Archives For NT Wright

closeencountersThis weekend for our sermon series, Razing Hell, I unpacked both the cultural/cliched/pagan understanding of heaven (our souls going off to an eternal home in heaven when we die) and the scriptural understanding of heaven as resurrection and new creation. You can read the sermon here.

As expected, the sermon generated questions, which was the goal. We didn’t give the series the subtitle ‘Rethinking Everything You’ve Heard…’ for no reason.

Here my quick emailed replies to the questions sent to me by a church member and dear friend.

Hi —————————-,

Thanks for your questions. I was actually thinking of you when I planned the sermon. I chose a different style of preaching because I wanted to try and be as clear as possible. Your questions are good ones and I’ll do my best with the ones I can answer. It really is difficult sifting out what Christianity has acquired from other sources over the last two centuries and what the first Christians believed and what the bible actually is trying to convey.

1. The Bible says that we will have new bodies in heaven. Why couldn’t the souls “go up” and enter the new bodies? I also know that the soul is really the Holy Spirit which if it was “active” would be very good in a new body. But also we will be changed in thought and body?

Okay, I’m trying to retrieve as much college physics as I can remember. Since we know from Einstein that time is relative, you could rightly say that the End (Revelation 21-22) is simultaneous to our present. That is, your husband- is now at once already resurrected in his new ‘imperishable’ self in God’s New Creation while from our perspective on the curvature of time it is still out there in the future. I hope that makes some sense?

2.What about the psychics that can tell you all about the people who have died in your family. They have been on T.V. and have been proven to be correct.

On the hand, I think most of the people are full of you know what. On the other hand, I would say that part of what the bible teaches is that heaven (God’s dimension, presence) isn’t up, up, up and away at all but, because of Christ’s work, it is nearer to us than we imagine. The language of the ‘veil’ is pretty close to what I think scripture teaches. So the dead who are resting in God are nearer to us than we can imagine too- as in the cloud of witnesses that Hebrews mentions.

3. What about the people who see “the light” and can be hovering over their own bodies in the near death experiences? 

I can’t really answer that except to echo what I told my boys in the sermon audio- that when we die, the spiritual part of us goes to rest in God while our bodies wait as Jesus did to be raised.

4. Also there was another character in the Bible who was seen being taken up into heaven. I can’t remember his name now. Jesus was taken up into heaven and I can see why he was because he had to be in heaven with God and his right side. But Jesus did everything that humans do except He was taken up into heaven. 

Elijah and Enoch.

4. I know that when you dig up a grave, you find a body or one of bones. I understood your sermon that God wants us to go on to perfection (if possible) and that at the end of the world God will come back and the people in the graves will be raised and there will be Heaven on earth. It sounds very logical but it lets me down to think that Paul is just laying in his grave and will be there until God comes back. Also what about Jesus saying “if it were not so, would I have told you” when he was asked about heaven and the mansions?

I would repeat what I said in your first question about time’s relativity. Or, as I explained it to my boys’ it’s like sleeping in a car and waking up.

I can understand its a different perspective and, in some ways, can be hard to accommodate into how you think of someone you love. I guess I would say the fault is on the Church for doing such a bad job of making the future resurrection incoherent. What I mean is- I think it’s important that someone like you know that the promise of scripture is that your future life with Paul will be like the one you had with him here only better. It will be tangible, material, carnal but mysterious, like something new and it won’t be limited by sin and death. What’s in store for you two, in other words, is so much better than just a couple of souls resting on clouds or any other of the popular images. The bible’s teaching of resurrection and new creation is meant to affirm that what God made in this world is very good and will be very good again and that includes everything about your life with your husband.

And Christians shouldn’t get hung up too literally about what happens to our bodies after we die and how resurrection will work. Christians have always known our bodies decay. That’s what Paul is getting at when he compares perishable vs imperishable bodies. If God can raise Jesus, defeat the power of sin, recreate the earth then resurrecting us into a new, mysterious but material existence shouldn’t be too hard for him.

I see your point but I think it actually solidifies hope rather than doing away with it. If God doesn’t remake his creation, if we’re not all raised and restored to an everlasting new earth then, in a very real sense, what God begins in Genesis and what God promises to Israel and to us in Christ never comes to fruition. God either fails or backs out of his commitment. History then is tragic. And if all that’s so, then we CAN’T rely that we’re okay with God or that God is okay with us.

The ‘house’ language Jesus uses in John 14 (mone in Greek) means ‘tent.’ Jesus is promising that we have a place in whatever awaits us after death but before our life after life after death.

5. Another thing that I thought was that the Jews didn’t believe in the resurrection so that is why all the things you were talking about were in there? 

No. And this is where it’s revealing how Jews and Christians actually have more in common than Christians do with the pagan notion of souls going off to heaven. What I mean is our disagreement with Jews isn’t as fundamental as our disagreement with spiritualized paganism.

The Pharisees (along with prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah etc) did look for a general resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees did not because they held only to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

When people say Jews don’t believe in heaven, that is and isn’t right. Jews believe in God’s new creation after the resurrection. They don’t believe in the pagan notion of heaven that everyone today believes. But they still believe in eternal life as the New Testament conceives it too. So when people say Jews don’t believe in heaven, it means they don’t believe in the heaven most Christians believe in…which Christians shouldn’t be believing in anyway.

The rub is that Christians believe God has begun the resurrection/New Creation in Jesus while the Pharisees et al didn’t believe or expect God to raise one person, the Messiah, prior to the End.

