biblically based? yes, but…

In this year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, though I prefer to think of myself as simply Christian, and one with all who name the name of Christ, though my heritage, beginning with the Anabaptists- Mennonite, falls more along those lines, I don’t hesitate to say that I try to be biblically based. Like most things in life, that’s complicated, and doesn’t mean at all that the church doesn’t have authority, nor that the ultimate authority isn’t God himself. It does mean that a certain kind of practical authority is invested in the Bible, but only when read contextually, and as a whole. And that opens up another important set of questions.

One of the keys in Christian thinking is to attempt to end up reading scripture the way Christ did. Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of scripture, and not only with reference to a copy and paste approach, which highlights passages in the Old Testament about him, but in terms of being the completion of God’s working in bringing in a reign that is saving both from and for. And so while we need to read all the scriptures as if in their original context, insofar as that is possible, we also need to think of them in terms of their fulfillment in Jesus. Seeing how he fulfilled them in an abundant, overflowing and to some extent even unanticipated way.

A key aspect to remember in the First/Old Testament is that while the groundwork was indeed laid, some of its aspects were provisional for that time, and I think in a sense, an accomodation. But to think that somehow lessens its authority is a failure to understand the Final/New Testament. Jesus again refers to the First Testament as speaking of him, and Paul wrote that all of the First Testament was written to instruct, warn, and encourage us. So we need to read the New/Final in light of the Old/First.

And so, I remain a Bible person from which I want to understand the gospel, God’s good news in Jesus, the heart of it, and all that proceeds and goes out from it. The church by the Spirit is very much a part of this. To do so, we have to go back to the Book again and again. Asking for God’s help. And believing in its message to us, as the very written word of God. Everything in and through Jesus.

biblical illiteracy and the United States

Scot McKnight has a most interesting post on the Bible’s place in the founding of the United States, and in US political, presidential rhetoric. If you read this, and stop there, you would do well.

My thought is on the great loss of being biblically illiterate, though if you’re into US politics heavy, you will still do better to read Scot’s post. Just a bit long, but well worth it.

The Bible is such an important document in the founding and fabric of the United States, though that’s a complex topic by itself, and I’m in no way suggesting that the United States was meant by its founding documents to be a Christian nation. Only that the Bible certainly significantly contributed to what the United States was and at least to a significant extent still is. But to get back to my own point for this post, I think it would be good and wise for those becoming citizens to have to read a shortened version of the Bible, maybe kind of like a Reader’s Digest condensed version, which would help people understand something of the values and structure on which this nation was founded and built.

We don’t do well as Christians to not be people of the Book. Yes, Christ is our center, who brings us into the life of the Triune God, and is the Savior and Lord of the entire world. But that faith, while centered on the gospel, the good news of God in Jesus, is found in scripture, in God’s written word. To say God’s written word opens up plenty of misunderstanding, but it is sufficient for now to say that the fulfillment of it all is in Jesus. But to understand that fulfillment and what it means from cover to cover, we need to read and reread and become steeped in the entire Book. And like a friend reminded me, the Bible itself is complex. A simple, child-like faith opens one up to the beauty and power found in its pages. But it can leave one gasping and grasping for answers. The Holy Spirit is our help together as we read scripture, meditate on it, and if you wish, commit some of it to memory. But there’s no doubt that we’ll be stretched in the process, which surely is part of the point of scripture, God’s written word.

But we’ve fallen on hard times when it comes to actual knowledge of the Bible. People still buy it evidently, but there are other ways to occupy time now, many. We’ve maybe read it through once, or at least heard large parts of it read, some of that over and over again. So we think we have it, that we really don’t need to read it at all. I hear that we need to do it, not read it. Well, I believe we need to both hear and obey God through it. We need an interactive relationship with God through scripture, and we need to come to it again and again to let its truth break through to us and soak in our bones over time. All of it, not just the precious promise parts of it, but the hard and seemingly mundane in it. The Bible mirrors real life, right to its very depths. But with the one good news for the world in Jesus.

