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With The Donald in the White House provoking moral outrage and righteous indignation in degrees that are both justified and knee-jerk partisan, I hear a lot of my clergy colleagues talking about how they plan to be prophetic in the pulpit.

Listeners to our podcast, particularly our Fridays with Fleming episodes, will know this to be a horse I’ve beaten to Walking Dead level evisceration, but, nonetheless, the fervor of the cultural moment demands repetition.

Stanley Hauerwas says when Methodists use the word ‘grace’ they have no idea what they’re talking about.

The word suffers from overuse (especially among pastors who like to think their battles with stubborn, unenlightened, wayward laity are somehow analogous with John the Baptist’s ministry).

The same could be said for the word ‘prophetic’ when it comes to preachers and their preaching.

Before The Donald provoked outrage at an hourly tweeted rate, in my own Christian tribe, United Methodism, I most often heard ‘the need to be prophetic’ in relation to the tradition’s language about sexuality.

Too many preachers, and I count myself among them, have felt the burden or compulsion to be prophetic in their preaching role.

So common is this compulsion it’s curious that those who God has actually called to be prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos et al) comprise a relatively small- and unpensioned- group of the human community.

If theology should be done on the slant from the pulpit, then I think prophetic preaching should be done on an even slighter slant.

The prophetic should be used sparingly in the pulpit, if at all.

The danger of confusing the preacher’s own hubris with God’s will is too great.

So is the danger of giving a particular issue greater attention than is warranted.

As is the risk of inflaming your congregation unnecessarily.

Very often, what seems to necessitate prophetic preaching in the moment recedes in urgency with the passage of time.

Just as often, the rough, unspoken translation of ‘being prophetic’ actually means ‘My congregation isn’t as theologically sophisticated as me.’

Still more often, preachers claim the mantle of ‘being prophetic’ when, in reality, they’re wrapping themselves in the red and blue dross of the Democratic or Republican parties.

Rather than a word received from the Lord and offered only grudgingly, it becomes a word derived from the preacher’s own worldview, which he or she is more than eager to put forward.

Back to Hauerwas (and I suppose Karl Barth): in a world that knows not God, the most prophetic thing we can do as Christians is to gather together in worship of God, to hear the Word read and proclaimed, and to be sent out in loyalty to a homeless, dead Jew we proclaim as raised from the dead. Our Risen Lord who resides on neither Penn Ave nor Wall Street.

In confusing ‘being prophetic’ for simply being political, we preachers forget that our confession of the Lordship of Christ is already and ultimately a political act more interesting than anything followed by a #resist hashtag. And because Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, it’s a more impactful political act as well.

It’s more real.

Back to Barth again, here’s the crux of the prophetic problem –

 The very grammar of choosing to be prophetic is to misspeak the language we call Christian.

The posture of prophetic conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense, rendering God passive (or dead) and the preacher the only active agent. 

Contrary to the pretense at “prophetic preaching” scripture is not a sourcebook but is a living witness. It’s not an inanimate object but is the means through which Christ elects to speak. Scripture is not the word of God, bound in the past; scripture is the medium by which Jesus Christ, the Word of God, reveals himself.

To say that God is at work in the world is to say, for Christians,                       the Word of God is at work in the world.

Jesus Christ, as the Risen Living Lord, is the agent of revelation NOT the object of revelation. The Risen Christ is the Revealer not what is revealed. As followers of a Risen, Living Lord we as preachers can never *choose* to be prophetic. Rather, we can only find ourselves, by way of hindsight, to have been chosen by the Word of God, the Risen Christ to be used in a prophetic manner.

To say ‘I’m going to be prophetic this Sunday’ is to say, knowingly or not, that the Word is not Risen and the Living(?) God no longer elects to speak in freedom.

We can never choose to be prophetic, even for the most faithful of intentions, because the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is alive, encountering us, calling us, transforming us, and choosing to speak.

Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ upon which we can pitch our partisan tent. Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us and from which the Risen Word elects to speak to us today. You can’t ‘choose’ to be prophetic in the pulpit. You can only see in hindsight and,  like Jeremiah, lament that God has so used you.

13267779_1598247963837157_8683614937225097742_nHere’s the second half of our most recent conversation with guest Fleming Rutledge, author of The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.

 

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteFleming Rutledge, if you don’t know her, is the best damn preacher in the English language. It’s most appropriate that she should be guest who breaks the Crackers and Grape Juice glass ceiling.  I’ve often been accused (by my wife) of having crushes on older women. I dunno…but in Fleming’s case? Hello, darkness my old friend…

Fleming recently published a magisterial book on the cross, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  I believe its the sort of book that every preacher must read and every lay person should read, both, if they do, will find themselves not only grateful but emboldened.

Teer and I enjoyed a long conversation with Fleming about preaching, the satan, what makes for a ‘good’ sermon, and inclusivity. Here’s the first part our conversation with her.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

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karl_barthDuring Lent, as many of my professional Christian colleagues were forsaking sugar, shots, and selfies, I was instead taking on an additional discipleship discipline:

Reading Karl Barth’s Dogmatics.

After a year of stage-serious cancer, I shouldn’t have to give up shit for Lent, for I’d already suffered longer than Jesus did in the wilderness. I theologized. Plus,  reading Barth is not penitential at all.

