losing one’s nerve

They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.”

Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”

But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devoursthose living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anakcome from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword?Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

Numbers 13-14

In this account in Numbers, it was God who commanded Israel to send some men into the promised land to either “explore” (NIV) or “spy out” (NRSV) the land. So Moses sent out one leader from each of the tribes of Israel (minus Levi, Manasseh making up for that as one of the tribes of Joseph, Ephraim, the other tribe). We know the story. Ten returned with a firm “but” after praising what was good about the land, and spread among the Israelites “a bad report.” They most certainly lost their nerve.

One can surmise clearly that they were not men of faith. After all, God had promised this land; that Israel was to take it, and settle in it should have been a foregone conclusion. Actually the exploration may have been for a two-fold purpose of encouraging the people to anticipate the blessing they were to soon experience, and to give them a heads up on the faith needed. Unfortunately, even though ten men went in who were leaders of the tribes, not one of them had the sufficient faith to actually believe God’s word. Whatever faith any one of them might have had was surely defective at best. It’s the same as if I would say, “Well yes, Jesus died, they say he rose again, but I really can’t buy the idea that we therefore are saved given all the evil in this world. I can respect religious people who say otherwise, but I can’t go there myself. Let’s either avoid it, or pull out all the stops to make sure as much as possible that we’re not victims ourselves.”

Caleb and Hosea (Joshua) were the two exceptions. Caleb being the older of the two spoke up and plainly contradicted the bad report of the ten. He believed they could and therefore should, certainly because of the promise of God. But he was outnumbered, and the Israelite as a community was unfortunately not predisposed to faith. Even though they had just witnessed mighty signs and wonders in their redemption from Egypt, their default position was to doubt God’s word, and therefore to doubt both God’s goodness, as well as greatness. They essentially saw themselves as on their own. And they had exceedingly short memories, even wanting to go back to Egypt, to the bondage which eventually would again surely overtake them there.

I can lose nerve, too. Where can we begin as to what? There’s no end to it, really. There’s always plenty of reasons to doubt God’s promise in this life, to think of some worse case scenario, or many more likely outcomes which are not good. Rather than to accept God’s promise in Jesus along with the difficulties in this life which come with it.

Depending on how you see what was going on at the time, the Israelites would be moving into a hostile territory armed, and depending on God for God’s deliverance from those entrenched in what was to be their own land. According to the narrative, the time for God’s judgment on the inhabitants had come, and how God carried that out, or wanted to is not necessarily all together clear, biblically and theologically speaking. Maybe the Lord meant to send them packing in some way. But the narrative is clear that at least the Israelites thought that God was commanding them to wipe out all the inhabitants of the land. And since I tend to accept the text at face value, I simply accept what I can’t understand, and frankly try to avoid the subject in public. But see Greg Boyd’s recent book, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence for what I tend to think will be a compelling defense of reinterpreting the text of scripture, while I await critiques, and intend to read the entire book myself, which was released just this month.

We must not lose nerve, but hold to the faith, meaning both to our confession as well as our practice of it, continuing to do that. And when we do lose nerve, we simply confess that, and seek to learn from it. Entrusting ourselves to the God who has revealed himself in Jesus.

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marriage today in the church and society

“Haven’t you read,” [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Matthew 19

Eugene Peterson, one of the very best Christian writers in my lifetime, himself a pastor had an interesting exchange in the past few days in which he seemed to affirm same sex marriage, and then immediately retracted that, and clarified his position. See this interesting post from Christianity Today.

My own position is to side with what scripture up front seems to make clear both in regard to marriage, and same sex relationships, or homosexuality. Of course scripture itself is nuanced, and challenging on some levels, and always must be read in light of its fulfillment in Christ. That said, it seems pretty clear why the traditional view not only holds strong with most Christian denominations and traditions, but surely will remain so in generations to come. Perhaps what might change is how people who have same sex attraction are received into the church, although that probably varies from church to church now.

Denominations and churches which accept and practice same sex weddings, and ordain those who are thus “married” I have seen, either argue that scripture itself leaves room for “covenant” gay sexual relationship, that when scripture does address this subject the few times it does, it is referring to something else altogether. I have read the arguments myself, and find them less than convincing in comparison to traditional teaching and interpretation of scripture. Or there are those “Christian” leaders who simply question Biblical teaching, even at times suggesting that the resurrection of Christ can be taken either literally or metaphorically, in others words that one can be a Christian without believing Christ’s physical, bodily resurrection. While I disagree, I can respect the former, but not the latter.