 

far-side-heavenAs I said in my sermon this weekend, what Christians mean by eternal life is our resurrected, restored life when Heaven comes down and God remakes his creation (Revelation 21-22). Eternal life, for Christians, is not simply an ethereal, spiritualized existence. Eternal life is material AND spiritual because what God made in Genesis 1-2 is very good and God, because God is a God who keeps his promises, is determined to set his creation right.

I think sometimes the cliched, spiritualized notion of our souls going off to heaven leaves people with the picture of a rather boring way to spend eternity. The biblical notion of heaven therefore is good news in that the End is a recovery of everything in our present lives that is good, joy-giving and beautiful.

Here’s a great short film from Mr Deity poking at the holes in the cliched take on heaven. It’s unfortunate however that what so many, including unbelieving critics, take to be the Christian understanding of heaven is not in fact Christian.

Sunday’s sermon for our  series Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Heard about Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and the Second Coming included two audio clips of me talking about last things with my two sons, Gabriel and Alexander who are 7 and 10. 

You can find those audio clips, here, are by clicking on the links as you get to them in the text below. They’re also in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

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Heaven: It’s Not Forever

Sermon on Isaiah 65, Revelation 21

When we first announced that we’d be doing our January sermon series on heaven and hell, I received a handful of emails from you, all asking roughly the same question:

‘How do I explain heaven to my kids?’ 

Evidently some of you see me as a model of child-rearing and maturity. Which just shows how little you know me.

Now, because I’m a pastor, many of you assume that I sit around with my family and, like, talk about God and read the bible every second of the day. But that’s not the case.

My boys do stare at their comic book bibles as if they were Playboys, but as a family we probably spend more time talking about The Lord of the Rings and making fart jokes.

My boys have attended funerals and burials and even prayed next to an open casket, but to my recollection I’ve never actually talked with my kids about heaven- not in any formal or deliberate way.

So this week, over dinner, I decided to talk to my kids about heaven:

– Audio Clip-

Is there an age when your-anus stops being funny?

I can see several of you nodding your heads so I guess so.

Not that I need to but, just for the record, my wife insisted I be clear about who’s responsible for the potty humor in my family.

It’s easy to laugh at how kids talk about heaven.

But let’s be honest.

And this is the part where I insult you to try and get your attention.

I’ve done enough funerals. I’ve sat with enough dying people- Christians and non. And I’ve counseled enough grieving families to know that virtually every one of you think about heaven and life after death just like my boys do.

And to be totally honest: in most cases your thinking isn’t much more sophisticated than my boys’ thinking.

If I asked you the same questions I asked my boys then, with few exceptions, you’d picture it this way:

There’s a God in Heaven above.

There’s the Earth below, which God has created along with each of us.

We live our mortal lives on the Earth, but, as the bluegrass song says, ‘This is world is not our home. We’re just passing through.’

And when we die, our soul- that eternal, immortal, spiritual part of us- leaves our material bodies and goes up to heaven to live eternally with God.

We fly away, as that other song says.

photo

And maybe you’d add a variation or two, like:

If you believe in God

Or if you believe in Jesus

Or if you’re a good person

Then your soul gets to go to heaven when you die.

But basically you picture it the same way my boys do.

And you assume that’s what the bible teaches.

You assume this is what the Church preaches.

You assume this is what Christians believe and always have; in fact, it’s what atheists think this is what Christians believe and always have.

But it’s not.

It’s NOT.

Just to make sure you heard me, I’ll say it again: It. Is. Not.

It’s actually what any Jew or Christian, until recently, would have called, without flinching, paganism.

Preachers like me can’t say that at a funeral. I’ve learned that the hard way. Deathbeds and gravesides are not the proper or pastoral place to deconstruct someone’s piety.

It only upsets them.

But, we’re not at a funeral today.

So I’ll just say it: there is nothing in scripture about our souls going up to an eternal home in heaven after we die.

Christians only started talking this way a couple hundred years ago, starting in the Enlightenment when people started disavowing the Resurrection and after the Civil War when this world did seem to be a wicked place that should be abandoned.

The reason so many of our hymns get scripture exactly wrong on this point is that they come out of that very time period.

What we take for granted about heaven and life after death- you won’t find that way of thinking anywhere on the lips of Jesus.

You won’t find it in the words of Paul.

And you do not find it in the vision given to Isaiah.

Or to St John at the very end of scripture.

What we take for granted as biblical, Christian teaching is actually a mishmash of pagan superstition that’s been superimposed on scripture to the point where we no longer notice what scripture repeatedly and unambiguously teaches.

Now that I’ve kicked over all your mental furniture: what is the ancient, biblical understanding of heaven and the life to come?

If this (our souls going to heaven when we die) isn’t what scripture teaches, then what is?

What do we tell our kids about heaven?

I tried with my boys this week. You can have a listen.

-Play Clip- 

When you turn to the very first page of scripture, you read that in the beginning God created Heaven and Earth.

Both of them.

A better way to think about that is in the beginning God created the Spiritual and the Material. They’re both part of God’s creative design and NOT to be distinct from one another or in contradiction to each other.

What God intends in the very beginning is this unity, this overlap, this marriage of the heavenly and the earthly.

And this marriage- and that’s an important word- of the spiritual and the material is present in the humanity God creates too.

Genesis 2 says God created adam, which is Hebrew for the Man, from the adamah, which is Hebrew for earth.

Then after God pulls up the adam from the adamah, God breathes into adam his ‘ruach’ his Holy Spirit.

