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Philippians 2:1-11, Romans 12, and the Nature of Christian Community

Philippians 2:1-11, Romans 12, and the Nature of Christian Community

That’s a fairly ambitious title I gave myself, but the content is a bit less ambitious.

When I found that I’d be teaching from Philippians 2 in Sunday School, I commented that if someone couldn’t teach a class from Philippians 2:5-11, they should just give up teaching. That’s probably a bit harsh, but the passage is certainly teachable.

One key element, that we sometimes don’t emphasize in all the theology, is the fact that the expression of the mission of Jesus is made in the context of a call to Christian community.

Each one shouldn’t look after his or her own interests, but for one another’s interests.

Philippians 2:4 (my translation)

This is tied to the giving of/by Christ through verse 5, which tells us that our minds are to work like his, as we give for others. This is interesting as we see that he has given up much more than we could possibly possess in order to take action for our salvation.

It’s impossible for us to conceive of giving that much; certainly never to actually give it.

A similar call comes in John 15:12 “love one another as I have loved you.” This may sound easy to some, but only if you allow some weak definition of love to replace the one Jesus is using. This is on the way to the cross. “As I have loved you” is not simple.

Yet we find ourselves constantly unable to love those who are different from us in any way whatsoever.

One way to look at and classify a community is to look at the purpose of it’s ties, those things that make it a community that can be identified. A community can gather together and love (or care for, or commit themselves to) one another because they are afraid of the outside world and want to keep it out, or they can commit themselves to the same sorts of values in order to reach out and include the rest of the world.

“Circling the wagons,” is common in westerns. Heaven help the person inside the circle who thought that those outside might be open to peace! Such a person is a traitor, even if they don’t intend to act on their own, because they question the very basis for the circled wagons. They question the reason for this temporary community’s existence.

A medical or dental mission team displays quite the opposite reason. Far from desiring to protect themselves against those they meet in a foreign country, they want to serve. They are bound together by the intent to serve and through the mission they wish to carry out. In this case, the one who wants to reach out to more people is welcomed. The traitor would be one who harms the ability of the team (temporary community) to carry out their mission.

Real communities function between those two poles. One needs identity in order to be of any sort of service. In the command of Jesus, the disciples are to be identified by the way in which they love one another. That makes it clear who is in the community and what the community does.

Then we have the community reaching out to others. Is this love inside the community the mission of that community? Do they bring in more people to love?

If they are to follow the example of Jesus, that must be what they do, because that is what Jesus did. He came to people (all humanity) who did not find him all that attractive. They’d rather have revenge on their enemies than love them. They weren’t ready for Jesus. We aren’t ready for Jesus.

If the community that forms around his principles becomes inward looking, and spends its time defending itself as a privileged community of people who are more right in a theological or even an ethical sense, they will fail to actually emulate their Lord.

Romans 12 points to this when Paul calls for application of these principles to enemies (12:20), to persecutors (12:14), to those who do evil (12:17).

There is another side, the side where we lose our identity. If we become the enemy in order to love the enemy we may lose our ability to help. This is why Christian love is so hard and so rarely attained.

I read a comment recently that we can’t expect our children to love other people if we constantly tell them those other people are wrong. Perhaps. But Christian love calls on us to love the people even when they’re wrong, because we know that God loves us, even when we’re wrong.

This is our identity and our witness, defined by the one we call Lord.

Is There Ever a Good Reason to Leave Your Church?

Is There Ever a Good Reason to Leave Your Church?

I was reading this article on the reasons people leave, titled 5 Rather Startling Reasons People Leave Your Church, and while it is by no means the worst offender, it reminded me of an interesting characteristic of church growth/health books and articles.

The problem is this: We, as leaders in the church, tend to assume that the leadership (of which we’re a part) is right, and the departing members are wrong.

I think that’s frequently not the case. I’ve discussed before my reasons for changing denominations. I grew up Seventh-day Adventist and am now a member of a United Methodist congregation. When I last changed church membership, I assumed it would not be to another United Methodist congregation. The accuracy of my assumption did not quite make it into “true” on the meter.