Last week, on a whim, I brandished my reacquaintence with Barth against that most cherished of United Methodist idols, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. Through a Barthian lens, I suggested that the Quadrilateral inevitably conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense and that, according to Barth, Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ. Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us today.

But, from Barth’s perspective, that’s hardly the only problem with the Quadrilateral that we attribute to Wesley. Saying, as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral does, that the Word of God can be illumined by our Tradition, Reason, and Experience suggests that Scripture’s address to us is lying there in the text, waiting, for us.

Not only does this construe Scripture as the texts in which God once spoke rather than the medium by which God speaks today, it falsely promises that God’s Word will be heard in Scripture so long as we approach it with faithfully our Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

Or, to put it differently, Experience, Reason, and Tradition are the means by which we get God to speak to us through Scripture.

For Barth, though, Revelation by its very nature- no matter how many prayers for illumination we utter- cannot be guaranteed precisely because Christ is Risen.

God is not dead, and Jesus is a Living Lord; therefor, the Word of God is no less free today than in the pages of scripture. Just as with Hannah and Sarai, just as in Mary’s womb or Christ’s empty tomb, God is always free to surprise and reveal in ways we’re not expecting and, in this case, God is free NOT to reveal in ways we’re expecting.

God is free to show up, as to Moses at the Burning Bush, and God is free not to show up, as in the 400 years preceding the Burning Bush.

It’s no accident that when God condescends to us in the logos, Jesus Christ, we push him out of the world on a cross. The Word of God intrudes upon our world, as almost a kind of violence, and so is not tied to it. It cannot be calendared or calibrated for it never ceases to be grace, a gift we can neither earn nor expect.

Too often the Wesley Quadrilateral implies that revelation is latent within the text of scripture and that our use of Reason, Experience, and Tradition are the keys by which we unlock it. Barth however insists that the God we find pursuing us in scripture is self-objectifying. God seeks after us; we cannot seek after God- any god we discover in our seeking is not God but a god. There’s no such Christian thing, in a Barthian sense, as a Seeker Service. All of us are only and always the sought.

To say God is self-objectifying is to assert, against so much of our liturgical assumptions, that God wills at specific times to be the object of our speech, eating, and prayer, but other times God wills not to be our object, which means a more proper response to scripture in worship is to say: ‘This is the Word of God for the People of God. We pray. Thanks be to God.’

Likewise, the great thanksgiving is not a magic incantation recited by a shaman that guarantees God’s presence in the eucharist. The Holy Spirit is invited to pour out upon the table; the Holy Spirit is not compelled to condescend. The Great Thanksgiving and the Prayer for Illumination are just that, prayers, pleadings, petitions for God to reveal God’s self. They are not methods but practices of faith. Hope and trust.

For Barth, we cannot approach, apprehend, know, or even believe in this God through any means other than God’s own present and ongoing revelation. God must elect to come to us in our speech and bread, as in Mary’s womb it is no less in the pulpit or at the table. God doesn’t always elect to reveal himself to us for when God does reveal it is always necessarily a miracle.

I suppose some might see in this bad news, that revelation isn’t 100% fool-proof predictable, but I think Barth would point out that good news of this free, electing, self-objectifying God is so much better; namely, that God does not consider it beneath God to rest on the lips and in the hands of creatures, like us, of such low estate. 

Portrait Karl Barth§23.1

If nothing else, Karl Barth provides a needful salve for the Christian blogosphere.

The sheer breadth and length of Barth’s Dogmatics could fool you. Despite how much hot air Barth devotes to theology, Barth believes theology’s primary task is to listen.

Listening, for Barth, entails the Church standing as subject under the word which testifies to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. But for Barth, this ‘listening’ is not like listening to the Nixon tapes or to a Taylor Swift mp3. Because the word witnesses to the Living Word, ‘listening’ to what God speaks through scripture is always a listening afresh. Ironically, Barth argues that treating scripture as the words God said (versus the words God uses to say) inescapably risks wandering from God’s word.

Those most beholden to a wooden doctrine of scripture as the (once-for-all) Word of God are those most vulnerable to straying from the word God speaks through scripture today.

§23.1 of the CD in a nutshell:

God speaks in Christ the Logos and the word of scripture which testifies to the Logos,  but God speaks still in the word that is the proclamation of the Logos in Church.

That’s Barth’s 3-Fold Form of the Word of God, still a cure for whatever form of conservative or liberal fundamentalism may afflict your faith.

Nevertheless, a part of me (the Thomistic, Wesleyan part) recoils at the way Barth so thoroughly equates obedience to the Word with right speech and right doctrine about God. What’s been a persistent note throughout volume 1 of the CD here becomes a more obvious and dominant theme in §23.1 as Barth turns to the mode of ‘listening.’

Barth goes all in with dogma here:

“the existence of an orderly Church dogmatics is the unfailingly effective and only possible instrument of peace in the church.”

I suspect the equivalency Barth draws between obedience to the Word and right dogmatics about God is why my commitment to re-reading the CD has foundered of late. As opposed to the witness of his life, there’s no sense in this volume of the CD that obedience to the Word entails doing as much as it does dogma.

So maybe Barth’s riff on ‘listening’ here isn’t what the Christian blogosphere- or the Western Church in general- needs to hear at all. Because…

Christians in the West- blue or red, liberal or conservative- are in absolutely zero danger of being regarded as sufficiently zealous for their dogma.

