Unity and Bible Study

That’s a very broad title, but I do want to look at the connection. One of the places where we, as Christians, find the most disagreement is in our study of the Bible. In my view, there’s a good reason for this. The Bible is a complex book. Yes, one can find common themes, but there are also many topics on which we can disagree legitimately. While I object to any claim that the Bible doesn’t have inherent meaning—I always say that at least we know it’s not talking about the pink elephant—I still recognize that serious students can come to different conclusions. I find the demeaning way that we refer to scholars who are far from us on the theological spectrum quite unhelpful. Is it not enough to say “I disagree,” or “I disagree strongly”?

This relates closely to views of attaining Christian unity. Let me highlight two opposed approaches. First, we have the idea that somehow we must eliminate the differences in Bible study. For Catholics, this generally leads to a reference to the magisterium of the church. Protestants often look with some longing at such an authority, an authority that might bring some sense out of the chaos of protestant views of scripture. So you know my prejudices, let me state bluntly that, irrespective of what set of doctrines and interpretations such a magisterium imposed, I would not be a member of the resulting church.

The second approach is to say that we can have unity of purpose and action in a chaos of individual ideas and spiritualities. The application of this can be quite variable. Do we look to a small list of teachings which are sacrosanct while allowing freedom on all others? Do we allow for just any position at all? Or do we perhaps unite on practice?

I believe that the difficulty we have with Christian unity is our own hostility to what is different. I recall meeting with members of a church about a particular service of which they disapproved. It turned out that not only did they not attend that service, but that no matter what was changed, they would not begin to attend it. I had to tell them that I could hardly present to the pastor the idea that a service should be altered in form so that nobody would attend! They were hostile to spirituality and forms of worship that someone else was doing when they weren’t even present.

I’m actually quite a doctrine driven person. I don’t know which actually came first, the doctrine or the practice (though I suspect in my life it was practice), but when I think about things now I start from doctrine and move to practice. That’s just the way my mind works. So the doctrinal standards of a church congregation are important to me. I don’t join a church that strongly proclaims doctrine that I cannot support. I was considering joining a church once before I discovered their approach to politics. In fact, the problem was that I discovered that, contrary to any statement they might make, they had a congregational approach to politics. So I went elsewhere.

In protestant churches, and particularly among charismatics in my experience, there is a desire to fight the doctrinal chaos with a sort of mini-magisterium. This results in a “don’t go against the pastor” or “don’t touch the Lord’s anointed” attitude. The pastor is the one who makes the determination. I object to this as strongly as I do to larger versions of the magisterium. Protestantism by its very nature (and I’m an unrepentant protestant) is a break from submitting one’s conscience to that sort of authority.

I would suggest that what we need in Christianity is not a unity of conformity, but rather a unity of attitude and spirit. We claim to follow one master. Let’s allow others to follow him, rather than trying to make them follow us. Let’s approach this with the greatest measure of grace for others. If we need to meet in separate buildings, no problem. Let’s do what is best for loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. But let’s do it without hostility. Perhaps we could manage to resolve our differences in worship practice by meeting in separate times of worship in the same building. There are many ways to work together.

What set this off this morning? Well, Dave Black posted about not needing teachers and the Holy Spirit as teacher. I reposted it to The Jesus Paradigm so we’d have a permanent link. I agree with what Dave says. He honors scholars, pastors, and teachers, while at the same time acknowledging that the Spirit of Truth is available to us all.

I don’t want to make this a commercial. Hmmm. Yes I do! Here are some books I publish that relate to this topic: I’m Right and You’re Wrong: Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it, When People Speak for God, The Jesus Paradigm, Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully.

When I Need to Restore My Focus



Not the best recording of her on YouTube, but my favorite.

According to John: The Law Was Given through Moses

Tonight in my study on John via Google Hangouts on Air I’m going to talk about the law and Jesus, Jews and Christians, and Judaism and Christianity. I’m embedding the player below. In the meantime, read 3 ways to Confront the New Antisemitism by Rabbi Evan Moffic.

For tonight:

Why Jesus Had to Die

In the study of the gospel of John I’m doing via Google Hangouts on Air, last Thursday night’s session was titled “I Finished the Work.” This reflects Jesus confidence that he had completed his mission, even before he had died on the cross or risen from the dead.

