our theology versus the text

There is no substitute for reading the text of scripture, studying each part in context, and of course considering the biblical background as much as we can derive. Of course we all depend on scholars. The Bible translations we have are dependent on their work. And we gather from various sources in trying to understand the background of each text, say for example a book like Ephesians.

What I would caution us against is an interpretation of the text which is driven by our theology, rather than our theology being driven by the interpretation of the text. I say interpretation, not precisely the text itself, because the text can be appropriated only through interpretation. In order for it to matter to us at all, we need to interpret it. I’m not suggesting we’re on our own in that. We need the Holy Spirit and the church to do that. We can make our contribution, but it is as one of the community. A large part of this has actually already been done just through the work of Bible translation alone. Translation is interpretation. And yet a significant part of interpretation, we undertake as we read and meditate on any text. As has been wisely suggested, I’m sure by many (N. T. Wright happens to come to my mind on this now), it has been well suggested that it is good to read an entire book in one sitting, or in as few sittings as possible (some are rather long, such as Isaiah) to get an overall feel for the book as a whole.

When it’s all said and done, it is naive to suppose that our theology won’t to some extent influence the text, or more precisely the interpretation of the text. We read nothing in a vacuum or without subjectivity. Nor are we meant to, part of the freshness of God’s word for each community, time and place through the Spirit coming through in one’s tradition, reason and experience. But our goal should be, insofar as possible, to let the text speak for itself. Of course in its context. Open to shaping our thinking, yes- perhaps reforming our theology. And with the goal of speaking into our day. One example:

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

We need to read that in its immediate context, and it helps when we have Biblical background. The NIV quoted from here is more literal, the NLT brings in something of that biblical background legitimately, I think, into the text:

If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.

We now understand better what Jesus meant when he spoke these words. But it remains for us to consider what this could mean for us today, or others in other contexts. In this case our theology hopefully derived from the text as a whole will factor into that. Our view of violence and the practice of Jesus’ followers in relation to that. Our view of church and state, even of whether or not this text speaks directly to us, or can be appropriated only in some secondary sense.

Without naively thinking we can come objectively to the text, our goal should be to let the text speak for itself. Even if that means our past interpretation, understanding, indeed our theology is challenged. And to try, insofar as it’s possible, not to import some pet teaching into it to make a point that either the text is not making, or is not making with the same emphasis we are making. That is the kind of reading, interpretation and teaching that is needed, something we need to strive for. In Jesus together in this and for the world.

living with unanswered questions

Last evening we had a really good start and exchange with regard to the book of Job, led by our Pastor Jack and Pastoral Intern, Jordan. I loved the exchanges throughout the hour and a half. If it is that good the balance of the rest of the time we meet, that may well be the richest group Bible study I’ve ever been part of. And on, to me, one of the richest books in scripture, Job. Rich and unique in wisdom, in the wisdom literature.

What strikes me the most, at the moment with Job, is how in the end, Job learns to live well with unanswered questions. I’m sure I’ll learn some significant things during our study together, but it seems to me clear enough now, that in the end, Job never received the answer to his questions. Instead God gave Job a revelation of himself as Creator in a way in which Job had to stop, dead in his tracks to acknowledge that he had never known God, not in the way God was now revealing himself to Job.

For me, that should be helpful. I wrestle with large and small scale questions, and I don’t think all of them, perhaps not any of them have to be answered to my satisfaction. Being interested in theology and having more of a lean toward biblical theology than systematic theology may help me, but still I don’t want to throw something of systematic theology out the window, in which we seek to see a coherent picture of God’s revelation in Christ. But part of that picture will necessarily include ambiguities, things beyond us, too wonderful for us, as Job states.

