Recently the topic of risk and danger has come up in several discussions of Christian Ministry. Shauna Hyde, who I interviewed along with Chris Surber, has spent the night in tent town with homeless folks and earned the informal title “vicar of tent town.” People have told her she’s crazy. But she manages to live the gospel and build relationships that wouldn’t happen any other way.
Chris Surber, involved in the same interview, is headed to Haiti with his young children. There are folks who claim he is crazy for doing so. He describes some of the comments in his forthcoming book Rendering unto Caesar.
Back in the days when I had a newspaper route (annoying work, but it happened at night, which was convenient), I would regularly stop to help people in the “bad” neighborhood in which I worked. I recall one Sunday morning when I stopped and just kept my headlights on a man who was changing his tire. He was very grateful. When I mentioned this in my Sunday School class it derailed the discussion as people informed me how I shouldn’t risk my life in this way.
Such, I think, would have been the Sunday morning conversation had the Good Samaritan been a Sunday School teacher and reported on his stop on the road to Jericho. His stop, I think, was much more dangerous than my sitting in my car with the headlights on.
In an interview regarding hospitality, the subject of danger came up again. Chris Freet has written a book titled A New Look at Hospitality as a Key to Missions. As soon as we began to discuss hospitality, we had to discuss danger. Strangers actually invited into our home? Perhaps we need to rethink this and use some central location with proper regard for security. After all, in the 21st century we have sexual predators and various violent types among the broad category of people classified as “strangers.”
I have to ask myself whether the 20th or the 21st century is more packed with dangerous people than any previous period in history. I really doubt it. As Christians we claim to be followers of Jesus. It was not entirely safe to do these things when Jesus commanded them. We can’t claim that additional dangers in the 21st century have rendered these commands null and void.
My parents were always hospitable. Many, many times we had guests at the dinner table. You could not visit my parents’ church without receiving an invitation to lunch afterward. My parents would never have considered allowing you to leave unfed. They just never did it. We did this when we were overseas as well. We took people into our home. It was something I felt was normal. How likely are you to get invited out to lunch in a 21st century American church?
And it was not without risk. Once when my parents sheltered a woman and her child in our home the result was that we had to flee as angry people approached intending to kill us. This was eventually settled and we returned to our homes, but there was certainly risk.
We have story after story of missionaries risking their lives and the lives of their children. I was allowed to go on mission trips into the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico when I was eight and nine years old. We’d travel through the mountains, accept the hospitality of the villagers, and conduct clinics. (My father was an MD and my mother an RN.) My task was to carry out the garbage, get supplies and deliver them where needed and to carry messages. Was there risk? Of course there was! What would happen if one of us was injured in these isolated areas? After all, the reason we were there was because medical help was not readily available.
My mother tells a story about me. It embarrasses me a bit. Don’t think that I was some sort of extraordinarily spiritual child. What I’m interested in here is her actions. This is extracted from her book Directed Paths, pp. 51-52.
Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right.
While we were in the Chiapas mountains, a measles epidemic broke out in the nearby village of Rincon. Many were dying. They sent to our clinic for help. Although nurses and helpers were in short supply, we sent as many as we could to give penicillin and help with treatments. Our older children, Betty Rae and Robert had returned to the states for school. Patty, who was twelve at the time, went to Rincon every day to help. She wanted to be a nurse and this was a great experience for her. The need was so great, the nurses taught her to give shots and helped her to learn how to do treatments. At the time, Henry was only eight but he begged for permission to go help. I knew he could be useful in helping to carry food, water and run errands, but he had never had the measles.
He kept saying, “Mama, please let me go. Patty is helping and I want to help, too.”
“But, Henry, Patty has had the measles. You haven’t. I don’t want my little boy to die.” I told him.
His answer stunned me, “Jesus gave His life for me, and why shouldn’t I give my life for the Chamulas?”
I had no answer to that. The next day, Henry went with the group. He was a great help. He also got the measles which made him extremely ill. We thought he truly was going to give his life for the Chamulas. We provided nursing care, treatments and penicillin, but Jesus did the healing. Henry made it and the glory goes to God.