So in the beginning, God doesn’t just create Heaven and Earth. God creates this marriage of the spiritual and the material within humanity.

And in Hebrew this marriage of the material AND the spiritual that God creates in humanity is called our ‘nepesh’ and that’s the word your bibles misleadingly translate into English as ‘soul.’

But what happens?

Through the catastrophe of Sin, Heaven and Earth, the spiritual and the material, are pulled apart. They’re torn asunder.

Death enters God’s creation, and that curse- as we sing in Joy to the World– comes not just to Adam and Eve but to all of creation.

Everything God created and called very good suffers because of this breach between Heaven and Earth.

And so the plot of scripture- and, yes, scripture is a book comprised of many books but, like any good book, scripture has an overarching, unifying plot to it- the plot and promise of scripture is God’s work to restore what God creates in Genesis 1 and 2.

To undo Death.

To reunite the Heaven and Earth.

Salvation, Eternal Life, is about the reclamation and permanent restoration of God’s creation; it’s not about our disembodied evacuation from God’s creation.

It’s about Heaven coming down to Earth and the two becoming one, once again and forever.

That’s Isaiah’s vision. Isaiah doesn’t see our souls going up, up, up and away to Heaven and leaving behind everything else that God called very good.

It’s about Heaven coming down to Earth so that what God created is restored. That’s what we pray every time we pray the prayer Jesus taught us: ‘Thy Kingdom come…on Earth…’

Jesus gives us that prayer because Jesus is at the center of what God is doing to heal his creation.

Dennis said it on Christmas Eve. In the Incarnation, in Jesus’ own body, is this marriage of Heaven and Earth. He’s our future made present.

Jesus is the beginning of a New Creation- that’s how Matthew and John begin their Christmas stories.

And in his life, his teaching, his faithfulness all the way to a Cross Jesus undoes the curse of Death.

What we call Eternal Life- begins in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruit of God’s New Creation. He’s the Second Adam, scripture says.

If it’s just about our souls going off to heaven when we die, then why didn’t God leave Jesus in the tomb?

And just take the spiritual part of him up to heaven?

Why bother with a Resurrection?

As St. Paul says, Jesus isn’t the first fruit of anything if that’s not also what God will do with each of us.

The plot and promise of scripture, from the first page of scripture to the last,  is that what God did in Jesus Christ, on the last day God will do for us.

And what God will do for us, God will also do for all of creation.

The promise of scripture is that one day Heaven will come down and be made one with the Earth. That’s why the very last image in scripture is of a wedding, a marriage, between Heaven and Earth. And on that same day all who have died in the Lord, all who are resting in the Lord, will be Resurrected and Restored just like Jesus on Easter morning.

photo-1

‘Heaven,’ wherever or whatever happens to us right after we die, is not forever.

Heaven is not forever. When I first became I pastor, back before I was the sensitive and pastoral person you know now, I actually said that to a grieving widow. She asked me if I thought her husband was in heaven, and without thinking I replied: ‘Well sure, but he won’t be there forever.’

And she then started sobbing. And, maybe it wasn’t the best moment say it, but it’s still true.

Heaven- what we think of as heaven- is not forever.

When Jesus promises to the thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ The word ‘paradise’ in scripture refers to a temporary state of bliss.

And when Jesus says to his disciples ‘In my Father’s house there are many rooms…’ The word Jesus uses is ‘tent.’  A temporary structure.  That’s not what we usually think of when we think of Eternal Life. But according to scripture, we have a life after life after death.

What scripture means by Eternal Life isn’t whatever happens to us right after we die.

What scripture means by Eternal Life is our resurrected life in God’s New Creation where Heaven and Earth are made one, once and for all.

That’s the work God began in Jesus Christ, and that’s the work God is doing today in history through the Holy Spirit.

And that’s the work God enlists us to join in today. Now. Through baptism.

That’s what we do here.

If it’s just about our souls going up to heaven, then you don’t need to be here.

Sleep in on Sundays.

But if it’s about God one day reconciling Earth and Heaven, then what we do here as Church,

learning to love,

learning to hallow God’s name,

learning to be satisfied not with our desires but with our daily bread, learning to give and forgive,

learning to recognize and resist temptation,

learning to forgive those who trespass against us.

If it’s about God one day reconciling Earth and Heaven, then the work of reconciliation we do here, as Church, is forever.

Because it’s what God will do when his Kingdom comes to Earth…

That’s what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

And that’s what we pray at the end of the communion prayer: ‘By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back.’

And his Kingdom comes.

On earth.

As it is in heaven.

Heaven is Not Our Home

Jason Micheli —  January 3, 2013 — 3 Comments

far-side-heaven

One of my favorite bands is Blue Highway, a Virginia bluegrass band. I love their rendition of ‘This World is Not My Home.’ You can listen to it here.

It’s a great song.

Problem is: It’s crap theology.

This weekend we begin our sermon series, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Heard about Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and the Second Coming.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that one of the greatest moral/theological challenges I face as a pastor is that very few people (Christians and non) have anything resembling a biblical notion of heaven.

And the real problem is very few people (especially Christians) realize that their assumptions about heaven have nothing at all to do with Jewish-Christian belief. The way we talk about heaven can no where be found on the lips of Jesus or in the words of Isaiah or St Paul.

Typically, I don’t become aware this until it’s too late- until death is too near or too recent. Only a moral cretin would try to ‘fix’ someone’s theology at their deathbed or at their loved one’s graveside.