I actually agree with much of what this article says. Don’t get discouraged because someone leaves. People don’t always leave because you’re doing something wrong.

The inverse of the problem is this: We, as leaders in the church, tend in our darker moments to assume that the leadership (of which we’re a part) must be wrong because members are departing.

Neither of the two assumptions is correct.

So let me look at it from the point of view of the member. What is a good reason to leave your church?

Here, I think, there is a clear, but difficult answer. Ask yourself this: Am I leaving this church to answer a call of God to be somewhere else, or am I leaving it because of my own complaints?

I consider this a good question even if you’re complaining about inappropriate or just plain wrong teachings or policies in the church you’re leaving. The question is always: Where does God want me to be?

That question doesn’t have to be answered by a voice from heaven. It’s an application of wisdom. Where are you best able to serve God? Is God perhaps calling you to be a voice for reformation where you are? Is God looking for you to be a witness elsewhere? Are you needing to learn from someone?

I wouldn’t get too worried about it as long as you’re searching for the best way to serve. If you are looking for a way to get your own way, you’re going to be dissatisfied wherever you go.

Always be on the lookout for where God wants you. Follow that. It may be hard, but it will also be satisfying.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

A God That’s Cool

A God That’s Cool

Whats God Really LIke

In the introduction to his book What’s God Really Like? S. J. Hill tells the story of a student who announced at the end of a term in a class he taught, that she had discovered that God was cool.

I don’t know how you react to that, but the moment I read that line I knew that I’d be offering the author a contract to publish the book. I’ve long been annoyed by all the theological words we use to describe God, even when those words are true.

My question is this: Do we understand the words? Does “omnipotent” mean anything to me? Does “infinite?” One can get infinitely wordy and yet communicate very little.

What’s more, how likely are we to be attracted to a relationship with a God because of all of these ultimate words? It’s not that I do not believe God is ultimate. In fact, I like the language of Paul Tillich that God is our “ultimate concern,” and that making anything that is not actually ultimate our ultimate concern is idolatry.

This idea of ultimate concern leads to the claim that faith in God is something that involves and demands everything. To quote Tillich, “Faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements” (Dynamics of Faith, Nook position 16).

Notice how I jumped into theological speaking in discussing this topic. I think Tillich is talking about a dynamic God, an exciting God, and I even personally love what he has to say about this God. But can we say this a bit more to the point?

A God who engages your whole personality, who is ultimate in everything, will have to be more dynamic than a set of theological definitions. God must be more than a collection of attributes. To be truly dynamic, the God we’re talking about here must be exciting, interesting, all-encompassing.

In a word, Cool!

Unless, of course, you mean something different than I do by “cool!”

In his little book Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job, Bruce Epperly notes:

Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim once noted that the most important theological question is not “Do you believe in God?” but “What kind of God do you believe in?” The author of Job would concur with Fretheim’s vision. Job is a God-filled book, reflecting the deep piety of its author and his main character. Like the Psalms, Job describes a faith for every season of life and shows that piety can be revealed as much in our questions as in our affirmations.

Bruce G. Epperly, Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job, p. 8

Now who could possibly go to the book of Job to find a cool God? That’s a frightening place! A God who was involved in all that couldn’t possibly be cool.

Let me detour for a moment. I recall traveling with a friend who was not a Christian. We had a long time to discuss things. My son James had died only a few weeks before. After a considerable discussion of the nature of my faith, my friend said, “I so admire you for keeping your faith through all of that.”

I was a bit shocked. It was my faith that had held me together. I had spent much of that time with God, something yelling and screaming. Sometimes weeping. But also sometimes laughing.

The God that could ride with me when I had hours to travel to a speaking engagement while James was in intensive care is a God I can call cool. Yes, I can use terms like merciful, kind, compassionate, and loving. Those are all good. But the reality is more lively.

Until I read S. J. Hill’s book, I hadn’t thought of the word. I like it.