I believe that many 21st century folks would be horrified by her actions, because I see them react with horror at so much less risky actions. It’s possible some would consider this child abuse. We admire the courage of missionaries at a distance, but are otherwise somewhere between concerned and horrified. I’ve heard the same responses to the idea of people going to help with the Ebola outbreak. Close everything off. Don’t let there be any risk.
Can followers of Jesus say that? I think not! I think the same force of the love of God that had Jesus reaching out, touching, and healing the lepers should drive Christians. The fact of risk is not a reason to quit carrying out the gospel commission nor is it a reason to quit actively loving and helping our neighbors. And it is no reason to allow ourselves to be shut down.
What is right remains just as right under threat of death as it ever is when we’re in complete safety. I know it’s a great deal easier to say that than it is to put it into practice. I don’t proclaim myself a paragon of virtue. I can name so many people who have done or are doing bolder things than I have even considered.
But the call remains the same as it was when Christians faced the lions. Will the American church be driven by fear or by the gospel commission?
Two paragraphs from Rendering unto Caesar:
The most obvious conflict with the fusion of Christian and American identity is that it denies the universal nature of the Kingdom of God. When our allegiances are too strongly aligned with any kingdom of this world, be it the relatively benevolent kingdom of America or a malevolent kingdom like Nazi Germany, it takes away from our ability to reflect the unique beauty of Christ in the world through our lives. Discipleship is costly. It costs us the identity that we had before Christ broke into our lives and snatched our affections away from this world for Him.
In order to glorify God, we need a Gospel that preaches everywhere. Our Gospel needs to preach in Beverly Hills and the hills of Haiti. Our Gospel needs to preach to Liberal and Conservative. Our Gospel is for the lost, of which we are all a part. In the hearts of many American Christians there is a subtle and sometimes overt bitterness for the rest of the world. We are Americans. We want to keep our money local. We want to keep the American economy strong. We have fused our identity as Americans with our identity as Christians and consequently we miss the reality of our global Kingdom citizenship. (p. 8)
This little book (Topical Line Drives, 42 pages) is headed to the printer. Pre-order price is $3.49. Regular price will be $4.99. If you order three of them, or order another book or so, you’ll get free shipping as well.
From the forthcoming book Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job by Bruce G. Epperly.
The book of Job invites us to claim our identity as theologians. Job shouts out to us, “You are a theologian” because we have experienced the pain of the world and are trying to make sense of it. Job shouts to us: “Don’t let the word ‘theology’ put you off. By whatever word, we strive to make sense of the senseless and meaning of the meaningless.” We become theologians the moment we begin to ask hard questions about life and the One who creates the universe and gives birth to each moment of experience. Theology asks questions of life, death, meaning, human hope, and immortality. It also raises questions about the meaning and purpose of our brief, and often challenging and ambiguous lives. For Job, theology and spirituality are intimately related. As Episcopalian spiritual guide Alan Jones once asserted, spirituality deals with the unfixable aspects of life – or what I would describe as life’s inevitabilities. Sooner or later even the most fortunate of us must make theological and personal sense of what is beyond our control, while taking responsibility for what we can change.
Tonight in our Tuesday night hangout series, I will be interviewing Christopher J. Freet, author of the newly released book A New Look at Hospitality as a Key to Missions in the Areopagus Critical Christian Issues series regarding the topic of hospitality. We are open to audience questions. You can view this event on the Energion Publications Google+ page or use the embedded YouTube viewer below.
Several things I’ve written lately lead to thoughts on ecclesiology, though that is hardly one of my subjects. People do sometimes make assumptions because I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation. So I’m going to make this personal, first saying why I am in a United Methodist congregation and second saying what I see as ideal in a church. This is just a bit of rambling—fair warning!