For many Christians the reason Jesus had to die is quite simple. He had to die for our sins. More specifically, by his death, Jesus took the penalty for our sin(s) so that we would not have to. In theology this is referred to as penal substitutionary atonement, or sometimes just as forensic atonement, because it is set in a metaphor of the courtroom, and we avoid the just legal penalty of our actions because Jesus takes it instead. Thus if Jesus had not died, we would not be saved, and would be doomed to eternal death.

But the courtroom is a metaphor, and as such, it may not provide the complete or the only meaning of what it tries to describe. Another metaphor is built on the family, in which we are adopted into God’s family as God’s children and thus are saved. You can find a clear statement of this in 1 John 3:1, but this metaphor is in play frequently in the gospel of John as well.

Someone familiar with 1 John might point to 1 John 1:8, with the blood of Jesus cleansing us from sin. And indeed there are a number of points where the various metaphors touch. One thing we don’t always understand well in the west is the sense of community, of being collectively part of one nation, people, or family, so much so that we can be referenced as a unit, or spoken of by reference to a king or leader. In Genesis 14, there is a battle. We’re told in Genesis 14:9 that it was “four kings against five.” Surely it wasn’t just the kings! They must have had armies. Of course they did. But they were referenced by the titles of their kings.

So when these kings were defeated, the people were defeated. If they won, the people won. We have that sort of vocabulary left in terms of sporting events and even of war, but we use it with less meaning. Thus if we said that one person suffered or died for a nation, we would generally be saying that the one person suffered instead of others. But in the ancient near east, we might well be saying that the a whole family or a whole people group was included in the suffering of that one person. In this way we can say that in Christ we have all died, and in celebration of Easter, in Christ we have all been raised. It’s helpful to read the servant passages of 2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55 is identified as 2nd Isaiah) with this in mind. Is the servant a single individual, a group, or the whole of Israel. I think the answer must be “yes,” if we incorporate all the references.

In 1 John 1:8, we also need to note that there is a different sacrifice in view than a sin offering. Here the issue is cleansing, and it would probably be much better to understand this as a purification offering than a sin offering. (I will try to blog more about these offerings soon!) Jesus dies for us, in this case, but it is not in a forensic sense, not taking a penalty, but rather is a cleansing ritual.

In the gospel of John another way of expressing atonement, bridging the gap between God and humanity, is the simple one of looking up. We always cite John 3:16, but we’d do well to start with John 3:14 and not stop before John 3:21. Here the metaphor is a simple one of looking up. Looking up at the One sent by the Father, looking to the one who is our pioneer and representative, who is the head of our family, who is showing us the Father (John 1:18). It’s a very simple but important metaphor.

And in this metaphor Jesus also dies for us, i.e. on our behalf. It is not here a sacrifice for sin, but rather it is the way that he is lifted up so we can see him. The son of man is lifted up on the cross, and in turn, lifted up right out of the world at the resurrection, and this finalizes the mission, the work, that he performed for us, and a great deal of that work was revelatory, showing us the father, curing our blindness so we could see, and getting us to look up so we would be looking at the right person.

And this leads me back to the question implied by my title. Why did Jesus have to die?

One reason is simple: To complete his mission. If Jesus was the one sent from the Father, here to show God to us, and thus bridge the gap between heaven and earth, infinite God and finite us, then he needed to do so completely. One cannot come and live as a human without facing and eventually experiencing death. Death is such an overwhelming fact of life. To skip it would make the rest of the story rather meaningless. “For God so loved the world that he looked in on us for a while” just doesn’t have the same ring as coming and going the whole distance as we have to.

But why did the death have to be so awful?

Because that is how someone who behaved as Jesus did would die in first century Palestine. That was how the ruling government, the Romans, behaved. If you or I had lived in that time and had possessed the courage and integrity that Jesus did, we would likely have ended up the same way. Certainly, divinity could have avoided the end, but by doing so would have separated itself from humanity. And Jesus was here to do just the opposite.

I don’t want to deny any metaphor for the atonement. I think it is rich enough of a reality to allow for many metaphors. But I also don’t want to find myself limited to one way of looking at it. It is too rich in meaning to allow for that.