Bruce Epperly also comments that theology begins in the experience of disappointment and suffering (ibid, 3).

My challenge as we explore the nature of God is to connect that point of entry with discovery of a God whose personality is pleasing. Yes, a God who is cool.

The Danger in Appealing to the Miraculous

The Danger in Appealing to the Miraculous

A friend’s post on Facebook got me thinking about this verse:

I said to them, “If anyone has items made of gold, bring them. And they gave them to me, and I threw them in the fire, and out came this calf.”

(Exodus 32:24, my translation from the LXX)

I can’t help but think that Aaron is hoping that a claim of miraculous activity will somehow justify his action. Moses wasn’t buying it, as his actions show.

We laugh, but how often to we make Aaron’s appeal?

Appeal to Blessings and Curses

In fact, I think we do this from both directions. If someone is blessed, we often say they must be following God’s will because look at all the blessings! On the other hand, if someone is suffering hardship, we say, “They must be doing God’s work, otherwise the devil wouldn’t be after them that way!”

Depending on how we feel about the people, we might just reverse those things. “Look at how their worldly behavior is resulting in increased worldly good! Must not be very spiritual with all that money!” Or, “If you were truly doing God’s will, you wouldn’t be having all those hardships.”

The Bible story presents many examples that stand in opposition, no matter which of these options you take. In preparing for my Sunday School lesson tomorrow, I read Isaiah 53, which is one of background passages:

He was despised, rejected by humanity,
Beaten, experiencing disease.
We turned and looked away from him,
We despised him and accounted him nothing.

Isaiah 53:3 (my translation)

Whether you apply this to Israel as God’s servant, or to the remnant of exiled Israel whom God would restore, or to Jesus as the suffering servant, it still refers to someone who is suffering, even though they are in the process of carrying out God’s plan.

In Philippians (chapter 2 was the reading, but I refer back to chapter 1 as well), we find Paul in prison. He is suffering. There are those who proclaim the gospel in a way intended to give him pain. It’s possible these were people who thought their view and presentation of the gospel was superior to Paul’s, and were using his suffering as a basis for asserting that superiority. Surely God would free Paul if his teaching was so good!

Yet in the key reading for today’s lesson, we have the note that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped or hung onto (Philippians 2:6), yet clearly it is not Paul’s intent to suggest Jesus, in giving up everything, was not following God’s plan.

The Case of Prophecy

In discussing prophecy, many make frequent reference to Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If a prophet makes a prediction and that word does not come true, God has not spoken. This test of a prophet is both simple and deadly.

Consider Jonah. He made a prediction, and that prediction did not come true. He was really annoyed, because he wanted Nineveh destroyed. I’m sure he was also annoyed, because now he was a false prophet.

Turn that around and think of the Ninevites. Suppose they have their version of Deuteronomy 18:21-22. They say, “Well, if he’s a true prophet, the city will be destroyed in 40 days and we can be certain.”

I call this the “dead test” for a prophet, because by the time you’ve completed your test and made a determination, you’re likely dead. Not an optimum strategy, I would say. Of course, if you’re not dead, find that prophet and a pile of rocks.

Too bad for Jonah.

Another Example: 1 Kings 22

In 1 Kings 22 we have a lovely story in which Jehoshaphat of Judah, by all accounts a good king, is visiting the king of Israel. While there, they get the idea to go to war. Jehoshaphat, good king that he was, wanted to consult the LORD. The king of Israel gets 400 prophets who tell the two kings to do what they want to do.

Jehoshaphat is not satisfied and looks for one more prophet. Micaiah is brought in, and he prophesies something quite different. The day isn’t going to go well. (You can get out your Bible and read the details.)

So if you’re one of the two kings, how do you make a decision? If Micaiah is prophesying falsely, you can ignore him, but by the time you know that, you will also have lost the battle. Not so helpful!

The Other Test

Deuteronomy has another test, however, and it’s an important one.