Too many Christians today equate discipleship with possessing the ‘faithful’ position on a given issue. For the most part Christians are known for what or who they’re against- or what or who they’re for- either of which are largely declarations of doctrine and not reflections upon Christian doing.

So maybe Barth’s riff on ‘listening’ here isn’t what the Christian blogosphere- or the Western Church in general- needs to hear because, the truth is, we’re so bad at listening to others.

And each other.

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As much as I flinch at the way Barth likens listening to God with right dogma about God, §23.1 has gotten me thinking.

The first centuries of the Church were given to establishing the bounds of correct Christian belief, and for understandable reasons. The ancient Church’s discernment has bequeathed us the creeds, which provide us the contours of ‘orthodoxy.’ The ancient Church’s resultant debates have identified for us heresies, those beliefs which fall beyond our right praise of God.

But the creeds reflect the time and place and uncertainties of the Church which gave them to us.

Is Christ God or man?

Is God One or three?

From whom does the Spirit come?

Reading §23.1 I can’t help but think-

We who are so good at dogma about Jesus but so bad at doing like Jesus could use a creed for our time and place.

One that defines ortho-praxy with the same degree of precision as the Nicene creed unpacks the immanent Trinity.

We could use a new creed that could help us, who are so preoccupied with policing beliefs, name heresies of Christian action with the same sort of specificity the Donatist heresy spelled out wrong belief.

What would an ortho-praxis creed for our place and time and uncertainty look like?

‘….we believe an ungenerous person is not really a Christ-follower…’

What about someone who never actually prays? Or refuses to forgive their ex? Or give up their racism? Can one support state-sponsored execution and still be said to worship the state-executed Jesus? What of sex? Drones? The unborn? War?

Is everything sans ‘belief’ in Christ just up for grabs, left to be shaded according to one’s personal political hue?

barth-1

What would it look like if the same sort of consensus on praxis was demanded across Christ’s Body that was once demanded on dogma?

Yes, it would take long to hammer out such consensus- it did then.

Yes, it would be painful and costly- it was then.

After all, if Barth’s right, if those beholden to a God spoke in the past perspective risk straying from God’s Living Word, then those of us who don’t think our new place and time and uncertainty might require a new kind of creed risk the very same thing.

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.

II. Witness

12. Is the Bible our only authority? 

Of course not.

Jesus Christ, the fullness of God made flesh, who reigns the Earth from the right hand of the Father, is our sole authority.

Jesus is Lord not the Bible nor our imperfect interpretation of it.

The Bible is our primary witness to Christ, but even the Bible’s witness is mediated to us by the witness of the saints and our own experience of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world- the gift of the world itself speaks to the sheer gratuity of God.

And because all truth is God’s truth, our reason and apprehension of the created world elaborate upon (and sometimes correct) the witness to God we find in the Bible.

‘Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’

– Acts 2.36

13. Are the Bible’s words about God accurate?

Not inherently, no.

The words of scripture are human words, the same words we use to describe ordinary objects like bears, coffee and computer keys. The words themselves possess no inherent capacity to speak of God.

The fullness and meaning of the Word, Jesus Christ, cannot be mined by any number of human words; therefore, scripture cannot be understood as a fixed archive of truths about God as though faithful description of God is reducible to regurgitation of scripture.

Indeed, as the creed’s reliance on the term ‘substance’ makes clear, faithful witness to God may require words that go beyond the language of scripture.

Within the language of scripture itself, the words do not all testify to God in the same way. As St Thomas notes, words like ‘rock’ or a ‘warrior’ can describe God only metaphorically while words like ‘good’ and ‘love’ can be taken literally if analogously.

“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” – John 21.25

14. Do Christians who read scripture grasp God better than non-Christians who do not read scripture?

Never.

Sorry.

God is transcendent, the reason there is something instead of nothing, Being itself not a being within the universe. Scripture does not render God any less transcendent nor does scripture rein God in to the universe of knowable objects.

So scripture does not provide us with a schema by which the transcendent God becomes comprehensible.

Because God, by definition, remains unknowable to creatures- known only insofar as he makes himself known- there is no ground on which Christians can claim to grasp God’s essence any better than non-Christians.

Rather, what makes Christians different from non-Christians is that Christians know how, apart from grace, nothing they confess of God can be true, and that even where Christians succeed, by grace, in confessing the truth about God they can never know how it is true.

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

-Matthew 7.21

rainbow-cross_aprilQuestion:

If the woman caught in adultery got caught again, would Jesus this time say ‘stone her?’

The other day I posted a tongue-in-cheek, redacted version of John 8, the passage where the Pharisees haul an adulteress up the Mt of Olives to Jesus.

Pointing out how the bible clearly mandates that this woman be stoned to death for her sin, they ask Jesus for his judgment.

Jesus responds with the brilliant but now cliched parry ‘whoever is without sin cast the first stone’ and, seeing no one left to condemn her but himself (who is indeed without sin) Jesus tells her ‘I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.’

Now my intent in the original post was to point out how I think conservatives read scripture in such a way that mutes the revelation of Christ, particularly when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. Emphasizing the bible’s language of sin, holiness, judgment and wrath on the subject they inadvertently (or not, perhaps) obscure the revelation of God in Christ, for here in John 8 is but another instance of Jesus, when faced with the clear, black and white command of scripture, choosing mercy.

