Archives For Scripture

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

3. (How) Is the Bible the Word of God?

The Bible is the Word of God in that scripture- when proclaimed rightly and received faithfully- is the reliable testimony to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ who is the logic of God made flesh.

So when Christians use the term ‘the Word of God’ they’re actually referring to multiple forms whose authority and ‘infallibility’ varies by degrees.

Imagine, for instance, the image of three concentric circles.

At the center, in the inner, centermost circle, is the Logos, the eternal Word of God that was made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Christ is the only capital ‘W’ word of God in which Christians believe and after which Christians conform their lives.

Next in the trio is the testimony to the Word of God given to us by Israel, the prophets and the Church. This testimony to the Word of God is the word we call scripture.

In the final, outermost, circle is the word of God as its proclaimed and interpreted in the worship and ministry of the Church to which Christians will often reply: ‘This is the word of the God for the people of God/Thanks be to God.’

The only true, literal, infallible, eternal Word of God then is Jesus Christ, the Logos of God.

The bible is the word of God in that it points us to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Our reading and preaching of scripture is- or perhaps more apt, becomes- the word of God for us only when it faithfully proclaims and embodies the one Word of God, Jesus Christ.

“Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” - John 20.30-31

4. Should We Interpret the Bible Literally?

The form of the scripture text should determine how you interpret scripture.

If the scripture text is poetic, then you should it interpret it poetically. Metaphorically.

If the scripture text is exhortative, then you better go and do whatever it says. Whatever is the best modern-day equivalent of what it says.

If the scripture text is parabolic, then you should scratch your head and look for the scandal of the Gospel. Or whatever would be likewise scandalous in our day.

If the scripture text is fabulous, then you should dig for the deeper meaning, the text’s artist seeks to show rather than simply tell. e.g., Garden of Eden.

But when Christians refer to the bible as the word of God, don’t forget that while Christianity is indeed a revealed religion, the revelation of the Word of God is a mediated revelation.

Our access to the Logos comes to us only by way of scripture and the Church. Scripture therefore is not revelation. The pages and printed words in your bible are not, in and of themselves, the Word of God. They are our testimony to God’s Word as its been disclosed to Israel and the Church. Because of that testimony, scripture is authoritative for us and it is sufficient for communicating all we need to know of and follow this God.

At the same time, one’s testimony is never identical with the person of whom one testifies. Scripture’s testimony can only partially and provisionally capture the mystery of the eternal Word.

None of this threatening should be threatening, however, because the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is a mediated revelation.

Testimony can be imperfect without jeopardizing the perfection of the One to whom scripture testifies.

In other words, the bible does not (always) need to be interpreted literally because we do not believe in the bible; we believe in the One to whom the bible testifies. We worship Jesus Christ not the bible.

And, it should be pointed out, Jesus himself did not interpret scripture literally:

I say “You are gods,

sons of the Most High, all of you;

nevertheless, you shall die like mortals

and fall like any prince” (Psalm 82 vv. 6-7)

 

barth_in_pop_art_5There’s something fragile, foolhardy and yet frighteningly beautiful about the vantage point that ministry offers upon the faith of ordinary believers and their extra ordinary, in the pejorative sense, priests and pastors.

On more than a one occasion, I’ve sat through a pointless church meeting or an inane clergy gathering and been struck by this realization: the very testimony to which we respond every Sunday ‘The Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God’ was written by believers who, in all likelihood, were every bit as sinful, ignorant, and only partially faithful as the people gathered around me right now.

Prefixing the author of Luke with ‘Saint’ lends him beatific hues. Thinking of the author of Luke as the chair of your Church Council, however, might give you pause before you chime in ‘Thanks be to God’ next Sabbath.

And yet ministry also offers a glimpse into the mysterious depth of an ostensibly ‘simple’ faith. Alongside the regular dosage of bitter reality, ministry also provides concrete confirmation that, in spite of ourselves, the living God can be known and, even more remarkably, the unknowable God can be witnessed to by people like us who don’t know nearly as much as we pretend.

Now, there are Christians for whom those initial sentences constitute not just a couple of paragraphs but heresy.

For them, scripture is a miracle on par with the incarnation itself. Some many Christians would describe the miracle of scripture as ‘inerrancy;’ that is, God has miraculously kept the Bible free from any error. The Bible’s power and authority then derive from its being devoid of any historical mistakes (worldwide census in Luke 2), theological inconsistencies (Mark’s Gospel vs John’s), or scientific problems (Genesis). Indeed many Christians treat the ‘Word’ as though it fell from heaven, printed and bound and translated in to the King James; therefore, it must be without error.

Such a ‘high’ view of scripture, however, comes with much risk, for if scripture’s power and authority derives from its inerrancy then even the most inconsequential of historical, scientific, or theological errors threaten to undermine the whole.

When the authority of scripture is based not on God but on a particular doctrine about scripture, confidence in God can easily unravel.

The recent debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and that idiot creationist from Kentucky is but one obvious example. At stake in that particular debate was neither science nor faith in God but in one particular doctrine of scripture.

The same is true of the debates around same-sex marriage. At their most base, in both senses of the word, their debates about scripture’s authority.

One of features that first drew me to Karl Barth was how he charts a fresh, vigorous way forward through the stale liberal-conservative divide over scripture.

According to Barth in §19.2, the “miracle of scripture” is not its inerrancy- the groundless supposition that God kept the Bible free from humanness, especially human fallibility and sin.