I prefer to call myself a Christian who is a member of a United Methodist congregation rather than a Methodist. That can be clumsy, but I don’t think of myself so much as a member of the denomination as of the local church. There’s a fairly simple reason why I’m part of a UMC, and that reason can be found in the early pages of the United Methodist Discipline. While I am hesitant to identify fully with a theological stream, the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church come closest of any I know to what I can affirm. There are less restrictive statements I could also affirm, but they tend to affirm too little, in my view.
My great disappointment with United Methodism is that so few Methodists are aware of this theological heritage. I’ve written about this before. The pastor of the first United Methodist congregation I joined confessed to me later that when I came to his office and borrowed a copy of the Discipline, he thought it was likely I would never return. If I had read the later parts about organization, committees, and so forth, it’s quite possible I would have been driven off. Sometimes I feel one requires legal training to navigate the authority structures of a United Methodist congregation.
I should confess that, in addition to a lack of training in church administration or ecclesiology, there is another reason I’m utterly unqualified. My attempts at involvement in church politics or governance have not been terribly successful. They have generally been bad for my health and not very constructive for the church. I do well in one on one encounters. I’m much less successful at committees. And whether they call them “teams,” “working groups,” or just “committees,” these groups of people make a UM congregation run—or not. My observation is that most Methodist churches function because the actual power structure knows how to work its way around the paper power structure. That could be excessively cynical. When I joined my current church, I told the pastor that if he needed someone to park cars or teach Sunday School I was there for him, but if he needed someone to be on any committee, count me out.
But my ecclesiology is not formed particularly by the structure and order of the United Methodist Church. I find that the hierarchical system tends very much to spend its time maintaining the institution and then wondering why the acknowledged work of the kingdom isn’t really happening. Pastors are moved in an arbitrary way, often without regard to the state of whatever ministry they’re carrying on where they are. Relationships between pastors and churches are hard to form, unless the church is large and has a greater influence on who will be on the staff and how long that person will stay.
That set of complaints may sound negative, but I don’t see the United Methodist system as horribly deficient either. It has its problems, but in my experience so do all other systems of governance that involve humans. While the UM system may move a pastor when he really should stay, congregational systems often pair dysfunctional pastors and congregations until both pastor and congregation are spiritually dead. While the hierarchy may make for a certain amount of political structure maintenance, it also provides both connections to other places, and can move a dysfunctional pastor before he or she does more damage. Large structures allow the church to bring a wide range of resources together to accomplish great things.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that either system guarantees that any of these great things will be accomplished. the combined resources of a large denomination could do great things, but they often get siphoned off to maintain a great headquarters building (or something similar).
Summary: Every kind of church structure I’ve experienced (and I haven’t experienced all) has it’s problems and its benefits. While there may be a form of organization that’s better than any other, I’m not sure what it is.
There are, however, some principles that I would want to see. If I could find a church manifested some of these, I think I’d want to make it a base of operations:
1) Recognition of more than one form of ministry. Modern churches tend to recognize pastors and put them in charge. There aer more gifts and more offices. I think setting people apart by laying on of hands should apply to all the various ministries of the church. The pastor doesn’t need to be a church administrator, publicity coordinator, facility manager, and general problem solver. There should be evangelists, teachers (sometimes pastor-teachers, sometimes just teachers), administrators, helpers, and yes, prophets. (See Ephesians 4:11-16, though I don’t regard the list as exhaustive.)
2) Because there are many forms of ministry, everyone in the congregation is set apart. I’d like to be part of a congregation where the assumption is that everyone will have some sort of service. Let’s lose “member” vs “attends” and think of “attends” vs “active.” In my book Identifying Your Gifts and Service: Small Group Edition, I call for every member to become a gift spotter. The assumption should be that being part of the body means exercising gifts for the body.
3) Communion, preferably in the form of a common meal, becomes the center of congregational gathering. This would be what we do for a “worship service.” I have a fairly high, sacramental view of the communion meal combined with a rather low view of ordination. I think the Spirit of God in the congregation is what should authorize communion. I don’t believe that there should be a distinction between clergy and laity, but rather a distinction between different varieties of servants. We set people apart not because we make them better than others, nor because we acknowledge them as better than others, but because we acknowledge that they serve in particular ways with particular gifts. When this time of communion occurs, I believe that God is really present in the elements and in the people through His Spirit.