For the post last week, I received the expected amount of pushback, including several breathless emails desiring to enlighten me to the fact that Jesus does conclude their exchange by telling her ‘Go and sin no more.’

He wasn’t giving her carte blanche to keep on committing sin nor was he declaring sin no longer to be sin.

Said one respondent: ‘Jesus chooses to show he can be merciful in this instance but sin is still sin and God is still holy.’

In other words, Jesus’ opting for mercy not sacrifice in this episode does not negate the command of scripture nor does it-evidently- reveal God’s holiness.

Said another, in what I take to be an unintentionally revealing comment: ‘Jesus tells her to go and sin no more. It’s not as if Jesus would keep on forgiving her if she remains in sin. That would be cheap grace.’

Translation: If they catch her again in her sin, she’s a goner.

All cheek aside, I think that begets a fair (and fairly significant) question.

If the Pharisees caught this woman again in adultery a few months later and again brought her to Jesus, how do you think Jesus would respond the second time?

Or, let’s say, the fifth time?

Do you think Jesus would say to the Pharisees ‘You’re right guys. The bible’s black and white on this. Stone her. Since I’m without sin, I’ll throw the first one?’

Do you believe Jesus would say to the sinner ‘I showed you mercy and told you to sin no more but because you’ve continued sinning and because I’m holy…?’

Doesn’t jive with the Jesus story does it?

To read the bible in such a way that your logic would have Jesus casting stones is biblicism not Christianity. It privileges scriptures over and against the revelation in Christ.

Biblicism, not so ironically, turns Jesus into a Pharisee.

You can draw out the contrast by asking a more general question:

Are passages like John 8 just revealing episodes on Jesus’ way to placate an angry, holy God upon the Cross?

Or do passages like John 8 reveal God?

Is scripture the full revelation of God? Or is Jesus Christ the full revelation of God?

If the former then, whether it jives or not, we’ve got to swallow a logic that eventuates in Jesus casting stones. If the latter then we can confess that the identity of God is revealed more fully in this refusal to condemn a sinner on the Mt of Olives than to Moses on Mt Sinai.

Insisting on the latter doesn’t make me a Marcionite. It makes me a reader of the New Testament, of John in particular.

In his first chapter, John frames his Gospel to come with this audacious claim:

‘No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.’

And again, John doubles-down in his first epistle:

‘No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other (as Christ loved) then God remains in us…’

Those aren’t just pious sounding asides- that’s John up-ending the entire way we read the bible because, of course, it’s not true.

According to the bible.

According to the bible, lots of people have seen God.

Adam and Eve and Enoch walked with God. Abraham and Sarah ate with God by the oaks of Mamre. Jacob freaking wrestled God on the shores of the Jabbok.

Moses saw God in a burning bush.

And Moses saw God again later on top of Sinai where he received from God that very law (and the 632 others) which commanded that woman on the Mt of Olives be stoned to death.

Moses encounter with God on Sinai was such that Moses’ face was left shiny and glimmering. Moses wasn’t alone up there either. Scripture says 70 Elders of Israel ate with Moses and God atop Sinai so they saw God too.

So did the prophet Isaiah in year a king Uzziah died; he saw God enthroned in the Temple.

Daniel, meanwhile, in his vision of the Son of Man saw the throne room of heaven, which is but a reverent way of saying he’d seen God, and Ezekiel’s long book of prophecy begins with a God sighting.

The Old Testament is replete with patriarchs and prophets seeing God so what could John possibly mean by (falsely) asserting that no one has ever seen God?

He means Jesus, not scripture, is the full revelation of God. Jesus is the one in whom we believe. The words, work and witness of Jesus are not secondary or subsidiary to scripture; rather, scripture must now be read in submission to Christ.

If we want to know what God’s holiness looks like, we look to Jesus.

If we want to know how God judges sinners, we look to his suffering because of them and listen to him say ‘…forgive them…for they know not…’

If we want to know how God feels about war and violence, we look to the sermon on the mount.

And if we want to know how God treats sexual sin, we go up to the Mt of Olives and listen to this exchange with a woman caught in adultery because God is more fully revealed in that moment than God was in giving of the law which condemns her.

‘No one has ever seen God. God the only Son…has made God known.’

Translation: Jesus is what God has to say.

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.

II. Witness

8. How Do I Read the Bible?

The bible should not be treated as a talisman as though it will yield any answer to any question we might ask.

Scripture does not ask us to treat it as a magical object. It does not call for our passive reverence; scripture expects our engagement. With that mind, I offer some guidelines for you to consider when reading a given text:

1. Scripture should be interpreted in light of its historical and cultural context.

This is where an annotated, academic bible can transform your reading of scripture. Knowing the original context of a given passage not only can open up that text to new and fresh hearings it can also prevent uninformed, personal interpretations that are wide off the mark of the text’s original intent.

2. Scripture should not be bound by its original context either.

If, as we believe, God’s Spirit can use the testimony of the past to speak a fresh Word to us, then knowing the original context can help us sort out right and wrong interpretations but it does not limit our interpretations. That is, what Paul said is not necessarily what Paul says to us to day.