Whatever we are doing, or out and about, we in Jesus, let’s lead the way in serious study and contemplation of scripture.Yes, certainly hoping the better for the United States and all nations on earth. But committed above all to what is mandated in scripture as followers of 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.

Christ is the center

There is an Antiochian (Eastern) Orthodox church in our area which has a fitting mural on its domed ceiling of Christ with apostles and prophets and perhaps other people of the church surrounding Christ as witnesses to him. I think this is quite apt. We don’t really preach the word, as Paul charges Timothy to do, unless we’re preaching Christ.

Jesus himself pointed out to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection that scripture, the Law and the Prophets taught that he must suffer and die and be raised on the third day. That was certainly a revelation to them, and it should be instructive to us. But I’m afraid that many times in our evangelical churches, Christ gets lost in the details of our message on a given passage and passages from scripture. Which is ironic since evangelical means pertaining to the gospel. Scripture is not meant to be read as it was originally received. We are to read it now with Christ and gospel centered eyes, with that lens in place. Christ and the gospel is the point and end of every passage of scripture, the point of the Story of scripture.

If we don’t do this, then we’re not preaching the word, period. Of course to some extent every evangelical church will preach the word to the extent that Christ is proclaimed. But the message can all too easily become geared toward the individual hearers helping themselves with the truth of the word. And there’s no doubt that all kinds of wisdom can be found in the words of scripture, even at the most obscure places. But Christ himself is wisdom from God, in him are all the treasures of wisdom, so that ultimately we don’t find true wisdom apart from him.

It may well be true that some find true wisdom through Christ, even if they don’t know of Christ and the gospel message. That God might be giving them that light insofar as that’s possible apart from the message of Christ and the faith that comes with that message, as C. S. Lewis might suggest, if I’m understanding him right. But the true light that comes into the world, enlightening everyone (John 1) is fully revealed in the Word who became flesh, and dwelled among us, and gave his flesh (and blood) for the life of the world.

It is also true, as one of the faithful pointed out to me, that we don’t preach Christ apart from living out the love by the Spirit, which is the fulfillment of the law, that is the torah of scripture. If we don’t live out that love, we are not showing Christ to the world. And it’s also true that this unique love comes only from Christ as the source. God in Christ the human, of course himself being God-in-the-flesh, fully human and fully God.

Christ is the center by whom we find through faith and baptism the life of the Trinity in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Apart from that Word, the written word has lost its way, falling short of the truth, and therefore having no life. If we don’t believe that, then we are missing reality, we are more or less missing the center, who is Christ.

 

 

going back to the Bible

I know it isn’t as simple as this when we consider the inevitable contradiction in life with reference to “sola scriptura,” meaning the Bible only. Actually I prefer Scripture first, as having primacy. No one can deny that other factors are at work as well, scripture itself indicating that clearly. All of that has to be held in view and in whatever tension it brings, though essentially I don’t see it as tension in regard to the text of scripture itself in the same way others do. In fact I think in a true sense the text of scripture can stand alone as the story unfolds of God’s good news for the world coming through his grace and kingdom in Jesus. And so while I don’t want to say it is simple and easy, without complexities, and indeed not giving us all the answers to our questions, nevertheless, I also want to say that we need to keep going back, over and over again, to scripture, as the first place and starting point to find the life in God which is in Jesus. From there we can creatively live as a witness to the world. Especially so as God’s people together in Jesus.

For some time there has seemed to be a growing dissatisfaction or at least disorientation to scripture. Actually scripture has not been found wanting as much as not being found at all. Not to say that Bibles are no longer best sellers. But we often don’t see the Bible as a must read, and more than that as essential to life. Are we like Jesus who stood on God’s word from Deuteronomy, when he answered the tempter: “People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God?” Jesus was bringing in a new day as the fulfillment of that word, and yet he lived on that word. Now we have the entire Book, and we need to read it in its entirety, and continue to do so, if we are to understand something of just what on earth is going on, what God is doing.