No, the miracle of scripture is indeed a subset of the miracle of incarnation:

God makes himself known through what is human, always limited and partial, and frequently mistaken:

… the prophets and apostles as such, even in their function as witnesses, even in the act of writing down their witness, were real, historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their action, and capable and actually guilty of error in their spoken and written word.

To the bold postulate, that if their word is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion, that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word, and yet according to the same scriptural witness, being justified and sanctified by grace alone, they have still spoken the Word of God in their fallible and erring human word.

Around Christmastime, Christians make a lot of hay out of the fact that in Christ God takes flesh- and not any pristine, idealized flesh but the very ordinary stuff of our lives. As the ancients believed: ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’ In other words, for our entire fleshly selves to be redeemed our entire fleshly selves are somehow mysteriously present in the Incarnate One.

Seldom however do we make the same hay out of scripture’s incarnational nature, yet the miracle is the same. God can use the most human of mediums for revelation and grace. In a certain sense, for Barth, to wish the Bible were something other than what it is (a fallible, human witness) is akin to wishing the Incarnation were less human and more spiritually sanitized than it was:

If God was not ashamed of the fallibility of all the human words of the Bible, of their historical and scientific inaccuracies, their theological contradictions, the uncertainty of their tradition… but adopted and made use of these expressions in all their fallibility, we do not need to be ashamed when He wills to renew it to us in all its fallibility as witness, and it is mere self-will and disobedience to try to find some infallible elements in the Bible.

That is, to ground the Bible’s authority and power in something other than God is to unwittingly long for a God other than the God we have: the God who reveals himself through corrupt, finite, sinful things.

For Barth, biblical inerrancy is a rejection of grace: it rejects the gift God has given us (an unmerited, incarnational text) in favor of something we deem, through our doctrine, to be better.

But ‘better’ is not an appropriate category when speaking of grace.

barth_in_pop_art_5Karl Barth began his Church Dogmatics as the historical-critical method of interpreting scripture waned and fundamentalism waxed.

To this day both liberals and fundamentalists have problems with Karl Barth.

Exhibit A~ this choice quote from the beginning of §19.1:

‘Scripture is holy and the Word of God, because by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness to divine revelation.’

Why do liberals hate on Barth?

Wanting to be counted as a ‘legitimate’ discipline by the social sciences, liberals lauding the historical-critical method approached scripture with the pretensions of neutral objectivity, treating the formerly revealed text as any other time-bound, humanly-authored text. Not surprisingly, the historical-critical method only proved about the scriptural text what we now know about any text: they’re ripe fruit for our manipulation. Supposed neutral, objective scholarship of Barth’s day rendered a scriptural text and a Christ therein perfectly fashioned in the image of turn of the century German prejudices.

Barth skewers it better than me:

“There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees a complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost canonical status in Protestant theology. But now we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical.”

In the CD, Barth distances liberates the practice of theology from the presumptuous strictures of the historical-critical method. Scripture, Barth reiterates throughout §19.1, is  self-attesting and self-verifying.

The bible cannot confirm claims made from outside and brought to it. The Word instead claims to witness to God’s revelation in Christ, the One Word of God, and when one enters the Word one discovers- is encountered- by the truth of its witness. Admittedly, the circularity of Barth’s argument is not without its problems, but I think Barth would argue (and I would concur) that those problems pale in comparison to the ones provoked by the sinful pretension to a neutral, objective appraisal of the text.

On the other hand, Barth also wants to distance dogmatics from the heresy of biblical literalism.

Scripture witnesses to the One Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Scripture is not itself the Second Person of the Trinity.

Scripture is not the image of the invisible God, Jesus is.

Perhaps most importantly, the Son is eternal and was present at creation, scripture was not present at creation:

“…by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness to divine revelation.”

Barth’s straddling both sides of the modern liberal-fundamentalist divide here. Barth wants to acknowledge the insight of historical-criticism (scripture is incarnational, every bit as flesh and divine as Jesus was) without abandoning the authority and truth of scripture’s witness to revelation. At the same time, Barth wants to stress the uniqueness and reliability of scripture’s witness without going down the rabbit hole of demanding that every jot and tittle come straight out of a burning bush.

In one sense, you could accuse Barth of cherry picking the most palatable of what the two sides serve, but by doing so I think Barth stumbles upon a very unique and powerful observation:

Scripture is authoritative in that it witnesses reliably to Christ as the revelation of God, but scripture became authoritative.

And scripture’s ongoing authority is always a becoming.

There is no ‘isness’ to scripture.

To put it a bit clearer, Barth creates the space for a progressive revelation in scripture without jettisoning the authority of scripture. As with any courtroom witness, the witness of scripture is sometimes clearer than it is at other points but this fact does not undermine the overall veracity of the testimony. That to which the witnesses points remains.

The problem with biblical literalism, which Barth aims to correct here, is that it conceives of the bible as eternal, outside of and unconditioned by time. While Barth stresses how there is no ‘isness’ to scripture, literalism speaks as though there’s nothing but a ‘wasness’ to scripture.

Literalism’s effect is to strip the biblical narrative of any meaningful chronology.

If scripture is all the inerrant Word of God, timeless (and thus contextless) then there is no sense in which scripture reflects ongoing development of thought or faith.

And if there is no development- no ‘progressive revelation’- then it’s hard to see how there’s any genuine relationship between God and humanity.

No where is Barth’s point more obvious than with how scripture reflects upon the meaning of Jesus’ death.