3. Scripture should be read theocentrically, with God at the center as its primary protagonist.

Maybe this strikes you as obvious, but in our culture today many Christians value scripture only for its utility, for what it says to me. Scripture should necessarily have implications for our lives so long as we realize that it’s not first of all a story about us. The parable of the prodigal son, for example, is primarily an illustration of God’s character; it’s not first an illustration of us. ‘What does this passage say about God?’ is a question that should always precede ‘What does this passage speak to me?’

4. Scripture should be read corporately.

The bible is the story of God’s engagement with God’s chosen People, Israel and the Church. The bible is testimony about God for the community of God; therefore, you can’t truly read the bible rightly apart from God’s People. Reading scripture with others, on Sunday morning or in small groups, is the best way to hear clearly what the Spirit says today to us. Jews and Christians read in company with others, adapting and even submitting our understandings to the understandings of our fellow saints, living and dead.

5. Scripture should be read in light of one’s own context.

This is both a caution and a command. Realize that what you see or hear is determined by where you stand. A poor Mayan woman in Guatemala who’s suffered exploitation and war will hear the Magnificat differently from a white, upper class woman in the United States. Very often the Word both these women will hear will be a true Word for their context.

‘Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path…’ – Psalm 119

9. What Plot Does the Bible Narrate?

The worst thing someone can try to do is read the bible from beginning to end. Rather, each and any piece of scripture should be approached with an eye to the whole and how it fits.

There is a thematic, and theological, unity to scripture.

Scripture is not unlike a symphony in which there is a dominant theme returned to again and again but within the larger piece there are any number of variations.

The same is true of scripture. There is within all the stories a dominant theme:

The creation God declared ‘good’ is distorted by Sin. God is determined to get what God wanted in the very beginning. God calls Israel so that through their friendship and witness God’s creation might be redeemed. This is what the Old Testament is about.

Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to be the 2nd Adam, the New Abraham, for us, and until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the life that is made flesh in Jesus Christ, a life which Easter and Pentecost make possible for us.

And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall webear the image of the heavenly man.’

– 1 Corinthians 15.40

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.

II. Witness

7. Can I Interpret the Bible by Myself at Home?

Don’t be silly.

You quite literally cannot read the bible by yourself.

Scripture, what we call the word of God, is the testimony to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ, and it is the corporate testimony of Israel and the Church.

Just as scripture is the witness of those who’ve come before us, it must be read in light of and in submission to the interpretation of those who’ve come before us, the saints and doctors of the Church.

If one is repelled by the rigidity of biblicism, then reading the bible for how it can enliven and enlighten your own personal faith is an understandable alternative. If one shares the modern presumptions of historicism and thinks things like virgin births just can’t happen, then reading the bible for individual devotional purposes is again an understandable alternative.

Yet reading the bible for ‘what it speaks to me’ is fraught with its dangers.

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, is mediated to us through the testimony of a People.

Scripture is a communal witness and its primary intent is to incorporate us into that Body of witnesses.

So then the sermon on the mount is not first about you as an individual being merciful, it’s about the Church, the community of disciples, being merciful, which only secondarily entails you being merciful.

1 Corinthians 13, where Paul rhapsodizes about love being patient and kind, is not about an individual’s love and the love of a married couple. It’s about the character of the believing community, which secondarily entails your own character.

The Reformation’s notions about the private individual are very modern and very Western assumptions that are by and large alien to the world of the bible. Reading the bible from or for a personal perspective can be appropriate so long as you come to the bible with that understanding.

But stripping scripture away from its communal identity, risks turning it into a talisman we turn to for answers rather than transformation.

What’s more, reading the bible only from the lens of our private devotion also risks spiritualizing or simply missing the essentially political character of much of scripture.

The Hebrew Bible, after all, is the testimony about a God who rescued Israel from oppression and the New Testament is how that God took peasant flesh and ended up executed at the hands of an occupying military power. Those are unavoidably political stories that have implications well beyond the personal life of faith.

“Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’  

– John 18.21

 

The Bible is Not History

Jason Micheli —  September 23, 2014 — 10 Comments

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.

II. Witness

6. Can the Bible be read as history?

I suppose so, but isn’t that boring?

And doesn’t it miss the point?

The Darwinian methods of the 19th century eventually exerted influence on biblical interpretation as well, creating an approach we can call historicism.

Historicism treats scripture purely as an historical document. Faith claims and the confessional intent of scripture are ignored for ‘what really happened.’

Historicism betrays a deeply modern prejudice against the supernatural and the miraculous. In doing so, it exhibits a cynical dismissal of the sophistication of ancient rhetoric- it’s not as if resurrection were any more common or believable in the first century than it is in the twenty-first.

Historicism attempts to rescue scripture from the fantastical elements of a premodern world and to discover the ‘facts’ behind the stories of scripture. For example, we all know the resurrection could not have really happened- so what’s a rational and an historically plausible hypothesis to the real Easter story?

While approaching scripture historically brings to the Church an appreciation for the context behind scripture…

the downside to approaching scripture solely in terms of history is that in trying to get at the story behind the story you miss the Story.

Scripture, after all, isn’t trying to narrate a strictly factual, historical story. It’s attempting to give witness to the saving love of God and convert you to that love.

The Virgin Birth is a helpful story by which to point out the deficiencies of both biblical literalism and historicism.