But since it’s not appropriate to talk about what the bible actually teaches about Death and Resurrection when it’s most germane, we seldom talk about it at all, allowing bits and pieces of pop cliche, Platonism and downright paganism to take root. 

No scholar has been more critical in recovering the biblical witness of Resurrection than NT Wright. Reading him quite simply allowed me to read scripture as if for the first time. Here’s an excerpt from him on heaven:

 

There is no agreement in the church today about what happens to people when they die. Yet the New Testament is crystal clear on the matter: In a classic passage, Paul speaks of “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). There is no room for doubt as to what he means: God’s people are promised a new type of bodily existence, the fulfillment and redemption of our present bodily life. The rest of the early Christian writings, where they address the subject, are completely in tune with this.

The traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage, postmortem journey represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope. Bodily resurrection is not just one odd bit of that hope. It is the element that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story of God’s ultimate purposes. If we squeeze it to the margins, as many have done by implication, or indeed, if we leave it out altogether, as some have done quite explicitly, we don’t just lose an extra feature, like buying a car that happens not to have electrically operated mirrors. We lose the central engine, which drives it and gives every other component its reason for working.

When we talk with biblical precision about the resurrection, we discover an excellent foundation for lively and creative Christian work in the present world—not, as some suppose, for an escapist or quietist piety.

Bodily Resurrection

While both Greco-Roman paganism and Second Temple Judaism held a wide variety of beliefs about life beyond death, the early Christians, beginning with Paul, were remarkably unanimous on the topic.

When Paul speaks in Philippians 3 of being “citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t mean that we shall retire there when we have finished our work here. He says in the next line that Jesus will come from heaven in order to transform the present humble body into a glorious body like his own. Jesus will do this by the power through which he makes all things subject to himself. This little statement contains in a nutshell more or less all Paul’s thought on the subject. The risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’s future body and the means by which it comes.

Similarly, in Colossians 3:1–4, Paul says that when the Messiah (the one “who is your life”) appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. Paul does not say “one day you will go to be with him.” No, you already possess life in him. This new life, which the Christian possesses secretly, invisible to the world, will burst forth into full bodily reality and visibility.

The clearest and strongest passage is Romans 8:9–11. If the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus the Messiah, dwells in you, says Paul, then the one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies as well, through his Spirit who dwells in you. God will give life, not to a disembodied spirit, not to what many people have thought of as a spiritual body in the sense of a nonphysical one, but “to your mortal bodies also.”

Other New Testament writers support this view. The first letter of John declares that when Jesus appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. The resurrection body of Jesus, which at the moment is almost unimaginable to us in its glory and power, will be the model for our own. And of course within John’s gospel, despite the puzzlement of those who want to read the book in a very different way, we have some of the clearest statements of future bodily resurrection. Jesus reaffirms the widespread Jewish expectation of resurrection in the last day, and announces that the hour for this has already arrived. It is quite explicit: “The hour is coming,” he says, “indeed, it is already here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man, and those who hear will live; when all in the graves will come out, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”

Life After Life After Death

Here we must discuss what Jesus means when he declares that there are “many dwelling places” in his Father’s house. This has regularly been taken, not least when used in the context of bereavement, to mean that the dead (or at least dead Christians) will simply go to heaven permanently rather than being raised again subsequently to new bodily life. But the word for “dwelling places” here, monai, is regularly used in ancient Greek not for a final resting place, but for a temporary halt on a journey that will take you somewhere else in the long run.

This fits closely with Jesus’ words to the dying brigand in Luke: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Despite a long tradition of misreading, paradise here means not a final destination but the blissful garden, the parkland of rest and tranquility, where the dead are refreshed as they await the dawn of the new day. The main point of the sentence lies in the apparent contrast between the brigand’s request and Jesus’ reply: “Remember me,” he says, “when you come in your kingdom,” implying that this will be at some far distant future. Jesus’ answer brings this future hope into the present, implying of course that with his death the kingdom is indeed coming, even though it doesn’t look like what anyone had imagined: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” There will, of course, still be a future completion involving ultimate resurrection; Luke’s overall theological understanding leaves no doubt on that score. Jesus, after all, didn’t rise again “today,” that is, on Good Friday. Luke must have understood him to be referring to a state of being-in-paradise. With Jesus, the future hope has come forward into the present. For those who die in faith, before that final reawakening, the central promise is of being “with Jesus” at once. “My desire is to depart,” wrote Paul, “and be with Christ, which is far better.”

Resurrection itself then appears as what the word always meant in the ancient world. It wasn’t a way of talking about life after death. It was a way of talking about a new bodily life after whatever state of existence one might enter immediately upon death. It was, in other words, life after life after death.

What then about such passages as 1 Peter 1, which speaks of a salvation that is “kept in heaven for you” so that in your present believing you are receiving “the salvation of your souls”? Here, I suggest, the automatic assumption of Western Christianity leads us badly astray. Most Christians today, reading a passage like this, assume that it means that heaven is where you go to receive this salvation—or even that salvation consists in “going to heaven when you die.” The way we now understand that language in the Western world is totally different from what Jesus and his hearers meant and understood.

For a start, heaven is actually a reverent way of speaking about God, so that “riches in heaven” simply means “riches in God’s presence.” But then, by derivation from this primary meaning, heaven is the place where God’s purposes for the future are stored up. It isn’t where they are meant to stay so that one would need to go to heaven to enjoy them. It is where they are kept safe against the day when they will become a reality on earth. God’s future inheritance, the incorruptible new world and the new bodies that are to inhabit that world, are already kept safe, waiting for us, so that they can be brought to birth in the new heavens and new earth.