And so I need to learn to rest better, even as I continue to ask God the hard questions. I know God is creator, sustainer, and redeemer. And that God is a father, as well. And so I am committed to continue to pray with others in Jesus, the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one,
for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

what is the point?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Jesus’ words make little to no sense to us today, especially, I say, we who have inherited the Christian just war tradition. Of course we have to contextualize it first (I look forward to getting my copy of this book and reading it, which will help here). In that culture and day, the meaning of Jesus’ words was readily apparent. Although a good number of Jews had come back to the homeland and the temple was rebuilt, they still felt like they were in exile. After all, how was the promise fulfilled that Yahweh would be king over all the earth, reigning from Jerusalem? It seemed like the beginning had come to pass without the whole of such promises fulfilled. The Romans were now the power over Israel, hated by some of the Jews, and for the common people, a burden. Of course any revolt against the Roman establishment meant death to a non-citizen by execution on a cross.

So Jesus’ words here would raise not a few eyebrows and many a head would be shaking in disgust. After all, no good Jew wanted to be aiding and abetting the enemy. Or seem to be in cahoots with their captors. Or at least this goes against the grain of all common sense. Holy war advocates certainly would take offense.

And besides all of this, Jesus was coming with a message of Messiahship to all who had ears to hear. Any would be Messiah would never cooperate with God’s enemies. God’s kingdom come was meant to smash all the world empires and become the huge mountain that would fill the entire earth, as we see in Daniel.

What sense then can we make out of Jesus’ words here?  Specifics aside, Jesus was certainly teaching his followers a different way to live. And in this case, this is the only place in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which he actually overturns and changes, indeed contradicts that which is in the Law. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth was taught in more places than one in the Hebrew scripture for Israel. But now the fulfillment of what Israel was to be would be set in place in Jesus’ reign in God’s kingdom. And it would end up being the way of the dreaded, in fact hated cross. It would turn on its head what people thought power ought to be. Not everyone was a zealot, eager to overthrow Rome in Holy War. But no one supposed that death would be the way to life through the resurrection. That in the middle of history, as opposed to the end (which they did look forward to) one would be resurrected from the dead and thus would begin a resurrection people who live in that same identity.

But back to the scripture itself. The point of adhering to Jesus’ words plain and simple is to be a witness. A witness to the world, at that time to everyone. A witness of Jesus, of God’s kingdom come in and through him and his death and resurrection by which those in authority should come to recognize that their days are indeed numbered, and that they are answerable to the true King, the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus.

And so, where we can, we need to resist evil not with evil, but with good. And we need God’s help by the Spirit to know how to do so in a given situation. One wonderful example, right here. And by this we can fulfill Jesus’ words in the same sermon:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”


God’s providential care

I have often struggled over the fact that some people are born into much better circumstances, to say the least, than others. This is true in a good number of ways taking in the whole person: physically, mentally, socially, morally, spiritually. From slums to dangerous streets to isolated jungles, etc., there is no shortage of danger to humans. Add to that even certain problems in the most wealthy of neighborhoods and one gets the sense that there is no safe place to live, period. Enter into this the teaching in scripture of God’s providential care.

John Calvin and Calvinism in one of its better aspects, I say, grapples seriously with this subject, and sees God’s sovereignty as a factor in all of this. Chalk it up to that, do what you can, and don’t be dismayed. God’s providential care is definitely a part of this. As Jesus reminds us, the Father is even aware when one sparrow perishes, and he knows the number of hairs on our head, so we’re not to be afraid: we’re worth more than many sparrows.

What I struggle with is not so much being exposed to the problems myself, but being part of a system which passes on the problems to others, by and by. I know that in loving our neighbor as ourselves, we simply do what we can and go on. Sometimes there’s not much we can do. Or we hit a dead end and have to live with what is less than ideal or perhaps even desirable.

That is when I have to take note of the transitory nature of this existence, indeed the brokenness, and in the terms of theology and from scripture, fallenness of this existence. It is not what it is supposed to be in this old creation in contrast to the story of the idyllic garden of Eden in Genesis. This old creation was not made as the end all, but only the precursor or prelude to the new creation. The hope of the Christian faith is that all that we are up against now, is actually transitory. That a new creation which even now has broken in through Christ is destined to take over and indeed change the world.