When it comes to the Virgin Birth, what’s important for biblical literalists is that it really happened. Indeed the Virgin Birth, with the inerrancy of scripture, is one of the Fundamentals. The Virgin Birth is important only to the extent that its necessary to safeguard the infallibility of scripture.

For historicism, what’s important when it comes to the Virgin Birth is the (unimaginative) assumption that it did not happen. A purely historical approach to scripture will then attribute the nativity narrative to an extra-Christian myth attached on to the Jesus story, or it will try to wipe away all the unbelievable, impossible parts of the story and arrive at the nugget of historical fact underneath.

What both approaches miss, it should be obvious, is what on earth Matthew and Luke could have wished to profess about God-in-Christ with the story of the Virgin Birth.

‘Why did Matthew and Luke include this story?’ is a more interesting question from the Church’s point of view because once you ask that question it becomes clear that for the Gospel writers the Virgin Birth is shorthand for Jesus as the start to a New Creation, for in Mary’s womb God once again creates ex nihilo, out of nothing.

“This is the genesis of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…”

– Matthew 1.1

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.

II. Witness

5. What’s Wrong with Reading the Bible Literally?

Biblical literalism attributes a supernatural origin to scripture. The bible, in this view, is the direct, unfiltered Word of God. 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, it is held, is as free of error as had it fallen from heaven printed and bound. This view of scripture is a modern belief, arising only in the late 19th century.

Such an absolute assertion of scripture’s divine origins and textual infallibility provoke several significant problems.

First, positing every word of scripture as the literal, inerrant word of God flattens the whole of scripture, making every word just as important and authoritative as any other. The purity of codes of Leviticus are now logically equivalent in importance to the sermon on the mount, God’s instructions to the take the holy land by bloodshed as critical as Christ’s self-sacrifice.

By flattening scripture and making it all of equal import, the central thread gets lost:

the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Biblicism makes Christian scripture, like the Qu’ran, into a collection of equally authoritative precepts, teachings and codes instead of diverse, polyvalent testimony to the saving love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Second, demanding that every word of scripture be infallible forces the Christian 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. So then a literalistic rendering of the creation story, for example, forces some Christians to dismiss evolutionary theory or prehistoric life.

Gripping onto scripture’s infallibility can also lock Christians into defending or perpetuating the social mores of the cultural context in which scripture was first recorded.

Third, biblical literalism is an unmediated revelation.

Scripture is the Word of God with or without the testimony of faithful witnesses.

While, in the fundamentalist minds, this secures scripture from the acids of the modern world, it does 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, it is instead presented in an authoritarian mode.

Scripture is something to which we must conform; it’s not something which invites us into a transformative relationship.

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

– 2 Timothy 3.16

 

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.

 

test200x250Last week a friend asked me for my thoughts on the ‘Synoptic Problem,’ a phrase used in New Testament studies as shorthand for what could account for both the similarities and dissimilarities between the Gospels Mark, Matthew and Luke, the three Gospels known as the ‘Synoptic Gospels’ for the common narrative they tell. ‘Synoptic Gospels’ is a way of distinguishing Mark, Matthew, and Luke from John, whose narrative is strikingly different.

Scholars speculate that the synoptics all borrowed from an additional gospel source labeled ‘Q’ that was lost to the Church.

Behind all of this conversation is an awareness that the four Gospels are not unified in what they tell about Jesus and how they tell it.

Duh.

Only someone who hasn’t read the Bible would be surprised by that. Even the ancient Church both knew and was untroubled by this fact.

I remember taking my first New Testament class as a freshman at UVA and feeling perplexed that so many (many conservative evangelicals) students were threatened- their faith shaken to the core– by the so-called ‘Synoptic Problem.’

For me, it was one big yawn fest.

350px-Relationship_between_synoptic_gospelsOur text book was an introduction to the NT by Bart Ehrman, who has since gone on to be a hack.

I felt then and do more so know that ideas like the ‘Synoptic Problem’ are only a problem if you have a ‘modern’ notion of the infallibility, inerrancy and divine authorship of scripture.

If, on the other hand, you have a more patristic recognition that the texts of scripture are incarnation (the divine coming to us by way of the human) you’re free to receive the texts as they’re given to us by the historic Church.

NT studies is a legit discipline and one in which I have little interest in so long as it’s driven to get at the ‘text behind the text’ and solve riddles the first recipients of the text seemed little interested to solve.

For me, it’s important that the ancient Church put four different Gospels into the canon, recognizing and accepting a diversity within the Gospel witness and refusing to codifying it into a single narrative.

More importantly for my faith, I’m uninterested/untroubled by things like the ‘Synoptic Problem’ simply because, before there was ever any New Testament texts, Christians were breaking bread and sharing wine with a (High Christology) prayer about/to Jesus, the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord.

I’m not bothered or especially interested in side debates about the Gospels when Paul’s Letter to the Colossians sings of Jesus as being the pre-existent Son of the Trinity before the Gospels were committed to paper or when Paul can tick off people who’ve encountered the Risen Christ, still within the first generation of scripture.

All this is just to echo Karl Barth, things like the Synoptic Problem are problematic only to those who worship the bible.

For those who worship the Word of God, Jesus Christ, no biggie.

Of course, I could’ve saved you the trouble of reading this just by posting this video of Stephen Colbert, comedian and committed traditional Catholic, eviscerating Barth Ehrman, the aforementioned hack.