From Worship to Mission

The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.

If that is so, mission must urgently recover from its long-term schizophrenia. The split between saving souls and doing good in the world is not a product of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of both. The world of space, time, and matter is where real people live, where real communities happen, where difficult decisions are made, where schools and hospitals bear witness to the “now, already” of the gospel while police and prisons bear witness to the “not yet.” The world of space, time, and matter is where parliaments, city councils, neighborhood watch groups, and everything in between are set up and run for the benefit of the wider community, the community where anarchy means that bullies (economic and social as well as physical) will always win, where the weak and vulnerable will always need protecting, and where the social and political structures of society are part of the Creator’s design.

And the church that is renewed by the message of Jesus’ resurrection must be the church that goes to work precisely in that space, time, and matter. The church claims this world in advance as the place of God’s kingdom, of Jesus’ lordship, and of the Spirit’s power. Councils and parliaments can and often do act wisely, though they will always need scrutiny and accountability, because they in turn may become agents of bullying and corruption.

Thus the church that takes sacred space seriously (not as a retreat from the world but as a bridgehead into it) will go straight from worshiping in the sanctuary to debating in the council chamber; to discussing matters of town planning, of harmonizing and humanizing beauty in architecture, green spaces, and road traffic schemes; and to environmental work, creative and healthy farming methods, and proper use of resources. If it is true, as I have argued, that the whole world is now God’s holy land, we must not rest as long as that land is spoiled and defaced. This is not an extra to the church’s mission. It is central.

The church that takes seriously the fact that Jesus is Lord of all will not just celebrate quietly every time we write the date on a letter or document, will not just set aside Sunday as far as humanly and socially possible as a celebration of God’s new creation, will not just seek to order its own life in an appropriate rhythm of worship and work. Such a church will also seek to bring wisdom to the rhythms of work in offices and shops, in local government, in civic holidays, and in the shaping of public life. These things cannot be taken for granted. The enormous shifts during my lifetime, from the whole town observing Good Friday and Easter, to those great days being simply more occasions for football matches and yet more televised reruns of old movies, are indices of what happens when a society loses its roots and drifts with prevailing social currents. The reclaiming of time as God’s good gift (as opposed to time as simply a commodity to be spent for one’s own benefit, which often means fresh forms of slavery for others) is not an extra to the church’s mission. It is central.

Whatever is Holy

One of the things I most enjoy about being a bishop is watching ordinary Christians (not that there are any “ordinary” Christians, but you know what I mean) going straight from worshiping Jesus in church to making a radical difference in the material lives of people down the street by running playgroups for children of single working moms; by organizing credit unions to help people at the bottom of the financial ladder find their way to responsible solvency; by campaigning for better housing, against dangerous roads, for drug rehab centers, for wise laws relating to alcohol, for decent library and sporting facilities, for a thousand other things in which God’s sovereign rule extends to hard, concrete reality. Once again, all this is not an extra to the mission of the church. It is central.

This way of coming at the tasks of the church in terms of space, time, and matter leads directly to evangelism. When the church is seen to move straight from worship of God to affecting much-needed change in the world; when it becomes clear that the people who feast at Jesus’ table are the ones at the forefront of work to eliminate hunger and famine; when people realize that those who pray for the Spirit to work in and through them are the people who seem to have extra resources of love and patience in caring for those whose lives are damaged, bruised, and shamed—then it is natural for people to recognize that something is going on that they want to be part of.

No single individual can attempt more than a fraction of this mission. That’s why mission is the work of the whole church, the whole time. Paul’s advice to the Philippians—even though he and they knew they were suffering for their faith and might be tempted to retreat from the world into a dualistic, sectarian mentality—was upbeat. “These are the things you should think through,” he wrote: “whatever is true, whatever is holy, whatever is upright, whatever is pure, whatever is attractive, whatever has a good reputation; anything virtuous, anything praiseworthy.” And in thinking through these things, we will discover more and more about the same Creator God whom we know in and through Jesus Christ and will be better equipped to work effectively not over against the world, but with the grain of all goodwill, of all that seeks to bring and enhance life.

N. T. Wright is Bishop of Durham for the Church of England. This article is excerpted from his latest book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church(HarperOne). 

You can read more of this excerpt at Christianity Today.

I’m thinking about the creation story this week for Sunday’s sermon.

I’ve learned the hard way that there are a few sermon topics that have the potential to get listeners’ dander up if you mess with their preconceived notions:

1. Blood Atonement

2. Heaven (and Hell)

3. Forgiveness

4. Authority of Scripture

I’ve learned the hard way that for many what’s at stake in the creation story in Genesis 1 isn’t what it says about the goodness of God or creation. What’s at stake is whether scripture is authoritative or not. Is it really the Word of God, or how do we understand it as the Word? Can it be trusted? Our need to protect scripture, in other words, often forces us into a way of reading Genesis that would’ve been alien to the ancient Jews and even to a first century Jew like Jesus: a literal reading.

I expect to get some pushback this Sunday. Accordingly, I thought this essay by NT Wright on how scripture is authoritative could be helpful.

Biblical Authority: the Problem

When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations.  They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation.  ‘Authority’ is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible.  Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church?  Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know?