If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God—who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery—to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5 (NRSV)

In this case your test is one that can be done immediately. Is this person telling us to worship other gods? I wonder if that was not the reason Jehoshaphat doubted the word of the 400 prophets. Unfortunately, even though he was wise enough to ask for one more prophet, he was apparently unwilling to go with the advice of the prophet he requested.

The Case of Gifts

I’ve seen this used in connection with spiritual gifts. People look for a manifestation of miraculous gifts, sometimes a specific gift, or one off of a list Paul provides. But Paul is never intending to provide exhaustive lists of the spiritual gifts. That’s why his lists don’t match. He’s just giving us examples. In each case, he’s providing a different test, not one that appeals to miraculous (or at least obviously miraculous) activity.

In 1 Corinthians 12, we are given a view of the real test in verses 4-7, as the example list is introduced. There are varieties of gifts, but one Spirit, one Lord, one God. It is by looking at the One in whose service the gifts are used that we can discern their nature.

No Simple Answer

Scripture doesn’t provide us with a single, simple answer. It leaves us with the task of discernment. Are your troubles due to the devil trying to stop your carrying out of God’s work, or are they God closing doors? Is your wealth God’s blessing in response to your following God’s will, or is it the devil rewarding a servant?

You find this out through prayer, thinking, discernment, study, and good counsel. The result may be miraculous!

(Theme image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Is Your Worship a Joy

Is Your Worship a Joy

As I’ve been setting up a series of posts on thinking about God, I’ve discussed a little bit what our theology can do, and what it cannot. For example, in a video yesterday, I talked about how our theological knowledge cannot save us.

Yet at the same time it can mess us up. I was told that Stanley Hauerwas started a class on liturgy by saying: “Lousy liturgy makes lousy Christians.” I’m not sure he was right on it, and of course that’s second hand, but I do think our liturgy may well say something about how we think about God.

I was reading one of my own articles from several years ago, titled Dance Floor Worship. Here’s a line:

Our problem, I believe, is that we want to make sacred things, while God wants us to make things sacred.

I’d like to suggest reading my entire essay. It’s from a number of years ago, and I hope my thinking has grown, but I think I was pointing to a few things that can be important for us.

I’m going to embed my advertising video for S. J. Hill’s book. The reason I’m doing so is that I think I have illustrated here some of the problems in what we think about God and how that will impact our actions and our worship.

If you believe God is about to hammer you because you’re not so wonderful, then you may well either be afraid to be in God’s presence. If, on the other hand, you are aware of God’s grace and God’s gifts, you may be aware that even though you are a minute speck in this universe, the God of the universe cares about you.

How can you join the chorus? When you believe that the God whose power is displayed throughout the universe is also one who cares about you.

Symbols, Actions, and Idolatry

Symbols, Actions, and Idolatry

I encountered a question recently that I’d like to explore a bit. The question comes in three parts, or perhaps with three perspectives.

  • When God commanded the Israelites to look to the bronze serpent to be healed, was God commanding idolatry?
  • Why would God give this command?
  • Was this a good command?

It’s easy to dismiss the question by simply saying that it is God’s command, therefore good, and further cannot be a command to sin. But if we consider that, as Paul says, “these things are examples for us” (1 Corinthians 10:6), perhaps we might want to explore just why God would command such a thing.

Idolatry

Let me first note that idolatry is rather easy to fall into. We are very much idol-making people. I often use Paul Tillich’s vocabulary in this, that idolatry is making something that is not ultimate your ultimate concern. We can take a book, such as the Bible, from which we get God’s Word, and make the book, the thing, into the object of worship.

An example of this would be using the Bible as a sort of magical talisman. I have seen people who expect the possession and use of the physical book to accomplish miracles. Not so! The power of scripture is in revealing God who is the one who takes action. It is not minimizing or dismissing the book to realize that it is what conveys to us God’s will rather than being magical or an object of worship.

An unopened Bible sitting on the shelf in your home in a prominent place might well become your idol. You believe you are closer to God because of the object. A picture of Jesus might function in a similar way. It displays to others your faith. The question is, are you in Christ and Christ in you? That same picture on the wall might either be a reminder or it might be an idol.