Often Christians and non assume the meaning of Jesus’ death is obvious or self-evident within the canon. Not so.

Within the New Testament, believers find how the meaning of the cross is the subject of ongoing, developing reflection.

The meaning Jesus himself ascribes to his impending death is not the meaning Paul ascribes to Jesus’ death in Romans which is not exactly the meaning Paul ascribes to Jesus’ death in 2 Corinthians or Ephesians, which is not the same meaning John ascribes to it in Revelation. Nor are any of those meanings necessarily exactly how the early Church understood Jesus’ death.

Where Jesus speaks of his death’s meaning in terms of the liberation of Passover (…‘Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many…’), Paul speaks of Jesus’ death with metaphors of substitution, exchange and recapitulation. In Colossians Paul sounds a note not unlike the one John attempts in Revelation: the slain lamb having disarmed the powers of this world.

What’s powerful about Barth’s ‘becoming by the Spirit’ take on scripture is how it recognizes and allows for- even celebrates- this give and take reflection and wrestling within the canon itself.

How remarkable is it that Paul and the other apostles felt the freedom to expand upon the meaning of Christ’s death beyond what Christ himself gave? How counterintuitive is it that the early Church did not feel the compulsion to canonize and harmonize these disparate perspectives into a single view?

In other words, it’s clear from reading scripture itself that scripture is always a ‘becoming.’

And what else could it be, really, if wrestling with scripture is a fundamental act of faith?

 

Barth_Writing

‘The Word of God for the People of God’

‘Thanks be to God.’

That’s the usual response after the reading of scripture in my church’s worship as it is most congregations.

And whenever I read scripture during the liturgy, I preface the reading with the invitation ‘Listen for the Word of the Lord’ rather than the imperative, common in many churches: ‘Hear the Word of the Lord.’

I prefer the invitation over the imperative because, as we all know, not everyone within hearing of the scripture reading has actually heard the Word of God.

To hear the Bible read is not to have heard the Living God speak.

It’s not so simple or so easy. I like to invite people to listen for God’s Word in much the same manner as I’ll shush my boys while we’re hiking in the mountains. Be quiet, still yourselves, the scripture reader is telling the congregation. Listen for God’s Word because it might just pass you by.

When it comes to God’s Word, active discernment not passive reception is required.

One of the old confessions of the Church acknowledges as much by professing:

‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.’

That is, the word of God (scripture) is not a living, active witness to the one Word of God (Christ) until it’s been faithfully read, faithfully proclaimed and faithfully received by its hearers.

(That’s how you can disqualify preachers who use the Bible for other ends, i.e. Joel Osteen)

The scripture reading then is as mysterious as any other part of the liturgy, eucharist included, because to hear the Word of God is not merely to hear God’s previous revelation read it’s to participate in God’s ongoing revelation in the present.

This the mystery Barth tackles in §16.1 of the Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s already wrapped together as diverse topics as Christology, Pneumatology and the Trinity under his Volume 1 heading ‘The Word of God.’ Now Barth applies the doctrine of revelation to God’s revealing of himself to humanity.

As Barth points out relentlessly, Jesus, the God-Man, is the singular revelation around which all Christian speech of God must cohere. Nevertheless God’s revelation also comes to people who receive and respond to it.

Just how is it that people hear the Word of God (Christ) in the word of God (scripture)?

How is it that some hear God speak?

Which begs another question: Why is it that others do not?

To answer the former question, Barth turns to the Holy Spirit. Barth is often accused of being so radically Christo-centric that he has no place for the Holy Spirit in his theology, but here in §16.1 Barth points to the Holy Spirit as the agent through whom God reveals today.

Not only is it a deep mystery that God speaks; it’s as deep a mystery that we hear.

For Barth the human response ignited by the Holy Spirit is part of the same “revelation” as Christ himself. Every worship service in a sense is still a part of the very first Christmas Eve. It’s part of the same unfolding of God’s Word taking flesh.

This is not unlike what Paul tells the Corinthians: that God was in Christ reconciling the world and now this ministry of reconciliation has been given to us. We’re the extension of Christ, God’s revelation, to the world.

Anyone who accepts the invitation to listen for the Word of God is accepting a summons.

 

Download My New eBook

Jason Micheli —  November 1, 2013 — 2 Comments

DESIGNJust imagine how awesome the conversation, text messaging or email exchange could go:

You: Say, I just downloaded this pastor’s new ebook. It’s really great. You should check it out.

Friend: Really? What’s it called?

You: 100 Foreskins

Friend: Come again.

You: No pun intended, right?

2 Timothy 3 states:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

 

100 Foreskins is my attempt to test out Timothy’s bold assertion.

Is there something worthwhile about David’s gross dowry of 100 foreskins? Can we actually learn something from the story of the bare-a@#ed Isaiah prophesying in the nude? Can God get to us through the random bits of the Bible?

You can download the book here or by clicking on the image on the sidebar in the right.

Tell your friends.

Just think, now you can have my voice in your head and my words on your tablet without every worrying about the first-world problem of no wifi access.

 

Felidae-and-Watership-Down-the-duncanlovr-club-13678772-1024-768The following is a small group reflection for our church-planting team:

Richard Adam’s beloved novel, Watership Down, tells the story of a warren of rabbits setting out to make their home in a new place.

That’s right, I’m telling you a story about a story about rabbits.

Bear with me.