As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be ‘no’.  Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed.  Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed.  And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question.  One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense, that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible.  For the most part the Bible itself is much more concerned with doing a whole range of other things rather than talking about itself.  There are, of course, key passages, especially at transition moments like 2 Timothy or 2 Peter, where the writers are concerned that the church of the next generation should be properly founded and based.  At precisely such points we find statements emerging about the place of scripture within the life of the church.  But such a doctrine usually has to be inferred.  It may well be possible to infer it, but it is not (for instance) what Isaiah or Paul are talking about.  Nor is it, for the most part, what Jesus is talking about in the gospels.  He isn’t constantly saying, ‘What about scripture? What about scripture?’  It is there sometimes, but it is not the central thing that we have sometimes made it.  And the attempt by many evangelicals to argue a general doctrine of scripture out of the use made of the Old Testament in the New is doomed to failure, despite its many strong points, precisely because the relation between the Old and New Testaments is not the same as the relation between the New Testament and ourselves.[1]  If we look in scripture to find out where in practice authority is held to lie, the answer on page after page does not address our regular antitheses at all.  As we shall see, in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.

The question of biblical authority, of how there can be such a thing as an authoritative Bible, is not, then, as simple as it might look.  In order to raise it at all, we have to appreciate that it is a sub-question of some much more general questions.  (1) How can any text function as authoritative?  Once one gets away from the idea of a rule book such as might function as authoritative in, say, a golf club, this question gets progressively harder.  (2) How can any ancient text function as authoritative?  If you were a Jew, wanting to obey the Torah (or, perhaps, obey the Talmud) you would find that there were all sorts of difficult questions about how a text, written so many years ago, can function as authoritative today.  Actually, it is easier with the Talmud than with the Bible because the Talmud is designed very specifically to be a rule book for human beings engaged in life in a particular sort of community.  But much of what we call the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—is not a rule book; it is narrative.  That raises a further question:  (3) How can an ancient narrative text be authoritative?  How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative?  It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you.  But what would you do if, instead, he began ‘Once upon a time . . .’?

These questions press so acutely that the church has, down the centuries, tried out all sorts of ways of getting round them, and of thereby turning the apparently somewhat recalcitrant material in the Bible itself into material that can more readily be used as ‘authoritative’ in the senses demanded by this or that period of church history.  I want to look at three such methods and suggest that each in its own way actually belittles the    Bible, thereby betraying a low doctrine of inspiration in practice, whatever may be held in theory.
 
Timeless Truth?

A regular response to these problems is to say that the Bible is a repository of timeless truth.  There are some senses in which that is true.  But the sense in which it is normally meant is certainly not true.  The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally conditioned.  It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in which it came to birth.  It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time.  He has wanted to give us something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to handle as such a set of truths might seem to be.  The problem of the gospels is one particular instance of this question. And at this point in the argument evangelicals often lurch towards Romans as a sort of safe place where they can find a basic systematic theology in the light of which one can read everything else.   I have often been assured by evangelical colleagues in theological disciplines other than my own that my perception is indeed true: namely, that the Protestant and evangelical tradition has not been half so good on the gospels as it has been on the epistles.  We don’t quite know what to do with them.  Because, I think, we have come to them as we have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not.  I remember a well-known Preacher saying that he thought a lot of Christians used the Bible as an unsorted edition of Daily Light.  It really ought to be arranged into neat little devotional chunks, but it happens to have got all muddled up.  The same phenomenon occurs, at a rather different level, when People treat it as an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession, the UCCF Basis of Faith, or the so-called ‘Four Spiritual Laws’.  But to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules—abstract devotional doctrinal, or evangelistic snippets here and there.

This problem goes back ultimately, I think, to a failure on the part of the Reformers to work out fully their proper insistence on the literal sense of scripture as the real locus of God’s revelation, the place where God was really speaking in scripture.  The literal sense seems fine when it comes to saying, and working with, what (for instance) Paul actually meant in Romans.  (This itself can actually be misleading too, but we let it pass for the moment.)  It’s fine when you’re attacking mediaeval allegorizing of one sort or another.  But the Reformers, I think, never worked out a satisfactory answer to the question, how can the literal sense of stories—which purport to describe events in (say) first century Palestine—how can that be authoritative?  If we are not careful, the appeal to ‘timeless truths’ not only distorts the Bible itself, making it into the sort of book it manifestly is not, but also creeps back, behind the Reformers’ polemic against allegory, into a neo-allegorization which is all the more dangerous for being unrecognised.[2]

Witness to Primary Events?

So, more recently, we have seen attempts on the part of many scholars to make this very difficult text authoritative by suggesting that it is authoritative insofar as it witnesses to primary events.  This emphasis, associated not least with the post-war biblical theology movement, at least has the merit of taking seriously the historical setting, the literal sense of the text.  The problem about that, however, can be seen quite easily.  Supposing we actually dug up Pilate’s court records, and supposing we were able to agree that they gave a fair transcript of Jesus’ trial.  Would they be authoritative in any of the normal senses in which Christians have claimed that the Bible is authoritative?  I think not.  A variation on this theme occurs when people say that the Bible (or the New Testament) is authoritative because it witnesses to early Christian experience.  There is a whole range of modern scholarship that has assumed that the aim of New Testament study is to find the early Christians at work or at prayer or at evangelism or at teaching.  The Bible then becomes authoritative because it lets us in on what it was like being an early Christian—and it is the early Christian experience that is then treated as the real authority, the real norm.  In both of these variations, then, authority has shifted from the Bible itself to the historically reconstructed event or experience.  We are not really talking about the authority of the Bible, at all.
 
Timeless Function?