Where does that leave us, though, in terms of where we have to live now? And as important, if not more, what we pass on to others? And where does God’s providential care factor into this? I see no easy answers here. Note the book of Job, and particularly God’s answer in the end along with the aftermath. Not sure that really settles the matter in ways we would like to see. In fact we can look at life ourselves and see just how uneven it is, even in our own neighborhoods, churches, yes, even families. It just doesn’t seem like justice is dispensed evenly. And in fact too often injustice seems to rule the day. Or at least some form of what we would consider to be unfair. Our sense or vision of what is ideal or should be is inevitably shattered.

Again, we have to return to God, to God’s care, to the temporary nature of our current existence, and to the promise of the new world to come. We can’t escape the problems of this life, nor shield others from them. We can do our best to lessen the danger for others, but we must learn to trust God to work his good, even in this brokenness, yes- even through it. Knowing that there is a new world in Jesus in God’s kingdom come in which God will right all wrongs (put all things to right- N. T. Wright) and make all things new. Until then, we willingly live in this good yet provisional world, entrusting ourselves, our lives, and the lives of others into God’s hands and mercy. Together in this in Jesus for the world.

the perfect love which casts out fear

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

What is the perfect love which casts out fear? From the text and context it is clear: God’s love found in the God who is love. It is relational to its core. One could well argue theologically that God being love hints to the triunity of God: the Father, the Son and the Spirit living in communal love. And that humans in and through Jesus are taken up into that same love, experiencing it with God and with each other.

The problem stated in the text is the fear that comes with a sense of punishment. It is a dread of condemnation. In the letter we read that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and we read how we are to deal with sins in our lives. As well as the teaching that our lives are not to be characterized by sin, but rather by righteousness. Sometimes we might feel trapped by sin in our own lives, or at least just as likely, that we are cornered for some reason in a no-win situation. We may well be off the mark in our thinking, but on the other hand, we may know full well that we are undeserving, that we do fall short. We really can’t be the judges of ourselves, only God can judge and convict us by his Spirit through his Word. I struggle with this concept because though I believe it is true, and that God is the one who searches and knows us through and through, I also don’t think we need to wait for some big conviction from God when we know we’ve done wrong. We need to confess it to God, and to the offended person, and go on, knowing we’re forgiven in and through Christ.

The perfect love which drives out fear is to be experienced in our lives fully, because Jesus took the condemnation for our sins upon himself in his death for us. And because God works this love into our hearts and lives by the Spirit. We indeed are to experience it.

Does this experience have to be overwhelming? No, although it is fine if we experience mountain peaks as it were, when God’s love is particularly felt. But most of life is lived in the valleys. It is in those places, even in the lower places where we need to learn to live with a settled sense of God’s perfect love for us in and through Jesus. A love which is not dependent on us, our circumstances, even our faithfulness. At the same time a love in which we are to live in the sense of response which brings change into our lives. As the text says, “made perfect in love.” And notice too that this is communal:

This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.

The NIV takes the singular masculine pronoun literally translated, “he,” and interprets that to mean Jesus. In context, it could mean Jesus, or God. I might lean toward the interpretation made by the NIV (see also NLT). The point is our identity in this world. God in and through Jesus has identified himself with us, and we are to live as those identified with God in and through Christ. Through Christ judgment is taken care of.

And so we we live as those who are forgiven in Christ in and through his blood, his death, as we walk in the light as he is in the light, and thus experience cleansing from sin and fellowship with each other. This is the perfect love in which fear will not only be diminished, but cast out. A love in which we are to live together in Jesus and for the world.

knowing God’s love

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

It is one thing to come to accept intellectually the biblical account of God’s love in Christ as seen at the cross. That is good, though also dangerous. It is dangerous in that we might end up thinking that simply believing something intellectually is enough, though that is not enough at all. In fact we may not really believe, when push comes to shove, because it has not really got into our bones. It might not be informing and forming us. Instead we may be resorting to that which we really believe in terms of our life lived, which might put us in direct opposition to the cross.