Fiver, a small, nervous rabbit, develops what can only be called a messianic intuition, convinced by a hunch that something dreadful is about to befall their Sandleford warren.

Fiver confides his fear to his brother, Hazel, and together they attempt to warn the elder Chief Rabbit, Threarah. Their ministrations prove unsuccessful, and Fiver and Hazel are dismissed as doomsayers.

Marginalized for their belief, the brother rabbits decide to leave their warren. They are joined in their journey by other rabbits like: Dandelion, Pipkin, Hawbit, Blackberry, Buckthorn, Speedwell, Acorn, Bigwig, and Silver.

As the group departs, their former home is destroyed under a housing developer’s bulldozer.

They set out to make the long journey to what will be the new location for their community: Watership Down. Along the way, the group of rabbits encounter challenges rabbits seldom encounter. They must cross a stream, navigate an open road, sneak through a fox-infested bean field.

Never having made a community in a new location, their challenges go against the grain  of everything rabbits know about being rabbits. They long to stop running, to dig deep down into the earth and stay in one place.

How do the rabbits tackle the obstacles and challenges in their path?

The answer turns out to be a surprising one.

The one thing that unites the rabbits and fills them with hope and courage are their stories- the stories their parents told them, the stories of their past, the stories about their forebears.

[What stories did you learn in your family? Growing up, what stories about your family were you taught?]

The rabbits of Adams’ novel tell especially stories of the clever rabbit hero, El- ahrairah.

Yep, the ‘El’ in the hero’s name is neither accidental nor coincidental. This is meant to be a primal, transcendent story.

With fur and floppy ears.

The first story they learned and the first story they tell is the ‘Blessing of El-ahrairah.’ In it, Frith, the god of the rabbits, allocates gifts and attributes to each species. Frith gives cleverness to the foxes, for example, and sight to the cats.

According to the story, El-ahrairah is so distracted with dining, dancing and mating that he misses out on the best gifts so Frith, realizing rabbits will now be at the mercy of other animals, gives El-ahrairah the gift of strong, hind legs.

Frith tells El-ahrairah, “be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed.”

Fiver, Hazel and their community of rabbits hear in such a story their reason for being.

It’s their creation story and their ground of hope.

As they set out to make their lives in a new place, this story reminds them of why they exist at all and how they are to practice and embody that existence.

More than simply “explaining” why rabbits have strong legs, the story illuminates the rabbit’s task in life: to live in the world by trusting their stories and speed.

And each other.

As the rabbits make their journey to their new location, they’re frequently confronted by a challenge and, each time, they stop and seek a way forward by narrating their core stories of El-ahrairah.

The stories remind them of their identity and their purpose.

New places, in other words, point out the importance of old stories.

So not only have I just told you a story about a story about rabbits, I’m now going to tell you that floppy-eared story is actually a bible story.

Yep. A bible story starring rabbits.

Almost 600 years before Jesus was born, Judah’s King Josiah died just as the Babylonian Empire was ascending in power. After a long siege, Babylon finally razed the city of Jerusalem in 587 and topped that destruction with the added humiliation of exiling Israel’s citizens to live in a foreign land.

In a new place.

In that new place, the Jews were allowed to live in their own communities. They were free to build homes, earn a living, practice their own customs and religion.

They just couldn’t return home.

Much like rabbits, making their way in a new place, God’s People turned to their stories.

As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, exiles are driven back to rediscover their most shaping memories and to practice their most critical commitments.

In a new location and the challenges it brings, Brueggemann writes, the stakes are too high. It’s not surprising then that you would turn to the elemental stories to guide your actions and let the unessential fall by the wayside.

As theologian Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Watership Down, observes:

“…all new communities must remind themselves of their origin.

A people are formed by a story which places their history in the texture of the world.

Such stories make the world our home by providing us with the skills to negotiate the dangers in our environment…”

[What scripture story or stories have helped you ‘negotiate’ a particularly challenging moment in your life?]

New communities need to remember their core stories.

Those core stories remind new communities how they’re to negotiate the challenges of their new environment.

You see, a story about rabbits is really a story about God’s People.

It’s a story about the exile.

But it’s a story about any new faith community too.

Having made the long journey to a new location in Babylon, the Jews turned to their stories of ‘journey’ for identity and purpose. The stories of Abraham and Sarah’s journey into an unknown future, of Moses’ long journey in the wilderness, of Joseph’s journey away from home and back again and of Jacob’s journey away from God and back again- in exile those stories reminded Israel what it meant to trust God alone.

Not El-ahrairah but Elohim.

What about us?

Setting off for a new location.

Working to plant a new community.

Facing new challenges.

In Brueggemann’s terms:

What are the most important memories to which we should turn on our journey?

What are the promises given in those memories which we should practice during our journey and even after we’ve arrived?

[Which stories of scripture do you think are essential for our identity and purpose?]

While we don’t have a floppy-eared forebear, we do have Jesus.

The memories to which we turn for identity, purpose and guidance are the stories of Jesus. And the stories about Jesus.

And the promise we should practice- well, the first promise at least- is the promise found in the Church’s very first memory of Jesus.

The “Incarnation.”

Literally, God taking on ‘carne.’

The Holy becoming Meat.

Flesh.

As Paul puts it, quoting an ancient hymn:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Very often the Incarnation is a doctrine employed to ‘prove’ Jesus’ divinity. It’s a dogma that reminds us that ‘this Jesus is really God.’

But like much in theology, the inverse is true too.