Another (related) way in which the Bible has been used, with the frequent implication that it is in such use that its authority consists, is in the timeless functions which it is deemed to perform.  For Bultmann, the New Testament functioned (among other things) as issuing the timeless call to decision.  For Ignatius and those who have taught Jesuit spirituality, it can be used in a timeless sense within pastoral practice.  Now this is not a million miles from certain things which I shall be suggesting later on in this lecture as appropriate uses of scripture.  But at the level of theory it is vital that we say, once more, that such uses in and of themselves are not what is primarily meant when we say that the Bible is authoritative: or, if they are, that they thereby belittle the Bible, and fail to do justice to the book as we actually have it.  All three methods I have outlined involve a certain procedure which ultimately seems to be illegitimate: that one attempts, as it were, to boil off certain timeless truths, models, or challenges into a sort of ethereal realm which is not anything immediately to do with space-time reality in order then to carry them across from the first century to any other given century and re-liquefy them (I hope I’m getting my physics right at this point), making them relevant to a new situation.  Once again, it is not really the Bible that is being regarded as the ‘real’ authority.  It is something else.
 
Evangelicals and Biblical Authority

It seems to be that evangelicalism has flirted with, and frequently held long-running love affairs with all of these different methods of using the Bible, all of these attempts to put into practice what turns out to be quite an inarticulate sense that it is somehow the real locus of authority.  And that has produced what one can now see in many so-called scriptural churches around the world—not least in North America.  It seems to be the case that the more that you insist that you are based on the Bible, the more fissiparous you become; the church splits up into more and more little groups, each thinking that they have got biblical truth right.  And in my experience of teaching theological students I find that very often those from a conservative evangelical background opt for one such view as the safe one, the one with which they will privately stick, from which they will criticize the others.  Failing that, they lapse into the regrettable (though sometimes comprehensible) attitude of temporary book-learning followed by regained positivism: we will learn for a while the sort of things that the scholars write about, then we shall get back to using the Bible straight.  There may be places and times where that approach is the only possible one, but I am quite sure that the Christian world of 1989 is not among them.  There is a time to grow up in reading the Bible as in everything else.  There is a time to take the doctrine of inspiration seriously.  And my contention here is that evangelicalism has usually done no better than those it sometimes attacks in taking inspiration seriously.  Methodologically, evangelical handling of scripture has fallen into the same traps as most other movements, even if we have found ways of appearing to extricate ourselves.

The Belittling of the Bible

The problem with all such solutions as to how to use the Bible is that they belittle the Bible and exalt something else.  Basically they imply—and this is what I mean when I say that they offer too low a view of scripture—that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book and it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in these hermeneutical moves, translation procedures or whatever.  They imply that the real place where God has revealed himself—the real locus of authority and revelation—is, in fact, somewhere else; somewhere else in the past in an event that once took place, or somewhere else in a timeless sphere which is not really hooked into our world at all out touches it tangentially, or somewhere in the present in ‘my own experience’, or somewhere in the future in some great act which is yet to come. And such views, I suggest, rely very heavily on either tradition (including evangelical tradition) or reason, often playing off one against the other, and lurching away from scripture into something else.  I have a suspicion that most of you are as familiar with this whole process as I am.  If you are not, you would be within a very short time of beginning to study theology at any serious level.

My conclusion, then, is this: that the regular views of scripture and its authority which we find not only outside but also inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible actually is—a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book.  They function by tuning that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book.  This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it and whatever words beginning with ‘in-’ are used to label it.  I propose that what we need to do is to re-examine the concept of authority itself and see if we cannot do a bit better.
 
The Bible and Biblical Authority
 
All Authority is God’s Authority        

So, secondly within the first half of this lecture, I want to suggest that scripture’s own view of authority focuses on the authority of God himself.  (I recall a well-known lecturer once insisting that ‘there can be no authority other than scripture’, and thumping the tub so completely that I wanted to ask ‘but what about God?’)  If we think for a moment what we are actually saying when we use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’, we must surely acknowledge that this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture.  And that is a complex claim.  It is not straightforward.  When people use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ they very often do not realize this.  Worse, they often treat the word ‘authority’ as the absolute, the fixed point, and make the word ‘scripture’ the thing which is moving around trying to find a home against it.

Click here to read the rest.

Maybe it’s always been the case and I’ve simply not noticed it, but lately I’ve taken a lot of crap (fairly?) for criticizing my alma ecclesia, the United Methodist Church. Honestly, it’s not hard. Critiquing the several-decades- too-late- and-many-dollars-short UMC is like Jerry Seinfeld telling jokes to a besotted night club audience. If the crap I’ve taken is fair so is, I believe, the crap I’ve given. After all, we Methodists are predictable, sentimental and pop-cliche. In typical modernist fashion, we’re enamored with bureaucracy, meaningless legislative gestures and the latest fads which might appeal to seekers- which is impressive since we’re also impervious to change and innovation, allergic to accountability and unaware of genuine cultural trends.

I often point out how our terminology for church governance betrays how we traded in the Gospel for Robert’s Rules of Order. Instead of a diocese (a nice churchy word) we have a district, as though we worked for Dunder Mifflin. Instead of an archdiocese we have a conference, like the ACC. Instead of a proud episcopacy, we have a superintendents, just like the public school system, which ironically is also an unwieldy outdated bureaucracy.

But maybe that’s harsh 🙂

Given my usual prickly posture of critique, I thought I’d offer up an unusual praise. As you may know, I’m reading NT Wright’s, How God Became King. Here’s a previous entry.