4) Leadership is strong, but is plural. There is no single person whose personality is stamped on the church. I believe this can be carried out under many different types of polity. One of the weaknesses in the Methodist system is that a pastor gets a level of respect because he’s sent by a bishop, and the bishop is way up there, so to speak. So the church centers around the pastor’s views and wishes. A pastor who wants to have a successful career will tend to work the nomination system and stack committees, especially the Staff-Parish Relations committee. Then a new pastor will come, and he may have a different personality. I believe that a church needs to have more people who exercise real leadership. I know there can be real problems with this, but as I’ve noted before there are real problems with any system that involves people.
5) The church builds connections with a variety of other churches. The Methodist system speaks of connectionalism, and this is a great characteristic. I’d prefer to see a greater degree of connection between churches of different denominations down the street. So I see connections as important, but I think that they should not be restricted to one denomination.
6) The church is accountable in some way. In the Methodist church, this accountability is to the bishop and to the structures of the church. I think more independent congregations can choose to be accountable. The only way to know what’s going on is to observe.
7) The church has an identifiable, known set of theological essentials and affirms freedom in other areas. I know this stresses people out on all sides. Some don’t want any definition. Others prefer very limited freedom of teaching. I think the most mature congregation will be produced by having a carefully chosen and defined set of essentials and then allowing free discussion outside of that. I think there are many topics that should be non-essential and open to a variety of views.
8) The majority of church income is used for outreach and service. As long as the majority of our money and effort is used to maintain the physical structure and the political forms, I don’t think we’re where we need to be. To be clear, what I mean is more than 50% of the money received by the church is going somewhere other than maintaining the congregation itself. Since I’ve been told that 5% is considered “mission minded” for a United Methodist congregation, I think this may be the hardest one.
There’s the saying that if you find the perfect church, you shouldn’t join it. You’ll spoil it! I don’t think this is the perfect church, but it’s one I’d be willing to try to live up to.
In the meantime, however, I believe that the local congregation of which I’m a member is doing a great deal of good ministry. The gospel is preached. I’m particularly impressed with programs for children and youth, and the educational program is moving forward. It’s too bad that it’s hard to get 1,000 people out of a congregation of > 3,800 to attend on a Sunday morning, but I think the pastoral staff have done a good job. No, it’s not my description of an ideal church, but to be honest, I don’t expect to find one of those. But where I have a chance I’ll keep advocating …
Note: As a publisher, I publish some books by people more informed on these topics. I’ve been particularly impressed with two recent releases from opposite sides of the theological spectrum, Dr. David Alan Black (Southern Baptist) and Dr. Bruce Epperly (United Church of Christ). Dave’s book is Seven Marks of a New Testament Church and Bruce’s is Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel. It’s interesting to see people from across the theological spectrum looking back to the book of Acts and the early church to learn how we might move forward in the church today. Don’t blame them for my ideas. Each has his own, and they are both worth reading.
In a comment, Steve Kindle asks:
… in regards to your formative books, Hebrews, Ezekiel, and Leviticus, is it because you see Hebrews as teaching substitutionary atonement that springs from Leviticus? And Ezekiel foresees a renewed covenant that Hebrews embellishes? Just wondering.
The briefest answer would be “no.” But leaving it at that would be rude, or at least would appear rude to me.
My view of the atonement does not center on the substitutionary view, nor on the even more specific penal substitutionary view. This annoys one set of my friends, and perhaps an enemy or two. To annoy the rest, I must emphasize that I do not deny substitutionary atonement. I believe it is one way in which Scripture talks about atonement, though I don’t see the strong courtroom sense of the modern PSA in Scripture. What I actually believe is that there are many metaphors in in Scripture for God saving us from sin and death, and that each of these enlightens us in some way. Each of them, however, if made the sole metaphor, will also tend to lead us into various forms of imbalance.