The Incarnation is a way of reminding us that ‘Because God is Jesus, Jesus is really human.’

To make it plain: Jesus is how God decides to incarnate what it means to be human.

Jesus is our model for genuine, God-intended-designed-humanness.

Jesus is the prototype.

And here’s the stop-you-in-your-tracks kicker: God was in Jesus, embodying and modeling what it means to be human, a good 30 years before Jesus began his official ministry.

That is, God was in Jesus for 30 years before anyone took notice that Jesus was in any way unique.

That is, God was in Jesus in such ordinary, everyday ways no one noticed that this Jesus was actually God.

Like many things in theology, the inverse is also true.

God was in Jesus in many ordinary, everyday ways that were true even if they escaped people’s official notice.

Allow me an ‘ergo.’

Ergo, God is present in the many ordinary, everyday things we do in Jesus’ name.

[What is one ordinary way you’ve experience God’s presence through another?]

If one of our most elemental memories as Christians is that God was incarnate in and as Christ, then one of the first promises we’re called to practice together:

We promise to be incarnational. 

We pledge to use our ‘flesh’ to convey the love and presence of God in the most ordinary, everyday things we do.

With others. And with ourselves.

You see, according to the logic of incarnation, it’s not that ‘worship’ is where the God stuff happens. Rather, all stuff is where God happens…if we take time to notice and name it. Meetings, small groups, passing out bulletins, welcoming a visitor are all acts- potentially- of worship. A handshake to a newcomer is- potentially- as sacramental as bread and wine.

Incarnation means we treat everyone and everything we do as holy, as receptacles of God’s presence but, even more so, Incarnation means we take Jesus’ way of life as the blueprint for how we are to embody God to, for and with another.

And when you look to what Jesus would do:

You find a willingness to relinquish all desires and interests in the service of others.

You find an openness to go where people are rather than wait for them to come to you.

You find an awareness that the ‘mode’ of ministry is every bit as important as the ministry’s ‘message.’

As Michael Frost outlines it, Incarnational Christianity entails:

 

An active and open sharing of our lives with the community and the invitation to others share their lives with us. Incarnation is the opposite of putting up facades.

An employment of the language and thought forms of those with whom we seek to share Jesus. Jesus used common speech and stories that were accessible to all. He seldom used jargon, technical terms or insider speech. To be incarnational means we presume the presence of outsiders, newcomers and unbelievers.

A preparedness to go to people, not expecting them to come to you. Jesus was unique among ancient rabbis. He didn’t wait for people to come to him. He went out and sought and called followers. To be incarnational is to be invitational in everything we do as Christian community, which of course requires we plan so as to make it easy to invite others.

A confidence that the Gospel can be communicated in ordinary ways, through acts of servanthood, loving relationships and good deeds. Volunteer activities are not means to the ‘real ministry’ of the Church; they are ministry and worship in and of themselves.

Michael Frost clarifies Incarnational Christianity further by stressing how Christians can learn from the success of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls ‘third places.’

Rather than the home or work, third places are those additional spaces in people’s lives where they can easily interact, make friends, discuss issues and develop community.

It’s in third places, says Ray Oldenburg, that we let our guard down and allow people to know us more fully, to share and discuss subjects that truly matter. Starbucks or the traditional British pub are obvious examples of ‘3rd places.’

[What are your 3rd places? Where are you most ‘you?’

What ‘works’ about that 3rd place?]

Needless to say, 3rd places become even more important for Christian communities who do not have a building of their own.

For Christians to be incarnational, Frost argues, they must relearn how to engage others- as Christians- in the 3rd places in their lives. To compartmentalize our faith into something we do in private, in a sanctuary, on a Sunday morning goes against the very essence of incarnation.

Frost also suggests that Incarnational Christianity requires churches to learn from the success of 3rd places in our culture.

 

[Why is it, for example, that a 3rd place like Starbucks is often better than the Church at developing community and connection?]

[Or perhaps a better way of putting the question: what gets in the way of Church being a viable 3rd place for more people?]

 

 

 

 

 

 

jf1Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #4: Biblicism

What Is It?

Okay, so it’s really my own pet peeve and not an official ancient heresy- only because it’s so far removed from how the first Christians thought, believed and read their scripture that it never became an issue.

So then:

Biblicism attributes a supernatural origin to scripture.

The Bible is the direct, unfiltered Word of God.

Ironically, it’s an approach to Christian scripture that has a correlative in how Muslims understand the Qu’ran as containing the very words God dictated to the Prophet.

Scripture then is as free of error, as though it fallen from heaven printed and bound rather than the fruit of prayerful reflection, testimony, oral tradition and a long process of canonization.

Because scripture is the direct, eternal unfiltered Word of God, scripture’s meaning- according to biblicism- is both clear and obvious to the average, individual believer and, more heretically, it’s available to individuals apart from an encounter with the Risen Christ and submission to a community of interpretation and practice.

In other words, if the Bible alone is the Word of God on paper you don’t need the Word made flesh, and if the Bible is the clear Word of God you don’t need a community to tell you how the saints before you heard and embodied that Word.

Who Screwed Up First

While Christian fundamentalists often present this approach as the traditional way of understanding scripture, they do so with a remarkable lack of historical awareness.

Like the other ‘fundamentals’ the literal, inerrancy and infallibility of scripture only arose in late 19th century as the Church combated what it took to be the corrosive effects of the modernist movement.