 

 

karl_barth_1167312313122810A while back someone asked me for some reasons why they should not leave the United Methodist Church. I didn’t have time to respond and, frankly, I couldn’t come up with any answers that wouldn’t sound cliche or, worse, prejudicial.

The truth is the issues that once ruptured the Body of Christ are now largely resolved.

How justification is understood in the Catholic Church now resembles how justification is understood in most Protestant churches and that, of course, was the primary dispute.

So I didn’t come up with any real, urgent reasons. People should go to the church where their faith is most alive and activated. That said, Karl Barth gives his reasoning in this section of the Dogmatics.

Again and again in 1.1 of the Church Dogmatics, Barth comes back to the question ‘what is the word of God?’

What does the Bible have to do with the word of God?

And how does Bible direct what the Church says about the faith?

In §1.7 Barth locates what he’s said thus far within the rubric of Dogmatics. In doing so, Barth distinguishes what he takes to be Protestant Dogmatics from both the dogma of modernism and dogma of Roman Catholicism. By contrast, in Barth’s view at least, Protestant Dogmatics is unique in the role the Bible exerts as a word that can always stand as a witness over and against the finite words of people. In a nutshell, this is Barth’s assertion:

In fact Church proclamation is not an undertaking which can come under other criteria than God’s Word in respect of its content. Other criteria cede ground, building the identity of the church on something other than that which truly defines it.

Barth thus aims his polemical ire at Roman Catholicism.

*It should be noted, however, that Barth respected Roman Catholicism; he was invited as one of the lone Protestants at Vatican II and he counted Hans Urs Von Balthasar as one of the best theologians of the 20th century. 

For Barth the difference between Protestant and Catholic dogmatics comes down to whether or not the church has been entrusted with dogmas that must be believed- apart from the word.

Barth argues that to place our belief in ecclesial dogmas is to place our belief in the words of men rather than the Word of God.

Barth goes so far as to assert that their very character as dogmas, which are often logically derived, differentiates them from the dogmatics that emerges out of strict obedience to the Word. 

For an example of the kind dogma Barth might have in mind, consider the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception. Protestants (and Catholics for that matter) often erroneously assume the immaculate conception refers to Christ’s conception by the Spirit. Not so.

It actually refers to Mary’s sinless conception, which is a logical necessity- so goes the doctrine- if Jesus is without sin and sin- so goes the antiquated doctrine- is passed down to us biologically.

The immaculate conception is entirely logical when considered in its own and perhaps it’s defensible theologically for what it tries to convey.

Nonetheless, Barth would insist the Church should not be given dogmas which it must believe which themselves do not come to us by way of the word.

Before you think Barth’s just jumping on Roman Catholicism, note how his critique could just as easily be leveled at certain strands of Protestantism today. Within the so-called neo-Calvinist movement, fidelity to the Reformers’ (mis)interpretation of justification transcends an honest reading of justification as its given to us in scripture. Many neo-Calvinists do not do what their predecessors did, always reforming and reexamining assumptions, but instead reify doctrine in the precise way Barth insists we should not do.

Or consider how many evangelical fundamentalists hold to a doctrine of scriptural infallibility- and require others hold to it to be considered legitimate Christians- that scripture itself does not give us and which is itself a relatively recent product of anti-modernism.

Barth’s other target in this section is modernism, which is the air most Christians in the West breathe. Modernism refers to theologies that begin with ‘secular’ knowledge and then proceed to the Bible, often forcing scripture to fit into a-scriptural categories and jettisoning anything that doesn’t fit: ‘We know resurrection can’t happen so this must be a story of the disciples’ own interior experience of Jesus being with them still, in their hearts.’  

This type of theology, with its feigned sophistication, is everywhere in and out of the Church. The world becomes the measure of what we say when we speak of God. No doubt, this is a necessary to an extent.

We can’t just assume a 1st century worldview, but neither can we afford to lose the Bible’s freedom to stand against us in judgment.

 

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“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.

 

1101620420_400Favorite Quotes from §1.4.2 Barth’s CD:

‘…in Holy Scripture, too, the writing is obviously not primary but secondary. It is itself the deposit of what was once proclamation by human lips.’ (pg 99)

     In other words:

Barth contradicts those who treat the biblical texts themselves as the infallible, literal Word of God. They are instead the ‘deposit’ of the prophets and saints. I love Barth’s use of the word ‘deposit.’ It connotes well the notion of something precious worth saving.

‘Exegesis (interpretation of scripture) is always a combination of taking and giving, of reading out and reading in. Thus exegesis…entails the danger that the bible will be taken prisoner by the Church.

All exegesis can become predominantly interposition rather than exposition and to that degree it can fall back into the Church’s dialogue with itself.’ (pg 103) 

In other words:

It’s called ‘hermeneutics of suspicion.’ It’s biblical studies jargon implying that interpreters must always be wary of the assumptions, values, expectations, perspectives that they bring to the biblical text and often impose upon the text.

For example, even if you believe the bible is the infallible, literal word of God, you’re still a sinner and can’t possibly presume to appropriate scripture’s meaning free of error or ego.

Barth’s humility of interpretation no doubt owed much to his experience of watching German Christians unquestioningly underwriting a nationalism that was idolatrous.