I think it’s a tragedy when whole groups are ostracized by the church, and now I’m thinking of the LGBT group. But any church, or Christian who doesn’t hold an affirming view of such relationships, will be seen as attacking the person. I doubt that enough work is being done to reach out to these people. At the very least they should know that they’re loved, and welcomed. I’m not sure myself just how to address this, though I think I know what my tentative suggestion might be. But I would want to be part of a group of men and women prayerfully deliberating on that.

As to my own view for society, I say that the church should not try to dictate what the state wants to do. The state, or government is not the church, and can’t be held to the church’s standards. Nor should the church be forced by the state to adopt the state’s standards. So I would hold to a separation of church and state, at the same time hoping that the church’s influence through the gospel might rub off on the state. But never at the expense of compromising the church’s own complete allegiance to Christ and the gospel.

It is quite a challenging and hot topic today, a sea change having taken place in society, with some impact on some churches. It’s simply a new time for the church to learn to live in a culture which doesn’t define marriage in strictly a traditional way. The church will continue on, but hopefully with new insight in helping those who feel rejected by the only one who can change any of us, and receives us all.

do we have confidence in God’s word, or not?

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Timothy 4

The NIV‘s heading for this section is entitled, “A Final Charge to Timothy,” and includes this well known important passage:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Something I’ve noticed in my lifetime is that often the word isn’t preached. I think I’ve been blessed with the churches we’ve been a part of to be used to the exception. But as a rule, it seems like an appeal to the word is only from something other than the word itself. Somehow there just doesn’t seem to be adequate confidence in scripture as the written word of God.

I’m not referring to a lack in expository preaching. That can be good, but it’s interesting when you read the sermons in Acts, that actually none of them is preaching a text expositionally as at least was popular in many evangelical and fundamentalists circles, and you still find a few holdouts here and there. I think it’s alright. In fact I think it’s probably safe to say that such a method is much better than much of the pablum which passes for sermons today. Somehow it seems like the goal is to get people’s interest and keep it, and somehow through that, get in something of the word of God.

My question becomes, Do we really have confidence in the word of God itself, because it is God’s very word? And is that a measure of our confidence in God?

Scot McKnight has an excellent post that hits on this very subject in what is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (“The Soul of Evangelicalism: What Will Become of Us?“). He states that the Reformers were marked by their deference to scripture, by opening the Bible and reading it. I think it’s good to refer to theological concepts which point to the truth about scripture (or what Richard Wurmbrand said is “the truth about the truth.”). And there’s no doubt that the art of biblical interpretation, which includes kind of a science to it, as well, is important. And we need to reject the Cartesian Modernist, scientific approach (Rene Descartes) as in relentless examination and induction of the biblical text (see John Locke). I am rusty when it comes to philosophical figures, not that I was ever heavy into them, but they are important in helping understand the times in which people live.

Our appeal must be to scripture, and it must start with ourselves. If we don’t see it as vital, and of central importance in our own lives, then we certainly won’t see it that way for others. Of course it points us to God’s final word in Jesus, and the good news in him. But we must be in the written word itself to find the Word himself.

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Timothy 4

And so the measure of our actual faith and confidence in God will in large part be our confidence in scripture itself, the word of God. To be biblical we must get back to the Bible like the people of God in the Bible did, including even Jesus himself. We need to have the utmost confidence in scripture as God’s word first for ourselves, and then for everyone else. And live with that in hand, in and through Jesus.

think biblically

In the firestorm of today’s news, some of which is exceedingly sad, and perhaps all the more in the political climate of today, and any day, for that matter, we need to aspire to learning to think biblically.

Just to look at the Bible alone, as if we could do so, as it were, in a vaccum, which is impossible, but again, just to consider the Bible alone is challenging. I resort to what has been called a redemptive hermeneutic (hermeneutic essentially means interpretation), so that the Bible is a story which points to an ultimate conclusion, which is a fitting end to the beginning, but takes seriously everything in between. So that, while there’s harmony in the sense that the story follows a certain path, we find unexpected twists and turns along the way, even in the First Testament alone, but especially so in the Second, Final Testament, when Jesus fulfills all of scripture in ways which were not anticipated by those who lived during that time, or prior. But the seeds of which one can arguably clearly enough find in the First Testament.

From there, we have to consider present day thinking, where that came from, how it is entrenched in society, and in our own thinking. If we’re beginning to get the first goal of arriving to good Biblical thinking, true to that text and its fulfillment in Jesus, then we are ready to consider how we really think in everyday life, what our thinking actually is, which likely will be a reflection of the thinking of the world in which we live. And we have to critique that in the light of biblical thinking.

Where I live, the United States, our language and thinking is derived from the Modernist Enlightenment. Even how we think biblically is in large part impacted by that, so that we actually end up imposing the understanding of the age upon the text of scripture. Rather, we need to remain in the text of scripture, so that we can more and more think truly biblically, and be able to critique our present day thought.