I have three crosses over the door to my office. If I treat them as an object of worship, and forget what they symbolize, they could easily become an idol.

Some Objects and Commands

The ark of the covenant became a problem in this very way in scripture. It was commanded by God and built according to God’s instructions. It was supposed to be there in the temple. There was some critical symbolism involved in that under those cherubim, where there would have been an image of a god in a temple of another religion, there was empty space. Empty, at least, to human sight.

This was part of the ritual of Israel’s worship. It played a key role. But when the sons of Eli decided to take it from the tabernacle and to war, something else happened. Idolatry broke out! In 1 Samuel 4 we have the story, as Israel gives this triumphant shout, the Philistines hear it and decide that the gods have come into the camp of Israel.

Israel’s actions were idolatrous. They thought that God was confined to the thing. Now the thing was good. It was commanded by God, but it was being used in a way that was inappropriate. Idolatry is dangerous, because it disconnects us from God and connects us to, and limits us by, our own power.

As a public event, this idolatry also provided a false witness to the Philistines, who believed that God was again limited to the object.

So the question becomes, why did God want the ark built if it could be so misused?

In this case, we have considerable evidence to suggest why this should be. The ark provided an important symbol in Israel’s worship, and even an antidote to idolatry in what it symbolized.

At the same time we see one of the key sources of idolatry: We really like to have something to take hold of, something we can see, and a course of action that will let us take control. When Eli’s sons took the ark, they were trying to force God’s hand. If God wouldn’t save them from a distance, they’d bring God to where God could do what they wanted done.

We combine that with liking to repeat the action. If it works once, let’s do it again.

The Command to Worship

We have many rituals commanded in the Hebrew scriptures, yet the prophets tend to downplay these to some extent. I think a good place to look at this is Psalm 51. Here we have a prayer of repentance, which says that God doesn’t want sacrifice (v. 16), but then says that burnt offerings will be acceptable (v. 19). What’s the difference? Repentance!

The point of the sacrifice is a ritual that works with, reminds us of, and reinforces the actions that we need to take. It is a good ritual in that sense. But if we replace repentance with a ritual of repentance, the action itself becomes idolatry. It suggests that some action I take can box God in. “Oh well,” it says to God, “I may have sinned, but I offered a sacrifice so now you’re stuck with forgiving me.”

We have an idolatry of action, by placing the action in place of God. Only God forgives. Leviticus and Numbers are worded carefully to not suggest that forgiveness is accomplished by the sacrifice. Rather, forgiveness comes from God. The sacrifice is God’s command, and becomes a means of bringing us to repentance and keeping us there.

So here’s another command of God that can be abused, and in much the same way as the ark of the covenant was abused by Eli’s sons.

A Means of Healing

When Naaman comes to Elisha for healing he’s told to dip himself in the Jordan river seven times (2 Kings 5). Is there something particularly efficacious about the water of the Jordan river? Not at all! This is something God is commanding Naaman to do. The action doesn’t heal. God heals. God asks for that act of obedience before God heals.

Now we could make a cult out of Jordan river water, saying that it has special healing powers. Come to think of it, we do make quite a thing out of Jordan river water, being baptized in it, bringing back bottles of it from trips to Israel.

Now don’t get me wrong. Enjoying an experience isn’t idolatry. But if you for one moment think that being baptized in the Jordan river is better than being baptized elsewhere, that the water of that particular river has more power to cleanse from sin, you have fallen into idolatry.

The Idolatry of Places

When Jesus is transfigured, Peter wants to set up camp. It’s a sacred place. It’s a natural response (Matthew 17, see especially verse 4 for Peter’s response).

That response was also natural in both Jews and Samaritans. It’s better to worship on Mt. Gerizim. It’s better to worship in Jerusalem. All of which depends on what God has commanded. It is not the place that does it, though a place can help us. I like to pray in the church sanctuary. Is this idolatry? Only if I believe that it’s the only place God can reach me.