Interestingly, at the same time some Protestants were making the infallibility of scripture one of the five ‘Fundamentals’ Roman Catholics were taking the similar step of developing the doctrine of papal infallibility.

A longer historical view bears out that biblicism is the outlier within the Christian tradition.

The practice of Midrash in Judaism reveals the great deal of openness, creativity and flexibility with how believers approached Torah, which to Jews’ minds never has but one meaning.

Jesus’ own Midrash (the Sermon on the Mount) and Paul’s (Romans et al) show how the rabbi from Nazareth and the former Pharisee knew that the freedom to reinterpret texts was a cultural norm.

In addition, the Church Fathers’ voluminous writings illustrate how the first Christians read scripture not literally but allegorically even while ‘literally’ accepting certain faith propositions.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you believe that every word of scripture is the literal, inerrant Word of God and thus you flatten the whole of scripture, making every word just as important and authoritative as any other, you’re Exhibit A in the case against biblicism.

Your heresy now makes the purity of codes of Leviticus logically equivalent in importance to the Sermon on the Mount. Your heresy makes God’s instructions to the take the holy land by bloodshed as critical and as revealing of God’s eternal character as Christ’s non-violent love unto the Cross.

If you flatten the the narrative arc of scripture and makes it all of equal import, losing the plot by turning narrative into a collection of equally authoritative precepts and principles, teachings and codes, instead of diverse, polyvalent testimony to the saving love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, then you might self-identify as a bible-believing Christian but the Church Fathers would finger you as a heretical Christian.

Intentionally or not, you’re holding onto the bible to keep Jesus at arm’s length.

If you demand that your nation or culture or church hold on to antiquated prejudices, faulty scientific assumptions or an untenable worldview simply because every word of scripture is infallible, then you are a good example of how biblicism is hardly a harmless heresy.

Because you force your fellow Christians in to a kind of cognitive dissonance where we must ignore or disavow what we learn in the natural world should our learning seem at odds with scripture, as though God lies to us because God’s truth is only to be found in scripture.

Your literalistic rendering of the creation story forces fellow Christians either to dismiss evolutionary theory or prehistoric life.

Your literalistic interpretation of Revelation and the eschaton allows fellow Christians to dismiss stewardship of the environment or the danger of climate change.

Your heretical grip on scripture’s infallibility can also lock your fellow Christians into defending or perpetuating the social mores of the cultural context in which scripture was first recorded, holding on so tight to the past we forget to look for what the Spirit is doing today. You’re so determined to repeat what God said that you forget to use what God said in order to recognize what God is saying. Now.

If you say that ‘the Bible said it and that’s good enough for me’ then you’re a heretic who believes that scripture is an unmediated revelation, requiring not the testimony of faithful witnesses, before you and around you.

And while you might think you’re protecting scripture from the acids of the modern world, you do so at the expense of any role for God’s People. Rather than the Word of God being mediated through the testimony of God’s People, and hence being inherently relational, you make it authoritarian text. You make scripture something to which we must conform more so than something which invites us into a transformative relationship.

You’re a biblicist who’s forgotten that our scripture, like our Lord, is incarnational- both divine and human.

That said,

If you treat scripture purely as an historical document, if you ignore the confessional intent of scripture in order to get at ‘what really happened’ or ‘who was the real Jesus of history’ then you’ve swallowed the biblicists’ bait, bought into their game, and are making the very same mistakes as them.

You think you can unpack the written word apart from the Risen Word and his Body, the Church.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

Reza Aslan

Protestants

Muslims

John Shelby Spong

Evangelicals

James Dobson

The Religious Right

Fundamentalists

The Media

Remedies

Tear up a Bible or throw one down on the ground, stand on it, wait for lightening to strike and when it doesn’t remind yourself: ‘I worship Jesus Christ, the Word of God, not the Bible.’

Read just 2 Gospels straight through. Notice the discrepancies. Feel your doctrine slip away. Notice how the presence of Christ abides.

Celebrate Easter early without the New Testament, just like the first Christians managed to do.

Make friends with a Catholic, Orthodox Christian or Jew.

Read Karl Barth’s treatment of the 3 Fold Word of God and give thanks.

 

help_my_unbelief-1One of my threadbare laments is how my particular peculiar vocation places me on par with the drunk uncle at most social (meaning secular) functions.

Like cocktail parties, children’s birthday parties and wedding receptions.

Like the drunk uncle, most everyone’s fine with my presence there and certainly no one has the stones to ask me to leave, but nearly everyone is happier to have the preacher off in the corner where he will cause minimal embarrassment and not make the guests feel uncomfortable.

A healthy part of the discomfort, I think, is that most unchurched people presume a preacher can only talk about God.

Routine banter about politics, for example, will lead inexorably to the A or the H words, leaving polite conversation far behind.

Talk of sports will provoke inane analogies to carrying crosses and any lull in the conversation might let a foot in the door for the pastor’s church membership timeshare pitch.

But more so than any of those reasons, I think a good number of people, churched or not, assume pastors are people with 100 Proof faith.

No uncertainties. No struggles. No questions.

No nagging doubts that, like a too small blanket, refuse to wrap you up snuggly from head to toe.

Unlike them.

Of course, the assumption that pastors are people without doubts is complete crap. Just like my mechanic knows better than me what’s likely to break next in my car, pastors spend day after day negotiating the particulars of this faith and we know, better than most, how fragile is the foundation.