And so as followers of Jesus we are people of the Book. Wanting it to mark us and help us live according to God’s good will in Jesus. As we pray for God’s kingdom to come, his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Together in Jesus for the world.

not a bunch of propositions

When I attended Grand Rapids Theological Seminary (then, Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary), Dr. Joe Crawford, a wonderful theology professor, told us that to read scripture as story was a relatively new development for him, and that the result was revolutionary. Scripture is to be seen essentially in terms of story, a grand narrative, indeed metanarrative, into which all other stories are subsumed, and actually by which all other stories find their true meaning.

Some of theology still wants to hold on to propositional truth as front and center. Now I believe in propositional truth (and of course, so did Dr. Crawford). But such truth comes out of the story of God as given to us in scripture and fulfilled in Jesus. It has to be worked out by tradition- that is the church, reason and experience. But scripture itself holds primacy in that effort.* And what we see unfolding is a story which begins in Genesis, ends in Revelation and is fulfilled in Christ. So that we must learn to read each and every part of scripture with Christ’s fulfillment in view. And we must not skip over Israel in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, either. Each and every part is needed.

That is why I probably would not do well as a member of churches who emphasize propositions, usually in the form of their theology. I think especially of those who are steeped in the Reformed tradition. But if they can see that their view falls out from the story found in scripture, then all well and good. Even though I will continue to reject much of what the Reformed and neo-Reformed (or neo-Puritan, as some prefer) have to say. Although I used to be acclimated to an approach that emphasized propositional truth, I no longer am. Propositional truth comes out of the story of scripture, and is thus much richer and more true to life.

And God’s story goes on with us in its fulfillment in Jesus, as we look forward to its consummation in and through Jesus. Not just for us, but for the world.

*The Trinity and specifically the Holy Spirit is certainly always the sphere and power through which we can do anything at all by God’s grace in Jesus.

scripture fulfilled in Jesus

In Luke’s account of the gospel, after Jesus’ resurrection, he is walking along the road with two of his disciples. There was something about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances which was different. He was human, and not a ghost, he did eat fish. And they could touch the nail prints on his hand. But in his resurrection body, pre-glorification, he did not look quite the same. In the breaking of the bread the disciples eyes were opened, and then he vanished.

But before that he told them that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. That the scriptures indeed had foretold that. And so from Moses through the Prophets he began to teach them how this was so. After their eyes had been opened, and he had vanished, the disciples noted how their hearts had been burning in them, as he had explained all of this to them.

Predictive prophecy used to be hot, popular among at least evangelical Christians and I imagine still is in some quarters. After all, there are quite notable examples, as from the psalm, “Not one of his bones will be broken,” which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Luke Timothy Johnson in a most excellent book on Luke and Acts notes that for most Christians today, that is no longer the case. What will hold water now is how the story is fulfilled in Jesus. How it was all pointing to that fulfillment of a Spirit-filled prophet like Moses, indeed more than a prophet, but the promised one to come, the Messiah. Who would fulfill all of God’s promises, bringing in the beginning of that fulfillment, to be worked out in greater measure through the Spirit in the church for the world.

That is one important aspect of understanding scripture. It needs to be read through Jesus, through his coming and fulfillment. Israel is a key, often neglected, and all of this needs to be seen through God’s calling to Israel, their failure, and what occurred afterward. This was all the setting, one might say what was set up, when Jesus came.

It is not as neat as simply finding a bunch of verses scattered here and there which find their fulfillment in Jesus. There are notable sections, perhaps the most notable, Isaiah 53, which can readily be seen as being fulfilled by Jesus. But by and large that approach is scattered with bits and pieces. Certainly having great value. But of even greater value is seeing how the story begins, unfolds, and how Jesus enters into that and begins to bring it all together. But in ways which seem contrary at times, since so much was fulfilled or finished in him. Stephen’s message in Acts 7 before he was stoned is a version of this.

And so we begin to understand how Jesus fulfills all of scripture, how he fills out the story, a story we in him are in now, the fulfillment continuing in Jesus through us for the world.

Today’s hurried post under the influence of Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians, by Luke Timothy Johnson.