Does that mean we expect the world to conform to biblical thinking? Certainly not. But we in Jesus are not to be conformed to this world, but rather, transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we might come to understand what is the good and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2). That is not something we’ll arrive to overnight, indeed it involves a lifelong process together with other believers.

I believe this is critical, mainly because I think we think in ways that are not so much informed and thus formed by the Bible, but more by society, with especially profound, and too often, I think, egregious/tragic results, especially seen in the political realm. Like everything else in life, this is surely a mixed bag. We do get some things more or less right even on this track, but are amiss in other things, I’m afraid. A big problem from our inheritance of the Modernist Enlightenment on which the United States was largely built, is the emphasis and insistence on individual rights. So that the rights of the individual, however that is manifested politically takes priority over everything else. While “rights” and the individual surely arguably have their place, we have to ask ourselves if that has the same place in scripture that it has in our world. And if not, then what informs it, or what context in scripture might we say it exists, its place.

This is not a proposal to imagine that biblical thinking can be imposed on the world, but to seek to be true to it ourselves, so that we can better live in it, through learning to think and therefore live according to what scripture teaches, and its fulfillment in Jesus, rather than what any political party of this world insists on. The new way of thinking and living in the grace and kingdom that is ours in Jesus.

humility in reading scripture

Over on Jesus Creed there is an interesting post (part one of two, so I await the second) apparently challenging Bible reading as being at the heart of the problem behind our multitude of divisions within Protestantism. I am not sold on what Paul T. Penley is saying so far. But I will say that there needs to be much humility in our reading of scripture. I like the thought of one the comments on the post that scripture read devotionally as opposed to formulating doctrine should be encouraged. Lectio divina comes to mind.

What is missing today among too many of us evangelicals, I’m afraid is a high regard for the church both on a local level and at large. And with that some naive understandings of the Spirit’s work in an individual’s reading of scripture. So far I doubt the writer’s proposition as I understand it at this point, that there should be less reading of scripture. But the point that our reading should be more tethered in the understanding of both our local church and the church at large would be well taken.

But that further begs the question, what about all the differences among churches themselves? There are indeed significant differences, to be sure. As one comment suggested, this is not only a Protestant thing, Catholics are divided as well. This is an ongoing issue that can’t easily be resolved short of an enforced magistrate of some sort. Do we really see Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Methodists, etc., etc., as actually divided? Even if we don’t see such bodies as divided, in practice isn’t that virtually the case?

I for one will be watching for the follow up post.

theologians, yes, but keep reading scripture

I am not a believer in the idea that if you just read scripture and depend on the Holy Spirit, then you will be given the right interpretation of any given passage, including and sometimes in that statement emphasizing passages which are interpreted differently among God’s people. Yes, the Spirit enlightens, indeed the Spirit who gave the revelation is needed to understand that revelation, indeed. I do believe in an emphasis in which we say that it is the entire church which is to read scripture together, and from that reading will become evident both the main thrust at least of the message as a whole from any given passage, as well as the rich diversity in levels of meaning within each passage.

Where there is disagreement I tend to think is in areas which are not only hard to nail down, but also are being done so in terms which may overstate or understate what the text actually means. This should be an occasion to cause us to become all the more humble, knowing that we know in part now, and that none of us have it all together in our understanding. We continue to work at it, hopefully with increasing humility.

Part of reading scripture well both individually and corporately together as church is to consider the work of scholars. Of course the Bible we hold in our hands (or on our phones) is the work of scholars no less, who have worked to give a faithful rendering of scripture into another language, here, English. And we do well to read gifted scholars and their work on scripture in terms of exegesis of the biblical texts and theology both of the biblical and systematic kind. That is good. These are gifts to the church, not to be despised. At the same time we should do so with Bible in hand, or in thought so that we weigh what is said or written in accordance with that. And keep doing so, not just by ourselves, but also along with others.

One case in point today: the “New Perspective on Paul,” which is especially hot right now with N. T. Wright’s latest tome: Paul and the Faithfulness of God. There will be those who continue to hold to the old perspective more steeped in Luther. And others like myself opt more for the new perspective. But it ends up being more complicated than that. It’s really not a matter of choosing sides on this issue, and it’s especially not a matter of following everything one theologian (no matter how gifted or well known) has written or said. We put them on a pedestal and we also can be unfair to them and not understand what they are saying (as well as not saying). We do have to continue to be in scripture. It would be nice to be in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, but using at least one faithful translation and better yet, two or more is sufficient to weigh what has been said. And to think and live according to what is read in scripture itself. That is the bottom line where we all must go, individually and together. As we seek to be faithful to God’s calling in Jesus.

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.