Jesus said that those who worship God will worship in spirit and truth, and not based on place (John 4:23).

Again, it’s easy to see how the command works. Gathering in a place is part of the human process of building community, so God commands a place. Making the place more sacred than God is our desire to bring things under our own control. A good command becomes an idolatry of the particular place.

About that Snake!

In the case of the snake on a pole (Numbers 21:4-9). Here we have a simple command of God that the Israelites are to look to the serpent and they will be healed.

Before I go to our three related questions, let’s look at two other scriptural points of reference. The first is 2 Kings 18:4. Hezekiah is reforming the land and destroying idols. He destroys the very serpent referenced in Numbers 21:4-9 at the time. Why? Because people were burning incense to the serpent and had even named it. This is idolatry. What God had once commanded and used for God has been turned to another purpose.

This is one of the best illustrations of the process of idolatry. We find something good, something that God commands or approves, and there are good results. Instead of realizing that it is God’s power in action, we make that set of actions, circumstances, things, or the very location the means of our receiving good. We are then worshiping the creature, rather than the creator (Romans 1:25).

In this case we have another scriptural reference point:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him can have eternal life.

John 3:14-15 (my translation)

Here we have a symbol by analogy, so again the serpent, destroyed by Hezekiah, serves God’s purpose. Never underestimate God’s power to redeem, whether that redemption is of a symbol or of a person!

A key here, as back in Numbers, is that the person looks up to the serpent but is healed by God, and there’s a fulfillment in a person looking up to Jesus and seeing God. The lesser symbol points to the greater/greatest.

The Questions

Is God commanding idolatry? No. God’s command is to look at, not to worship the snake. The healing comes from God. Idolatry would be to assume that the snake healed. But the text doesn’t say that.

Why does God command people to look at the snake? This one is harder. I don’t really know. By analogy, I assume it has something to do with teaching them other lessons. I can also look forward to the lifting up of Jesus. But how this act connected for the people I don’t know. I understand, however, that making a place of worship, providing an ark, and providing sacrifices each had an impact on the people, and I assume this did as well.

Was it a good command? God’s word doesn’t return empty. Just because I don’t know the reasoning, which is lost in history, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know. My guess is that Moses and the people understood this in a way I can’t, that it made sense in the situation. I have heard numerous explanations, and I can’t claim any one as definite. The fact that someone turned it into idolatry down the road doesn’t indicate that the command itself was bad. We are idol making machines. We make idols.

Was This a Good Question?

Perhaps I could word that differently. Should we ask this kind of question of God’s actions? Should we not just assume that God’s command is good?

I would suggest that this is an excellent question. If you don’t ask this kind of question of a story in scripture, you can’t really learn from it. Simply appending a moral that says, “God said it, so it’s good,” doesn’t involve much learning.

There are commands in scripture that are much more troubling, I think, and we need to be prepared to examine and see what we can learn.

Knowing About God or Knowing God

Knowing About God or Knowing God

In the dim reaches of time (no, no dinosaurs, not that long ago) I was attending college, and right during registration for my second year, I heard the call of God to study biblical languages. The call is another story, but whether it was God or not, the idea of studying the languages fit with my personality and preconceptions.

The most important thing was to get “it” right, and “it” was whatever God had revealed. For me, this meant the Bible, and so what I needed was to go back to the original texts, a task I thought possible in those days. I also hoped to be independent, not looking to any human being to tell me what God had said, but rather to have discovered this for myself. I also thought this was an attainable goal.

More fool me.

Avoiding Theology

In pursuit of this goal, I wanted to avoid the study of theology, because theology was separated from the Bible. Why study theologians when I could study the actual source? Why discuss theological ideas unless they were very directly rooted in the biblical text?

This attitude was based on my belief that God had provided a complete and final set of facts in the Bible, and that if I got these right, I would also be right with God. I had a certain amount of perfectionism in my make-up. I’d gone to a Christian school where papers were to be completed perfectly before a student went on. I’d memorized scripture there and then had to write it perfectly, including punctuation. That exercise complete, I had to record it, again perfectly.