Here’s the YouTube of “I Finished the Work.”

According to John: I Finished the Work

Tonight (4/2/15) at 7:00 pm central time I’ll be continuing my study of John using the book Meditations on According to John by Herold Weiss. We’ll be working from chapter 10, “I Finished the Work.”

This is an exceptionally good chapter to be studying on Maundy Thursday, though I’m going to assume nobody will miss a Maundy Thursday service in order to listen! We’re going to talk about footwashing, signs, miracles, works, and witness and the difference between a sign and miracle. We’re also going to discuss what Jesus meant by “greater works” (John 14:12). What are these “greater works”?

Here’s the key quote from the chapter that will guide what I’ll be talking about tonight:

Jesus lived performing signs that pointed to the time when he would finish his work. Therefore the life of the Christian must provide signs that advertise the source of strength and vision for those who live by faith. Signs and faith must remain closely bound in the lives of the disciples of the one who is THE SIGN that must be seen and believed. (91-92)

Allan Bevere on the Left-Right Continuum

Allan Bevere says that the left-right continuum doesn’t work. He’s citing someone else’s work first, but he’s applying the results to theology and ethics as well as politics.

I use the term moderate to describe both my own politics and faith. This results from my view that there are many different issues with a continuum of possible views on each. As a moderate I neither assume that I must be at one end or the other of any continuum nor that I must accept a group of viewpoints. So in politics I lean toward the capitalist side on economics while on a number of social issues I lean toward what would be considered liberal. I’m not anti-war as such, but I approve of it only reluctantly under limited circumstances. I would probably be considered left of center on some social issues and right of center on others.

I’ve written on this before: Being a Passionate Moderate and Moderate Thinking. The word “moderate” has many uses. I choose to continue to use it and then to define what I mean, which is “not bound to any extreme or group of extremes.” That means that I can take a position that is seen as extreme if I think it’s justified. It’s also why my voter registration is as an independent. I strongly object to the institutionalization of the two party system.

In any case, read Allan’s post. It’s worth thinking about.



Tonight on the Energion Hangout

Using Google Hangouts on Air I’ll be having a conversation with Nick May and Heath Taws, two authors who are also young adults involved in pastoral ministry. Join the excitement!

Embedded YouTube player below:

Discussing Christian Unity Tonight

Last night I interviewed author Doris Horton Murdoch about the importance of testimonies. Here’s the YouTube:

In the Energion hangout for Consider Christianity Week tonight I’ll be joining Joel Watts and Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. to discuss Christian unity. Joel posted about this event today on his blog. The time is 7 pm central time.

You can find out more about the event on the Energion Publications Google+ page, or you can view it using the viewer below.


The Importance of Experience

I was thinking of titling this “In Which I Annoy My Evangelical United Methodist Friends,” since so many of them are talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and trying to privilege scripture within it in some way. I am not entirely in sympathy with many of these approaches.

You see, the moment I decided to take a closer look at the United Methodist Church was when I read in the United Methodist Discipline (1992, I think), about the sources of our faith. It’s not that I thought this statement was unique. Neither was it because I thought that Methodists had discovered the way to understand scripture correctly. Rather, I thought it honestly described what we actually do. And by “we” I do not mean just Methodists, but all Christians who use the Bible. We do not understand the Bible without our experience and our tradition, which is just experience collected across space/people and time. Reason ties these things together. Without our reason, we don’t come up with any interpretation of scripture at all.

What privileges scripture, to the extent that it is privileged, is that it is the most universal, most tested, and most accepted source. My personal experience may be very important to me. In fact, it is. My personal encounters with God have an enormous impact on how I understand my faith. But the fact that I believe that God has told me a certain thing doesn’t make that determinative for someone else.

Each congregation has a tradition, built on the collected experiences of that group. There will be similarities within a denomination, but there are local traditions. There are family traditions as well, collections of the experiences of members of that family over time. Denominations have traditions of their own and stand within broader tradition streams. For Methodists we have the Church of England as a source of tradition. Yes, we do carry things from that background. Then we have many who have broken off based on various elements of our own tradition.

All of these experiences have an impact, conscious or otherwise, on how we understand and apply scripture. It cannot be any other way.