I mentioned in my sermon for this weekend:

“being a pastor, I’ve heard all the reasons not to believe before and, as a Christian, I struggle with all of them myself.” 

I thought it an innocuous line, but it yielded me 3 queries in the line of worshippers leaving church and 4 other rapid response emails.

They all wanted to know what it is I struggle to believe.

What questions to which I’m still seeking answers.

And what doubts make my faith remain like a too-small blanket.

Fair enough. I brought it up, and since I’m enough of a Calvinist to think the pulpit isn’t the most appropriate place to explore doubts (it’s a place to proclaim the Gospel) I can at least give space to such questions here.

Struggle/Doubt/Question #10: Scripture

As a preacher, scripture is a constant companion in my life.

Actually, scripture is more like the college suite-mate that your best friend invited along to share the apartment.

Sometimes you get along with them grand.

Sometimes, when it’s the two of you, there’s just nothing they’ve got to say to you.

Other times you want to throw them through the window because they refuse to do their share of the chores.

Because I work so much with scripture, my struggles/doubts/questions aren’t what you might expect.

I don’t struggle with whether or not scripture is the Word of God. Search ‘Word of God’ on this blog and you can read why (clue: Jesus is the Word of God). I recognize but don’t lose sleep over scripture’s antiquated or gringe-inducing sections.

No, my struggles/doubts/questions about scripture are summed up excellently by a comment ‘Tracy’ left to a post:

...The Bible itself is contradictory, and silent on some topics. 

On most really interesting subjects, we can quote scripture to arrive at completely different answers.

In other words, the bible seems more complicating than clarifying, much of the time.

 

‘Tracy’ didn’t say so but he/she could’ve pointed out how any scroll through Facebook will show how ‘sincere’ Christians use scripture to buttress diametrically opposed positions, perspectives and politics.

‘Tracy’ didn’t ask it but I will: one wonders how often Christians use scripture to reinforce arguments they would’ve made had they never met Jesus?

‘Tracy’ didn’t bring it home, but I will: how often do I ‘use’ scripture to decorate a decision I’ve already long since, even if subconsciously, made?

And that’s my pastor’s nagging question.

As a preacher, I know better than most how malleable the biblical text can be with the right exegesis and just enough rhetorical flair.

When so many other followers of Jesus Christ hear something quite different in a given text, how do we know what we’re hearing in the text is the Word of God?

How do we know we’re not just hearing ourselves in a subconscious, but loud, voice?

And, ‘Tracy’ might take it a step further, if we’re unsure of what God is speaking, upon what grounds can we definitively say God ever spoke?

 

14luhrmann-art-articleLargeKarl Barth believed all of Christian belief is premised on three little words at the Bible’s beginning: ‘…and God said.’ 

Ours, Will Willimon likes to say, is a loquacious God.

He calls Abraham. He puts words on the lips of prophets. It’s his word, scripture says, that was with God in the very beginning and it’s the Word that kicks in Mary’s pregnant belly.

We can only speak of God because God has spoken.

If God had not spoken, then we could say nothing about God- even if God still existed, we should remain silent.

Our words could never hope to capture even a hint of truth about God had God not spoken.

But because God has spoken our speech about God does correspond to something real and objective.

Our knowledge of God is knowledge of God, and not of ourselves, because God acts, God speaks, and God enables us to hear and to receive.

This is the lynchpin of Christianity for Barth, not the resurrection or the incarnation or the atonement. It’s whether or not ‘…and God said…’ is true. If God didn’t speak, then everything else collapses like a house of cards.

‘…and God said…’ is the lynchpin of contemporary skepticism too. 

Consider this excerpt from T.M. Luhrmann’s editorial in the NY Times about evangelicals’ experience of God in prayer. She’s an anthropologist, who recently released a book, When God Talks Back, on the same subject.

I soon came to realize that one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.

One way to see this is that the books teaching someone how to pray read a lot like cognitive behavior therapy manuals. For instance, the Rev. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” one of the best-selling books of all time, teaches you to identify your self-critical, self-demeaning thoughts, to interrupt them and recognize them as mistaken, and to replace them with different thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapists often ask their patients to write down the critical, debilitating thoughts that make their lives so difficult, and to practice using different ones. That is more or less what Warren invites readers to do. He spells out thoughts he thinks his readers have but don’t want, and then asks them to consider themselves from God’s point of view: not as the inadequate people they feel themselves to be, but as loved, as relevant and as having purpose.

Granted she’s an anthropologist so this is the angle you’d expect her to take (and I share her assessment of The Purpose Driven Life), but notice: her initial presumptions are:

A) God doesn’t actually speak and

B) Religious experience originates not in God but in us. 

This is exactly what Barth is trying to say no to in his heavy-footed, dense, wordy way.

Barth would say no to T.M. Luhrmann who can’t imagine that ‘and God said…’ could true.

Myers Karl Barth painting 1But Barth would also say no to Rick Warren et al who imagine God can be reliably/predictably called upon and experienced.

For Barth, just as the words of scripture aren’t the word of God until God chooses, in freedom, to make them so, our experience of God is also dependent on God’s freedom to act or not act upon us.

Sometimes, you go to God in prayer and God is silent.

Not there.

Dark nights of the soul happen.

This has to be the case for Barth because God is never under our control, not in the pages of scripture and certainly not in our religious experience.

And, Barth would caution, just as in scripture we enter ‘a strange new world’ not like our own, when God enters our experience and self-knowledge- through prayer- it’s equally strange.