While the substitutionary view of atonement does occur in Hebrews, substitution itself is not in focus. Similarly, I do not get such views of substitution as I do have from Leviticus. The most famous quote on this is Leviticus 17:11, quoted at Hebrews 9:22, but if this is made to carry the weight Christians often make it carry, it will actually produce a contradiction in Leviticus, and the ransom theory/metaphor, one which fits the text of Leviticus more closely, works quite well in Hebrews.
So having eliminated substitution as the formative view, what exactly did lead me to take these three books so seriously. I must admit that the key reason is simply that I chose to study them. I had no idea what I was getting into, but elements of the books fascinated me. But in fact some common themes became very much formative for me.
Once I got started on Ezekiel, however, the key issue because the presence of the glory of God. There are interesting movements of God’s glory throughout the book, and they produce some quite interesting ideas. My first question was why we have a vision of God’s glory in Babylon in the first chapter, then we see the glory leaving the temple in Jerusalem in the 8th and 9th chapters, and finally it returns to Jerusalem in the 43rd chapter. The illogic on the surface of the first chapter led one commentator, whose name I forget though Eichrodt comes to mind, to suggest that the first chapter was moved by a later editor. Obviously God’s glory couldn’t appear in Babylon before it left Jerusalem.
But on thinking a bit further I came to believe that was precisely the point. God’s glory was not restricted to the land of Israel. God was able to act anywhere. At the same time as God was able to act anywhere God has not rejected Israel either, so we see the glory return to the temple and life flow from the temple later in the book. In its very structure, Ezekiel looks forward to the blessing of the entire world in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham. Chapters 8 & 9 also make clear, however, that one cannot behave however one wishes and still expect God’s glory to remain and bless. So we see the withdrawal of God’s glory in those chapters along with the condemnation of all who do not sigh and cry for the abominations in the land (9:4).
External to the three books I would point out that this “presence/absence of God” idea stuck with me. You’ll see it in Torah in wilderness, and you see that the presence of God is not necessarily safe, but is much to be desired. But the whole ceremonial system, as I was taught to call it, didn’t seem to make sense. In fact, the problem was that I heard about it almost exclusively as substitutionary sacrifice for sin. What I, as a Christian, was supposed to know was that lambs (little, cute, wooly lambs in Sunday School terms) were killed because of how awful people’s sins were, and this had pointed to Jesus dying as the lamb of God. Now I in no way want to diminish the view of Jesus as the lamb of God, and especially the application of that we see with the lion/lamb metaphor in Revelation 4-5. But why is there this huge body of literature starting in the latter portion of Exodus and going through numbers, with a few points in Deuteronomy? So from there I started my study of Leviticus.
I began to see a much broader sense of the ceremonial law, how many of the things taught by the prophets were foreshadowed in liturgical form. These include a priestly teaching of the doctrine of repentance, a repeated turn away from ritual as powerful in itself, and a drive to learn to distinguish holy and unholy, not to simply avoid the unholy, but to become holy, to increase the bounds of the holy. God told the Israelites to be holy because he is holy. A simple yet extremely daunting command.
My wife said that during this study I would come away from my personal devotion time detached, as though I had been in an extraordinary time of spiritual experience. All I can say is that I would love to write a study guide for Leviticus with the intention of drawing more Christians into that story, but that I feel utterly inadequate to the task. In my study I would read the text in Hebrew, then in the LXX, and finally in an English translation before going to Milgrom’s commentary. It takes hard work to get even a good start on this material, but I consider it well worthwhile, in fact, the most worthwhile year of personal devotions I have engaged in.
And that turns me back to Hebrews, where I see Hebrews 6 as the center of the book’s message, but if you step back right before, one of the characteristics of mature Christianity is having one’s faculties trained by practice to discern good from evil, a close parallel to Leviticus. I think it is also closely aligned in goal, i.e., this training of the faculties is part of the endurance, staying on the track. And note that I don’t think this contradicts it being a gift from God. The Torah is also a gift from God, and it was instruction. It’s purpose was to train.
