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.

the Revelation: judgment and salvation

Revelation, the last book in the Bible, is a book which seems to have been more or less a quandary to many Christian theologians over the centuries, and a book which misinterpreted lends itself to quack theology. A book filled with symbolic, meaning, an apocalyptic, end of the world vision to be sure. It is not an easy book to interpret, though must be done so with a sensitivity to genre.

In it, God’s judgment against an evil world system and salvation in replacing that system with God’s kingdom come in King Jesus is front and center. And in the struggles in which we live, especially so in our following of Jesus, and this is so very true in so many parts of today’s world, and relatively completely unknown where I live, we are to see everything we are going through in terms of this Revelation.

Eugene Peterson has said that this is a book for worship (see his helpful rendition/paraphrase in The Message). The Lamb seated on the Throne with God and the seven spirits representing the seven-fold Holy Spirit are front and center in the book. And judgment like the rest of the Bible is primarily in terms of getting rid of the evil in this world. Such is always necessary for the salvation which follows, which in this book is about the bringing in of true shalom, peace and prosperity, true human flourishing when God’s kingdom takes over earth in the descent of the New Jerusalem. So that evil is vanquished and replaced with what is truly good in the new creation from God in which God’s Trinitarian love will have full sway in a world renewed to fulfill God’s original intent in creation.

Revelation will remain a challenge to wrestle through. While it is part of God’s written word to us, just what that word means, why it was given I don’t think we should begin to think we can pin down entirely. God’s written word, of course fulfilled in the Word, Jesus, has its purpose, and will achieve its goal. But part of that is surely to help us toward a healthy dependence on God and interdependence with each other in and through Jesus. Knowing where our ultimate hope lies. The end determining the means in which we live, in and through the Lamb, Jesus.

adrift

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.

Hebrews 2

In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer warns us I believe, that true, genuine believers can lose their salvation. Not because they didn’t have it in the first place, although some fit into that category, as well. (See Hebrews 10 and especially Hebrews 6). Regardless of where we stand on this debate (and although I stand on one side, I’m a bit of an agnostic on matters like this), we can agree that there are strong warnings. And that we don’t want to drift away from the faith and suffer shipwreck, in other words have our faith destroyed. This certainly does happen.

This doesn’t mean that we need to get into a defensive mode and posture at all. It does mean that we need to be those who are of faith in the faith. We need to be committed to go on, come what may. And not unlike the pressures the Christians faced to leave the faith who were addressed in the letter to the Hebrews, we face pressures as well from our society.

Certain interpretations of scripture may not impact the faith, although they may indicate a faulty hermeneutic that arguably may well undermine it. The gospel must be intact: Jesus in his incarnation, works and teaching concerning the kingdom of God, his death and resurrection, his ascension, and the promise of his return. That must all remain intact. Usually currents which may push us out into waters in which we are too deep and far removed from shore (Lake Michigan has this phenomena, a kind of undertow on certain days which ends up drowning a number of people) begin in more subtle ways. Scripture addresses them, so that we need to be in the written word daily so that we can be alert and remain faithful in and through God’s grace in Jesus.

For me I think I begin losing out when everything seems to be okay. Not without struggles and issues, but when I seem to be at rest concerning them. Instead of drifting off into some kind of solitude and silence (although that has its place in faith), I need to give thanks and press on. My life has been so full of trials, that if it seems like the trials are either gone, or not that big of a deal (more the latter for me now), I can lack in sense of needing God. But the Lord wants us to go on, to follow him no matter what, through good times and bad, no matter what we feel or are experiencing.

Half the battle is knowing of this danger. The other half is learning how to go on and finish well, inspite of it. Reading the entire letter to the Hebrews is not a bad place to start.

judging experience

J. R. Daniel Kirk, who himself is an astute, good New Testament scholar and professor has written an interesing post on experience which takes a similar track on the issue of homosexuals in the church that another good New Testament scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson has taken. And both have evidently been profoundly influenced by relationships, in the case of the latter in the “coming out” of his son.