God’s love must become real to us in a subjective sense, in other words a part of our own experience, a part of who we are.

The Apostle John tells us that we know we live in God and God in us by the Spirit God has given us. In other words we experience the union we have with God in and through Christ. A union with the God who is love.

While I do have exceptional times, people like myself might indeed be challenged when it comes to experiencing and feeling. A love, joy and in my case particularly peace, can come settling over me, in my heart and mind so to speak, at times. But it usually doesn’t take me very long to become unsettled from that for one reason or another. And yet people like myself, as well, are to come to know and rely in the love God has for us in Jesus, not just from the intellect, but from the living union we have in God, given and made known to us by the Spirit.

While this must be experienced individually in our own lives– and there’s no substitute for that, there is a sense in which this is communal. This is seen both in the immediate context and the context of the letter of 1 John as a whole. In the immediate context Christians are addressed as a group, and one example seen in the letter is one of the reasons the letter was written: to have fellowship with those in Christ, in the apostolic faith, a fellowship of the Spirit with God the Father and his Son, Jesus. Not to mention the emphasis on loving one another.

The Spirit makes all the difference in this. We come to know that we together are in God and God in us. A knowledge which comes by experiencing this love directly from God and through each other in Jesus by the Spirit. Lived out and proclaimed as a witness to the world, that the Father has indeed sent the Son.


the God who is love

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

The Apostle John gives us a grounding statement with reference both to God and to all of life. This entire section of teaching is needed to understand any part of it, but its essence is that God is love, meaning that God in his very nature and being is love. Love, however can mean much less to us, or indeed off the mark of love as seen in the God found in scripture, the God revealed in Jesus. Love may not be what we have come to believe it is. There may be little to no overlap, and our understanding of love may indeed be distorted. On the other hand since we humans are made in God’s image, when the problem of sin in our lives is dealt with in and through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, we begin to recognize love for what it is, making all other loves a rather pale groping in the dark, in comparison, and showing up false loves for what they are.

At the center of the God who is love, in biblical revelation, is the cross of Christ. God’s Son sent to die for our sins, and not for ours only, John tells us, but for the sins of the world. So we must look to the cross to find the God who is love. We find that God in Jesus. Of course we can go on to mention the Trinity, God being love in that existence as Father, Son and Spirit. John doesn’t touch on that, even though it is a theological construct which comes from scripture.

And we learn that those who have come to know God therefore come to know and live in the love of God. We know of that love both intellectually and experientially and we are to live out that love. We can’t say we love God if we don’t love each other. It may not be easy, but whatever else may mark our profession of faith, it needs to be marked first and foremost with love. Knowing and living in God’s love means loving others. If we don’t love others, we don’t love God, period.

Yes, our orientation is the God who is love. Revealed in Jesus. A love that is open ended in the sense of new discovery as to how that love is to unfold and grow in us, in our world, and in the world at large. But a love that is grounded in God’s revelation to us in Jesus found in scripture. We in Jesus are to live in this love together and for the world.

why do we love?

We love because he first loved us.

Yesterday we touched on the priority of love in our relationships with each other in Jesus. Not to mention the commands to love our neighbor, to love- yes, even our enemies. Why do we love? What is the source of that love?

Of course that love is from God, who loved us even when we were enemies, lost sinners. God who loves us as Father, Brother, and who pours out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given to us. God’s love is preeminently known in Jesus and in Jesus’ death on the cross.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

So our love is a response to God’s love. And yet as we can see from this text and others, it is something we do. We live in God’s love. What we have freely received, we are to freely give.

This is the basis for Christian love, one that is grounded in God’s revelation in Jesus. A love that is to mark our lives and our relationships with each other in and through Jesus. Together in this in Jesus for the world.