If I could summarize, I get from this that my faith is to be an active faith, an active seeking of the presence of God, a life of practice. We are changed and transformed by looking, by finding, by discerning (2 Corinthians 3:18). That is the key element of theology that I get from Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus, and I think it shapes all else.
One of the things I love about both blogging and publishing is the number of interesting and capable people I get to interact with. It’s something I’ve missed since graduate school days—the opportunity to run my ideas up against people who can really challenge them.
Dave Black has written some commentary on this matter of continuity between the Old and New Testaments. I’ve extracted the relevant entry from his blog and reposted it to JesusParadigm.com. (For those who don’t know, Dave’s blog doesn’t provide a way to link to a particular entry.) If you haven’t, read Dave’s notes. There is a great deal there. I intend to respond to the matter of who I publish over on the Energion Publications blog. (I’ll add a link here once I’ve done that.)
I think Dave and I are quite close to agreement, though I do think we have some difference of emphasis. Perhaps his is a more radical approach, and I think the parallel to ecclesiology and the Anabaptist movement as opposed to the more traditional reformers. In fact, labeling them “more traditional” may summarize the whole issue. This does not, of course, tell us who is right. I think my difference with Dave here would be that I allow for more variation for time, place, and culture. I think that is in one sense a minor difference, but not truly insignificant.
The problem with radical reformation is that it may get derailed in practice. As I read Scripture, God has always led his people with some consideration for their starting point. I’ll say a bit more on this in a later paragraph regarding the study of Torah. So the perfect, or even the “better” becomes the enemy of the good. I see this in my own church. I can look from one angle and say, “There is so much wrong with this church.” (Some might note as a problem that it has Henry Neufeld as a member!) But if I look from another angle, there is so much that is going right in the church, including the fact that the gospel is being preached there regularly. What do I want to reform and when do I want to reform it? Of course, the reality is that I have very little to say on that. The pastoral staff and the church council do most of that work, and I’m involved in neither group.
But there is a problem with the “gradual change” folks as well, and I think the reformation provides examples of this. Gradual change often becomes stagnation. We don’t become more Christlike on a continuing basis, but instead become, in our own eyes, more Christ-like than our neighbors and then hang out there, or even begin deteriorating from that point. I think that if you look at the energy and focus of the Methodist movement during John Wesley’s lifetime and then at the United Methodist Church now, you don’t see progress.
But how does this relate to the Old Testament/New Testament continuity or discontinuity?
To steal a phrase from Paul: Much in every way!
I see the progress from the Old Testament to the New as one of moving to the next chapter of a book, one that we, as Christians, see as the climactic chapter. So there is a substantive change as we enter into the final phase, the solution of the whole mystery, the resolution of the conflict. That is very different. But at the same time, we should not say that previous chapters were bad because they weren’t providing the whole solution. Rather, those chapters led up to the final chapter. They provided the clues. They provided the background. the seeds of the conclusion were planted there.
The priesthood of all believers, for example, is foreshadowed in Exodus 19:6, but it is a strong New Testament concept. The latter verses of Exodus 20 (after the giving of the 10 commandments) tell us something of why. The people were afraid and didn’t want god speaking directly to them. There was comfort in having Moses and Aaron handle that part for them. There was comfort in having a priesthood. I suspect that the priesthood of all believers frightens us now for the same reason. We share the same human failings as the people around Mt. Sinai. We’d like something solid and comfortable that doesn’t tell us things that are upsetting. They turned to the golden calf. We turn to our denominational structures. “We’re Methodists,” I’m told, “We don’t do things like that.” It’s the same avoidance.
Hebrews uses Jeremiah 31:31-34 which foreshadows the same idea. From looking at these texts in their place in the story, I began to see certain of the texts not as a destination, so much as a road map leading forward. The author of Hebrews taps into that road map and proposes to draw the path forward and say something about the destination. But everyone knowing the Lord is something that looks good on paper, or when spoken by the prophet. Just don’t make anyone implement it. Or is it not the same attitude that is displayed when someone says, “Please just tell me what this means! Don’t go into all those details!”