On the one hand I can buy into something of the hermeneutics of Daniel Kirk in his take on how experience can help make evident what God is doing in the world or in this case, who God accepts. Thinking of an earlier post Daniel wrote, Jesus seems to come to fulfill the Torah or the old covenant even in terms of righteousness, not to set it aside as somehow simply Jesus being the new reference point. Scot McKnight in his writings helps us understand that well. I don’t find the distinction theologians make between moral and ceremonial troubling in that it seems to me that it simply reflects how the New Testament or the Christian writings of scripture deal with the matter. For example from what I gather from the New Testament, the prohibitions on sexual activity of Leviticus 18 still apply today. While it is evident at the same time that there is no longer any need of a temple or sacrificial system since Christ himself and the coming of the Spirit are the fulfillment of that.

What it seems to me that we’re left with is to have to judge experience by God’s inscripturated word. Experience is by nature not the decisive factor, but more like the confirming factor.

There is no doubt that God is at work in people’s lives, whether they be gay or straight, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender. God meets us all where’ we’re at, period. God receives us where we’re at with open arms. But God doesn’t leave us where we’re at if the pages of the New Testament and indeed of all of scripture have their say. We want to simplify everything, but we need to hold to the tensions we find in scripture: God is a loving Father who receives us warmly, but works in us to get rid of what he can’t affirm.

This is a big topic and for me it’s not necessarily in and of itself a divider in that it’s not a first order truth as say the resurrection of Jesus is. But it’s still important, and for me in terms of hermeneutics, meaning interpretation of scripture. Not easy, but that’s what we have to work through (2 Timothy 2:15). As we all seek to be faithful witnesses to the gospel and God’s will in Jesus.

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.

testing everything by the word, but…

Yes, we in Jesus are indeed to test all things and hold on to what is good. The obvious question is: What do we test everything by, and how do we determine what is good? Of course the easy, obvious answer to most Christians is scripture, the written word of God. And the best answer will make it in terms of the church, in other words how the church interprets scripture by the Spirit. The discernment needed is not through private interpretation of individuals, though individuals need to grapple with it. But it must be collective, in community. If my interpretation of a certain passage is disagreed on by a majority of believers around me, that at least puts up a yellow flag. Maybe I am right and they need correction. But more often than not, it would seem likely that the majority would be right, though that is not a given. What is to be desired is a consensus of the faithful by the Spirit.

What I’m not referring to are the areas on which Christians disagree. Like most everything else in life, this is where it is tricky. Life is complex, and general answers which are helpful may not apply across the board. I refer to clear teaching, or basics all Christians and churches must hold to to be Christian. With room to deviate  on lesser issues surrounding or related to them. For example: We accept the teaching of salvation by grace through faith apart from works, works following. Where the church comes into especially prominent view is on teachings like the Trinity, which is not explicitly taught in scripture, but implicitly is clearly there. The church determined that over some time in answer to the Arianism which was the majority view of many professed followers of Christ and churches at one time. Trying to grapple with the idea of a human being God.

Today we have professing Christians and churches disagreeing on some key hot button issues, such as homosexuality, whether homosexual sexual activity is a sin or not, whether we should affirm practicing gays or not. I am on the traditional side, while some of my Christian friends are not. We need to test everything by the written word, scripture, and we also need to test the interpretations of others. How did they come to their interpretation, and how do they interpret scripture? In the same way we have to keep critiquing our own interpretations. We have to compare both Old and New Testaments, and then comb the New Testament to see why our reading or a majority reading of the church might have issues or is confirmed.

What becomes clear and is attested to over and over again must come to have prominence. Some issues such as the issue of homosexuality may not have the same prominence as other issues, and yet we still need to adhere to a line that is in keeping with the witness of scripture and the goal to which it points in the kingdom of God in Jesus. And to really be helpful on anything, we need to look at it from all kinds of angles with reference to scripture. The homosexual issue with reference to God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus, so that while we see it one way or another, we also grapple with it in terms of the whole counsel of God, in other words the grace and the truth which are in Jesus.

Of course scripture is concerned with not only what we profess but what we practice. We need breakthroughs in our lives no less, from God as we in Jesus seek to grow in and live out his word together for the world.