Back to Luhrmann:

In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them.

Barth would respond to this by opening up a great, big can of NEIN.

Nein: prayer isn’t a back-and-forth conversation with a therapist who’s always in his office, waiting for you.

For Barth, God is more like Jacob on Lost, sometimes he’s there.

And sometimes he’s elsewhere.

But he’s always worth searching after.

Barth would say, nein: if the God you experience in prayer is like the one above, a benign therapist, it’s a god you’ve created in your image- it’s not the God who created you in his image.

Only the God who sometimes doesn’t speak back to you in prayer is the real God. Only the God who sometimes scares, startles, upsets and judges you with what you hear is the God of the Bible.

Barth for Dummies Summary:

The Bible is not a magic genie lamp. 

Prayer is not a magic genie lamp. 

God is free to act- or not- as God wills. 

Were it not so, prayer would cease to be an act of faith on our part.

And it would cease to be grace, an unmerited gift, on God’s part. 

And when God does act in our lives, just like in the bible, what God wills seldom corresponds to what we want. 

 

 

 

barth_1_3

“The equation of God’s Word and God’s Son makes it radically impossible to say anything doctrinaire in understanding the Word of God…[Scripture is not] a fixed sum of revealed propositions which can be systematized like sections of a corpus of law” (CD, 135).

Monday I posted a Barthian response to what I considered John Piper’s inane and antiquated exegesis of 1 Timothy 2’s stipulation against Christian women teaching Christian men. You can read that post here.

Judging from my Inbox, John Piper has fans out there and across everywhere.

Lots of fans, judging from the emails in my inbox, all of which subjected me to a rhetorical spanking.

That’s fine. I dish out. I can take it too.

One email, after taking me to task for being ‘offensive and crude,’ ‘insulting,’ ‘disrespectful to a fellow Christian’ and ‘irresponsible’ for thinking the word ‘johnson’ is appropriate vocabulary for a pastor. 

The email concluded by asking:

‘I thought Karl Barth had a high view of scripture?’

For starters, I don’t accept the premise that Barth’s 3-Fold Form of the Word of God constitutes a ‘low view’ of scripture. The doctrine of a literal, infallible Bible is a modern, 19th century doctrine- only a generation older than Barth himself. Biblical infallibility, therefore, should neither be allowed to drive the bus of biblical interpretation nor should it be permitted to stake out what we mean by ‘high view of scripture.’

While refusing to accept the premise, I think a better way to respond to the question is to say that Barth’s (high) view of scripture is predicated upon his still higher view of Jesus Christ as the One Word of God. 

For Barth, the manner in which God reveals God’s self in Jesus Christ is the pattern by which God reveals God’s self in the Word written (scripture) and proclaimed (preaching). And that manner of revelation, according to Barth, is characterized primarily by paradox; that is, God reveals God’s self in such a way that even in this revealedness God remains hidden in weakness.

This ‘paradox’ Barth hints at is what we call Christmas.

The incarnation.

God’s absolute, perfect, for all time revelation of himself happens in, with and under the ‘veil’ of imperfect, finite human nature.

So then, if this is how God reveals the One Word of God, Jesus Christ, to us then it follows for Barth that the other two forms of the Word of God adhere to this paradoxical pattern. 1101620420_400

God’s Word in scripture and proclamation comes to us by way of imperfect, finite, sometimes inadequate human words and testimony.

For Barth, this is the true ‘miracle’ of the Word of God. It requires the grace of God ‘to take flesh’ each and every time scripture is read or proclaimed. Each and every time, says Barth, the miracle of the incarnation gets repeated anew.

And, Barth’s view, this is precisely the flaw in the sort of lawbook literalism exercised by folks like John Piper.

Literalism denies this miracle of the Word of God, this paradox of God being revealed in the flesh.

It denies that God, in the present, uses weak and errant human words to become God’s Word.

Instead, argues Barth, biblical literalists shift the miracle elsewhere, positing “a sinless, flawless text.”

Barth scholar, Trevor Hart, suggests this mistaken shift in miracles is akin to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary whereby the Word of God (Christ) can’t possibly be revealed to us through sinful humanity.

His mother, Mary, so goes the doctrine, must have been herself free of sin. She must have been ‘immaculately conceived.’

Analogously, literalists can’t possibly believe that God can use flawed, partial human testimony to speak his Word. God’s Word, so goes the doctrine, must be free of sin.

Meaning, us.

The scandal of Jesus Christ, however, is the selfsame scandal of the Word of God.

God comes to us, veiled in the weakness of humanity.

And the Word of God comes to us veiled by human words.

It only becomes revelation by God’s making it so.

For Barth, the Bible, then, is not a little like the bread we break in the Eucharist.

No one would argue that the bread is already in and of itself a sharing in Christ’s Body. And only Roman Catholics would argue that our ministrations can make it so- there’s no reliable, magical formula.

No, the real presence of the Word in bread or in human words cannot be guaranteed or coerced.

It can only be prayed for and received in faith. 

Back to Piper.

It’s not that I advocate picking and choosing which scriptures we’ll deem authoritative and which we’ll toss in the garbage.

Rather, if Barth’s right and the BIble is less like a lawbook and more like the elements in the Eucharist, then what God said (to Timothy) need not necessarily be what God says today to us.

The God who spoke, Barth believes, has the power to speak, using the very same words of scripture, a different Word today.

And that, I admit, is an answer that only begets more questions.

Questions whose responses will have to wait another day.