There is a tendency to think of the professional class of pastors keeping the people away from their priesthood. And there are doubtless times and places where that is what’s going on. But I see more of a refusal to take that much responsibility for our own souls, our own calling, and our own decision making. Because of the priesthood of all believers the failings of the church are my failings. I do not get to blame this on others. Jesus has called me. I do not have permission to blame it on the paid pastor.
But God’s ideal for Israel, expressed in many of the very passages quoted in Hebrews, was the same. It was for all to know God for themselves. This is one of the things I have learned in studying about what Christians call the “ceremonial law.” It was a teaching tool. It was not God’s intention to leave the priesthood in the hands of the few. It was God’s intention to eventually have a nation of priests.
Is there discontinuity? Yes, but it is the discontinuity of turning back to the ideal, to what God had planned all along. It is radical in the extent to which it is not radical.
Dave asked how much we differ. I think not that much on the Old Testament/New Testament discontinuity, though I am ready to have this view adjusted. On the nature of reform and how to carry it out, perhaps we differ a bit more.
I’ll have to write some more about ecclesiology. That might get us to the more serious differences.
Since I’m revising my Hebrews study guide, and have been for more than a year, I can bring up complaints against the old one. One of the most common complaints was that people had a hard time connecting the background reading to the current passage. I included three reading lists: 1) Minimum reading, 2) Extra reading, and 3) Advanced reading. My normal response to that complaint was to suggest just using the minimum reading, and people generally found that worked. The problem is that sticking with the minimum reading results in diminishing the value of the study. Hebrews is a connected book.
I could say that about any book of the Bible, in that one can see the canon as a form of story, the story of the people of faith who become the church. I say that not to diminish the Hebrew scriptures, but rather to emphasize that, combined into the Christian Bible and Christian canon, the story extends into the story of the church. Being able to see Bible passages in the context of the broader story is very important. Hebrews, however, is very much about the connections, and thus understanding it is very much about knowing the background. One can, of course, jump in at the end of the story. This is like looking at the last chapter of a mystery to find out who really did the deed without looking at the process by which the characters found out about it.
Hebrews asks, and I believe answers, the question of how we, as Christians get from being centered on Torah to being centered on the person of Jesus. How do we go from the scriptures of the people of Israel to the message and mission of the church? In these questions lie the avenues to many errors. One of the most critical errors, I think, is to see Hebrews as proposing a massive disjunction between the Old Testament and the New, a view that the Old Testament was superceded because it was bad. This error results from the forward momentum of the book being read as a denial or denigration of the old. In reality, Hebrews does not put aside the Old Testament any more than the reader of a book dismisses a previous chapter because he begins to read a new one. The old chapter wasn’t bad. That’s not why you turned the page. If the previous chapter was bad, you’re more likely putting down the book entirely. (Note: I follow in this post my usual practice of using the term “Hebrew Scriptures” when referring to the books we Christians call the Old Testament as an historical document and “Old Testament” when I’m referencing those same books as part of the Christian Bible. I see these as different views.)
So when Hebrews starts out talking about how God spoke to our forefathers, this isn’t to say, “Wow, what a lousy mode of communication God used, but now, finally, at the end, God has gotten it right!” Rather, it is to say, “Look at the new thing God is now doing right on time! The foundation is good, so we’ll build on it. But it’s not the whole house.” (I must note that this foundation/house distinction has its own problems. I believe the author of Hebrews sees God’s intention in all of the Old Testament passages he quotes. He’s not saying that God created something new out of whole cloth. The new covenant of Jeremiah 31 is not nearly as new as it looks at first glance. Rather, in this passage God expresses his intention to carry out his plans in spite of human failings. We may fail, but God’s plan continues.
So in order to understand the book of Hebrews one needs to understand this background. If you read it without knowing the material referenced, you may get the idea that this is intentionally new and surprising, when instead it is designed carefully to be (and look like) a natural next chapter. “See,” the author suggests, “this is what God has been building up to for generations.”