This is one reason why I dislike the inerrancy debates, even though I’ve participated. I do not affirm the doctrine of inerrancy. The usual response to that is for someone who does affirm it to ask me for my list of errors with the intention of providing his or her list of resolutions for those errors. I don’t have a list of errors in scripture. I believe the Bible is what God wanted it to be. But that’s a belief that derives from my doctrine of God and not from any observations about the Bible and history or the Bible and science.

Each item on such a list of biblical errors can be translated as “My errant understanding of subject X says that my errant understanding of scripture passage Y is in error.” Where’s the inerrant standard, inerrantly understood, that lets me determine whether the Bible is actually inerrant?

So I make a different affirmation: When you’ve heard the message God has for you in scripture, that message is true. I follow it with an additional note: To the extent you need to, you can discover God’s message for you in scripture. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

I have absolute confidence that God is speaking. I have similar confidence that my hearing is defective. That goes whether I’m feeling God’s presence as I listen to Mahalia Jackson singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” hearing God’s voice in my head as I pray and spend silent time listening for it, or interpreting a passage of scripture.

So what advantage does scripture have over my general impressions? To paraphrase Paul, much in every way. I’m tremendously thankful to folks like Abraham who had to listen to God’s voice without having that huge body, the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) whose testimony has been tested over and over again. It’s the church’s testimony and it’s of paramount importance as I work my way through my own experiences.

Here’s a discussion of this very issue. Thomas Hudgins and I don’t agree on all the details, but we do agree that these things work together to give us confidence in God.

But it’s also a training ground. Read about maturity in Hebrews 5:11-14. The Bible fails if we treat it as systematic theology, as a science text, or even as a history text. That failure is not because of some list of theological, scientific, or historical errors. Rather, it’s because God has chose to speak through the testimony (witness to experience?) of many different people at different times and places. He requires us to use discernment and to see what is right and wrong as the decisions are placed before us.

quad1So back to the quadrilateral. I treat it both as quadrilateral and as equilateral. We can enter by any door. Any one of these elements may provide the right question and might contain the right answer. It will not always end at scripture.

But … and it’s an important but … there is a problem with the way United Methodists use the quadrilateral all too often. We tend to use it as a four lane highway. Which of the lanes can I get my idea through? If I get my idea through one, that’s enough. Instead, we need to use this as a four layer filter. Every answer we get to a question needs to interact with all elements. How does it relate to scripture? How does it fit with experience? What can we learn about this sort of thing through tradition? All of those questions will, of course, be processed by our reason. But that’s what the Spirit of Truth is for, after all, to guide us into all truth (John 16:13)! I illustrated this process with the diagram to the left in my book When People Speak for God.

I believe that the nature of scripture is absolutely intentional on God’s part. Rather than giving us easy answers to easy questions he has given us a combination of testimony to God’s action in the world and principles (embedded in the testimony) by which we can make such decisions. When Jesus says, “On these two hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40), he provides us with such a principle of interpretation. This is not a principle that helps you discover what the historical intent of a writer was. We have quite useful techniques of exegesis for that. But it provides us a principle for how we, as Christians living in the 21st century should apply it. Sometimes it says that the people who were doing their best to follow God didn’t live up to it. We should take those stories and try to hang the lessons we think we learn from them from the two commands as Jesus said.

It’s interesting to compare the stories of Patriarchs in Hebrews 11 to their sources in Hebrew scripture. Moses left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king (Hebrews 11:27), but he was afraid (Exodus 2:14). A biblical error? A contradiction? No! A testimony to what is seen by the eyes of faith.

We need to struggle with these stories if we’re to see where we are and where we need to be brought to greater maturity. How many of us need to learn not to fear the wrath of the king? But if we look earlier in that same passage, how many of us need to learn not to take God’s work into our own hands through violence?

Testimony, the telling of our own stories and experience, doesn’t give us the sort of systematic set of answers we might prefer. But it does train us to think, to discern, and to decide.

My guess is that’s what God was after in allowing scripture to come into being as it did.

Oh, and one more thing …

Tonight I’ll be talking with author Doris Horton Murdoch about testimonies in a Google Hangout on Air titled Lent: Season of Testimonies.

What the Greek REALLY Says!

This was so good I had to embed it!