Wright’s thesis is that Christians in the West have historically and categorically misread the Gospels. We’ve read them through the cipher of the creeds and our prejudicial understanding of Paul. We’ve read them as modern liberals and conservatives. As a consequence, we’ve missed how the Gospels all attempt to tell a WHOLE story not isolated teachings or vignettes. They attempt to tell the story of how the God of Israel became, in Jesus Christ, King on Earth as he is in Heaven. Wright’s thesis is one that puts ascension not crucifixion or resurrection as the climax to the tale. It’s one that marries worship and social witness in a way I think the usual liberal and conservative options miss.

And that’s where Methodism- actually John and Charles Wesley- come in. Wright cites Wesley as a rare example in the history of the Western Church who ‘got’ both the experience of loving God in one’s heart (worship) and practicing that love in a life of loving neighbor by serving the poor and advocating for justice.

I think Wright’s reading of the tradition is correct as is his identification of this Wesleyan synthesis as we Methodists’ true treasure.

 

 

 

 

 

What the Gospels Are NOT About

To say the Gospels aim at telling a story from beginning to end with a single, primary ‘point’ is also to argue that there things the Gospels are not (primarily, least) about.

I’m reading NT Wright’s new book, How God Became King, in which Wright argues that for most of its history Western Christianity has missed the plot and point the Gospels writers intended to convey in their story. The story the Gospels tell, Wright says, is one in which God in Christ becomes King of Earth as in Heaven. This is why the Gospels give so much space to Jesus’ Kingdom teaching. Ascension then is less denouement than climax.

But if this is what the Gospels are about then the Gospels are not about other, commonly assumed things:

Going to Heaven

The Gospels tell a story not where people go to heaven when they die but where God’s people pray for the Kingdom of Heaven to be brought to Earth.

Jesus’ Ethical Teachings

The Gospels do not tell a story of Jesus the Teacher whose career was upended by those who didn’t like what he had to say. Jesus was not, as we like to think today, a 1st century Jewish analogue to the Buddha or Ben Franklin. Jesus wasn’t offering a teaching as we think of it, as a set of ideals or precepts. Jesus’ teachings were a part of his Kingdom announcement: that through him a whole new world was drawing near.

Jesus, the Moral Exemplar

In the same way the Gospels do not tell teachings, the Gospels do not tell a story primarily about a Jesus whose perfect holiness, faith and love show us how we should live and be. If this were the story the Gospels tell then they’re failures, Wright says, because none of us can possibly hope to live according to his exceedingly perfect example. The Gospels cannot be reduced to Jesus showing us how its done.

Jesus, the Perfect Sacrifice

This is the most difficult assumption to undo because the notion of Jesus dying for our sin is the single most common definition of what Christians mean by ‘gospel.’ But if the Gospels aim to tell the same story that Paul tells then they fail because it’s not at all obvious the Gospels are trying to tell a story of Jesus, the victim without blemish, dying as a sacrifice for our sin.

Proving Jesus’ Divinity

Many assume that the purpose of the Gospels was to prove Jesus’ divinity. The Gospels though don’t try to prove his divinity, they simply presuppose it. Getting back to what Wright sees as the Gospels primary story, the Gospels’ understanding of Jesus’ divinity is wrapped up with the Kingdom Jesus ushers in to our world.

 

Does Being ‘Biblical’= Being Pauline?

I’ve started reading NT Wright’s book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. In some ways it’s a continuation of his work in Simply Jesus. 

Wright’s overarching premise is how Christianity in the West has largely forgotten what the Gospels are about. Christians of all traditions and across the theological spectrum tend to read the Gospels episodically or we read them to buttress theological perspectives we bring to the texts. We do not- and haven’t since the ancient church, Wright contends- read the Gospels, asking the question: ‘What overall story does this Gospel think its telling?’

Wright argues that Christians, especially since the Reformation, have construed the ‘gospel’ in terms of atonement and justification; meanwhile, the story the Gospels attempt to tell is how God in Christ is King of the Earth as in Heaven. The extent to which Jesus’ ascension has become a neglected text and holy day supports Wright’s assertions, and just on a literary level it’s a good charge to level. There are no other narratives we could read where how the authors constructed the beginning, middle and end are incidental to the authorial ‘point.’ It’s not a trivial detail that the Gospels conclude with Jesus’ enthronement nor is it of little consequence that Luke ends the Gospel with Jesus’ ascension and then Luke’s Acts picks up with the disciples living in the form of this new Kingdom, on earth as in heaven.

Whatever one’s theology, Wright thinks it problematic that most Christians can articulate a definition of the gospel that need not make any reference to the actual Gospels. Our definitions of the Gospel center on terms like atonement and justification, terms that feature prominently in Paul but are not in the Gospels themselves and are certainly not their main theme. In the same way, Wright notes a commonly observed problem with the creeds; namely, that they skip from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection and leave out the bulk of the Gospel story.

Instead of shaping our definition of ‘gospel’ by asking what story the Gospels are attempting to tell, we use the Gospels, Wright says, to illustrate arguments derived from Paul. By doing so, Christians have lost the plot…of the Gospels. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Wright doesn’t ask the question but it’s there in his argument: Shouldn’t our reading of Paul be in submission to and in service of the Gospels rather than vice versa?

Is it the case, Wright wonders, that when we claim to be biblical we’re really being Pauline instead? And by neglecting the narrative arc of the Gospels are we actually being something profoundly less than biblical?