I’ve said before that the most formative books for my theology have been Hebrews, Ezekiel, and Leviticus in that order. I didn’t actually study them in that order, though I have always been fascinated by Hebrews, but a college independent study working on the first chapter of Ezekiel led to many other things and finally a study through Leviticus using Jacob Milgrom’s wonderful three volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series. So while I could hardly call myself an expert in Torah, I’ve read somewhat more in this area than the average Christian. Working through Leviticus gave me a different view of both Leviticus and Hebrews. The sanctuary system of worship was not really an end in itself, as we so often read it. Rather, it was a means to an end. The details here are well beyond a blog post that is already getting longer than it should!
Some argue that the author of Hebrews must have been a priest due to his knowledge of, and interest in, the temple service. I would suggest that isn’t the case. The knowledge that is needed to write a book like Hebrews is a strong knowledge of the Old Testament passages in the context of their story. Too frequently we see “reading in context” as a matter of making sure we read the verse (or even chapter!) before and the verse after. That’s important, as single phrases can be taken out of their immediate context.
But there is also a broad cultural and historical context. When was the passage written? Who wrote it? To whom was it addressed? All of these are questions that help us understand a passage. I would suggest that the author of Hebrews knows his scriptures well and knows the story. When he seems to deviate, as he does in many stories in Hebrews 11 (compare the story of Moses in Exodus to Hebrews 11), he is doing so for a particular purpose. (Hint: I believe it has to do with the “why” of perseverance.)
In terms of revising the book, I do intend to keep my reading lists, though I’m adding some notes to help draw the lines between the passages. I think it’s important. One of our problems in reading about the Bible is that we are not well enough acquainted with the Bible itself. Thus someone can suggest something that correctly quotes a number of Bible texts, but still misses important points.
Let me give an example. One of the blogs I read (HT: Arthur Sido) pointed me to an article by Greg Boyd talking about the “eye for an eye” command of the Old Testament being superceded. And there is much of interest to interpretation, I believe, in those “you have heard … but I say” statements in the Sermon on the Mount. In applying particular commands to particular times and circumstances, one must be aware of those circumstances. Now I’ve provided the link so you can decide if I’m being unfair to Boyd, but it seems to me that he applies an out of context judgment to Elijah, and as a result manages to quite vigorously dismiss a great deal of the Old Testament.
Some questions that need to be answered:
1) Does “an eye for an eye” or, in fact, any of the “but I say unto you” statements of Jesus apply to Elijah and the prophets of Baal? To me, this looks like applying a command to a situation and a time without any consideration. Reading Matthew 7:1 we might well resist judging our contemporaries for such an act, but we have little hesitation in condemning Elijah with no regard for circumstances or context at all. If you haven’t already, please read at least the second to last paragraph of Boyd’s article. How parallel is the situation of Elijah and that of the disciples who are inconvenienced by having to turn to another village (Luke 9:51-55)? I fail to see here a suggestion of how Jesus viewed Elijah.
2) Do the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount turn the corner on God’s judgment, i.e. bring us to a point where judgment no longer occurs? Consider, for example, Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), written by the same hand that recorded Luke 9:54-55. Peaceable scene, isn’t it?
3) While I believe strongly that we have trajectories in scripture, i.e. we are going somewhere with each statement, so we may see modifications, we need to be sure that the place we’re going is not entirely of our own making. One of the things that happens in Hebrews is that the author sees his destination rolled into the texts he cites. He’s building on something he has read thoroughly.
4) What about the eschatological sayings of Jesus? Are these also to be dismissed?
My own response to Greg Boyd’s article is not some sort of revulsion that he suggested an action by Elijah was demonic. Rather, it’s that he pulled so much out of so little with relatively little basis. I’m afraid that it strikes me as inept handling of scripture. I’ve heard so much better, scripturally faithful arguments for non-violence. This is writing your own story in the white spaces without bothering to truly understand the story as you have it.
Is there a need to respond to violent passages in the Old Testament? Indeed there is! And while we’re at it, let’s respond to a few violent passages in the New Testament as well. But let’s do so by understanding rather than dismissing. I think that’s the pattern Hebrews has set, and it’s a good one.