God’s three in one ness. It wasn’t long before the newly unified empire was at risk of fragmentation, this time along theological lines.

Constantine wanted it sorted, it was time for the church to meet and settle it. One idea that had been floating around since the 2nd century was Monarchialism. This idea portrayed God as one great ruling monarch, but rejected the need to make the distinction between the Father, Son, and Spirit. Monarchialism attempted to explain the trinity in two different ways:

  1. Modalism — God is one, but he has three modes or three roles that He carries out in consecutive periods of time. Like a single actor that plays three different roles in a theatrical production.
  • Rejected – This view was rejected by the church because it doesn’t accurately account for the interaction of the Trinity in New Testament, like at Jesus’ baptism for example. Also, if these representations of one God are only masks like in an ancient play then it becomes impossible to actually know the real God. The church gave modalism the thumbs down!
  1. Subordinationism — There is only one superior God (Father) who is assisted by lesser god’s of lower rank (Jesus & the Holy Spirit)
  • Rejected – Strongly rejected at the counsel of Nicaea in 325 as shown below.

The struggle to clarify the churches position on the trinity came as a direct result of a guy named Arias. Arias taught that the word who became flesh was a lesser god of a different nature. Jesus was not eternal or omnipotent, Jesus was only God in an approximate sort of way. Jesus was the first and greatest created being, but he was not the eternal God. Arianism in this form continues on in the teachings of Jehovah Witnesses.

Arian thought appealed to pagan converts. They were more easily attracted to the idea of lesser gods, because their pagan heritage which was full of them. Christianity in this form was more palatable to the masses. In the Arian story, Jesus Christ was a divine hero, a loose approximation would be like our modern day super man. Who doesn’t love superman?! He was greater than an ordinary human being, but not the eternal God.

Arias was a powerful speaker and a gifted networker. He also was able to put catchy jingles together that promoted his understanding of Jesus, little kids and dock workers would sing his songs. He was wildly popular, so when he was excommunicated, early in the 4th century, things got ugly. With rioting in the streets going on, Emperor Constantine was prompted to call a church council in the city of Nicaea in 325 a.d. He reminded the 300 churchmen who attended the counsel that church division was worse than war. He gave them one charge. Figure it out! He didn’t much care about the conclusion just so long as everyone agreed with it!

Since Jesus had been worshipped as God in the vast majority of churches across the empire for upwards to 300 years in some places, Arias bold revision of Jesus and his place in the Godhead was met with massive disapproval. He and his supporters were regularly shouted down in the counsel. It was inconceivable that Jesus could be anything less than equal to the eternal God. The creed that came from this council nearly 2000 years ago is still accepted to this day by the vast majority of Christians world wide. Notice the emphasis on Jesus and the three in oneness of God.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made…We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets…

All the Bishops but three signed the creed in 325. Arias and two of his supporters were kicked out of the church. The controversy raged on for 50 more years before Arian thought was officially expunged from orthodox teaching.

The Semi-Arians tried to land a compromise. It didn’t work. They were ready to concede that Jesus was similar in nature to the father just so long as they did not have to say that he was of the same nature. This didn’t fly either — From the earliest of times, Christians believed that If Jesus wasn’t God in the flesh he couldn’t be the Saviour. Semi-Arianism prolonged the debate but a compromise that viewed Jesus as anything less than co-equal with God was not possible.

To the early believers in Jesus, salvation was not about going to heaven to get stuff, as Islam would later teach. It was about being united in the communion of the divine. From the orthodox point of view, the goal was not to attain equality with God or be made into a god as mormonism would much later teach, rather the believer would be welcomed into the fellowship of the triune God. He would belong in the company of God.

The first Christians loved this grand story, A relational God, coming to earth, welcoming the human into fellowship with him through the grace of Jesus by the power of the Spirit.  The earliest benedictions evidenced this incredible three in oneness, II Cor 13:14 — May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.  It was the Christian story, not to be changed. Beyond full comprehension to be sure, and a great mystery without doubt, but an absolutely beautiful and glorious story.

Thank you Bruce Shelley your  book Church History in Plain Language, was very helpful.