But think even today of the debate around marriage and homosexuality. Just from reading Facebook posts of friends on both sides of that question, it’s clear that all of us are guilty from time to time of reading our own inclinations into scripture and reading out of scripture what we want to read. One side of the debate cites Leviticus holiness codes or Romans 1 while another side cites the boundary-breaking, outcast-embracing ministry of Christ or the Genesis 1 stipulation that we’re made in God’s image.

It’s when we forget or refuse to admit to ourselves that we’re constantly reading in and reading out that the bible becomes a prisoner to the whims of the Church.

‘The exegesis of the bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible…the defense against possible violence to the bible must be left to the bible itself.’ (pg 104)

In other words:

Stop worrying about protecting God, protecting the bible, protecting ‘Christian’ values. Let God worry about God. You just worry about you.

‘The Church’s recollection of God’s past revelation has the Bible specifically as its object because in fact this object and no other is the promise of future divine revelation…’ (pg 104). 

In other words:

Here Barth skillfully navigates a middle way through thinking about scripture and revelation.

Against liberals, who affirm the presence of revelation apart from the Word of God, Christ, as testified to in scripture, Barth reasserts the bible as the sole, specific object of our thinking about God’s revelation.

Against conservatives, who often treat God’s revelation as closed and confined to the pages of scripture, Barth argues that one of the primary reasons scripture is important is that its our only reliable clue as to what God is doing in the world today and will do in the future. That is, it’s only by knowing what God has done that we can faithfully know what God will do.

‘Holy Scripture is the the word of men who yearned, waited, and hoped for this Immanuel and who finally saw, heard and handled it in Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture declares, attests and proclaims it.’ (pg 105) 

In other words:

I think this is a great summary statement for the Old and New Testaments, as longing for Immanuel (Old) and testimony of Immanuel (New).

‘The statement that the Bible is God’s Word is a confession of faith, a statement of faith which hears God himself speak through the biblical word of man.’ (pg 107)

In other words:

Quoting bible verses at a non-Christian or making appeals to God’s eternal decrees to persuade an unbeliever are ultimately a fool’s errand. It’s not God’s word until it is received as such.

The Wesleyan in me (Barth would roll his eyes now) would argue that Barth’s point gets at the need for Christians to embody the Gospel in our lives before we can ever persuade someone to hear the Gospel as the Word of God.

And again, thinking that ‘the Bible is God’s Word’ is confession of faith (which, of course, semantics aside we all know is true…it is a faith statement) begs the question: To what extent can Christians impose their biblical values, through legislation, upon a culture which shares not their beliefs about the bible.

 

1101620420_400I’ve falled behind on my Reading Barth with Me schedule. I caught up this morning and will be posting in the days ahead.

§1.4 is Barth’s unfolding of his 3-Fold Form of the Word of God.

To give context to those sections, I thought it would be helpful to repost an earlier reflection I wrote this summer on Barth’s understanding of scripture as the word which testifies to the Word.

According to Barth, when Christians use the term ‘the Word of God’ we’re actually referring to multiple forms. John’s Gospel, after all, refers to Jesus as the Word of God, does it not?

How are we to think of Jesus-as-the Word in relation to scripture as God’s Word? 

Barth used the image of three concentric circles, which he called the three-fold form of the Word of God. In the inner, centermost circle Barth places the Logos, the eternal Word of God that was made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Next, Barth places the Word of God as testified to us by Israel, the prophets and the Church, which we call scripture. Finally, in the outer circle Barth places the Word of God as its proclaimed and interpreted in the worship and ministry of the Church.

By arranging the Word of God in this way, Barth successfully illustrated 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. They require the event of God’s grace to make them a faithful testimony to the Word.

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.

Barth’s model provides the framework for Christians to concede that scripture is not without error.

Scripture does contain geographical and historical errors.

The Gospels do have different and at times contradictory chronologies.

Its depiction of God is not always consistent or easily juxtaposed with other texts.

Translators make decisions, not always without an agenda for their own.

Traditions have different canons.

There are many questions we ask that scripture is simply not interested in answering.

 

None of this should be threatening to Christians, however, precisely because the Word is a mediated revelation. Testimony can be imperfect without jeopardizing the perfection of the One to whom scripture testifies.

In other words, Barth’s three-fold form secures our recognition that we do not believe in the bible; we believe in the One to whom the bible testifies. We worship Jesus Christ not the bible.

Barth’s three-fold form also gives us grounds for both humility and pride.

It gives us cause for humility in that it forces us to recognize how our apprehension of the Word is mediated to us by the proclamation and interpretation of the Church.

In the same way that scripture contains textual errors, it should surprise no one that the Church contains fallible people. The Church has included both saints and sinners from the very beginning.

Our access to the Word both is enabled and limited by those who have come before us (and those among us today). Our convictions about ‘what scripture says’ are never without the residue of historical, cultural and personal bias. As Paul writes, we never cease seeing the Word through a prism darkly.

That the Word is mediated to us through something so fallible as the Church, however, is a cause for joy too for by God’s own choosing we have a role in the revelation of God’s Word. God has chosen to disclose his Word through the matrix of humanity, first by taking flesh in Christ and second by taking flesh in us. No Church, no Word of God.

Scripture, then, is no less incarnational than Jesus.

In scripture and its proclamation, the eternal Word takes on the finitude and fallibility of followers like you and me.

And just as this gives us pause in all our certitudes, it is also good news.