I do not remember these things as chores. To me they seemed quite the proper way of going about one’s learning. Wrong wasn’t really an option. I was doubtless wrong many times, but I never believed I was wrong, so no problem!

Theologians, because they were arguing from theological premise to new conclusion, were certainly on the wrong track, because they would certainly never attain certainty. You needed to be absolutely right about God.

Certainty Evaporates in the Face of an Uncertain Text

I got pretty good with biblical languages, but I also had the bad taste to study textual criticism, and in that I discovered several things. First, I would never to absolutely certain of the biblical text. My textual criticism teacher made sure I understood that by having me create my own critical text based on the manuscript images available to me. Using a limited set of resources (this was before the internet and folks like CSNTM), I was unable to produce an absolutely certain text of half a dozen verses. Not even my determination was able to convince me that my goal of independently getting to the very root of scripture was attainable.

As I studied further into biblical criticism, I also found that even the idea of the original text was fraught with difficulties. Jeremiah comes in two versions. Daniel and Esther have additions. What would constitute the original text?

A Question of Goals

There are those who assume I left the church for a period of nearly 12 years because of these issues regarding the Bible. Many assume I went to a liberal seminary and was led astray. Neither of those things is true. I had plenty of teachers who tried to get me to get to know God, and most of my professors were quite conservative by any standard.

What happened to me was a failure to connect the data points I had about God with a knowledge of and experience of God. I knew a great deal about God. I knew God not at all. My worship life withered away in graduate school.

People told me what was going on. Lucille Knapp, who taught me Greek, would comment regularly about the literary beauty of passages. For graduation, she gave me a book of religious verse with a pointed suggestion that not everything was to be found in digging through the Greek. Alden Thompson, my advisor, regularly pointed to issues of devotion, of connecting to God and not just to stuff about God. In graduate school, my advisor Leona Running similarly pointed me to other things, while at the same time helping to satisfy my thirst for research about the data.

With the data in hand, I left the church. All churches.

In a post some months ago, Wanting to Be Right Theologically, I noted this pursuit of righteousness by correct theology. If we just get our beliefs right, we’ll be OK. But as important as our theology can be, this is just as much, or more of a burden than aiming work our way into favor with God. It doesn’t work.

Theology is important, but it’s importance is in the way it can help us relate to God, most importantly in realizing that letting God into our lives isn’t the end, but a new beginning.

Ramblings for the Coming Year

This is going to be my topic for a number of posts in the coming year.

I got started on making it a topic through working on the book by S. J. Hill, What’s God Really Like?: Unique Insights into His Fascinating Personality. As Stephen R. Crosby says in his endorsement of the book, “A robust theology of beauty is, and has been, conspicuously absent in much of western theology.”

Even when we get things technically right, when we realize that God’s grace is sufficient, we can end up with a dry faith, a boring faith, a rather sad faith. We can find ourselves saved by, and living by, the data. We can have a relationship with our theological beliefs, and not with the one we believe in.

I’m going to follow S. J. Hill’s book through, but I’m going to use many other books, primarily ones that I publish (I am a publisher, and this is what I do!), but also others. I can think off-hand of a range of books from my list, including most of our devotional category, that have helped to drive me in the direction of really enjoying God and seeing God as having a personality, and not just an entry in a theological dictionary. I’ll mention many of these books, but I’ll also be writing about my own experience and thinking and looking at the scriptures.

Join me in thinking about these things, and hopefully in experiencing a God of beauty.

I will be keeping books on a resource page here.

What Do I Do About Grace?

What Do I Do About Grace?

This question has come up a number of times in my Romans study group, and it’s a good one. I’m not one to call all questions good. In fact, I think if you ask the wrong question, you often end up with an answer that leads you astray.

In this case, however, we’ve gone from Romans 1 through 11, and we’ve been learning about God’s faithfulness and God’s grace. One class member commented that the answer to any question I ever asked should be “God’s grace is sufficient.” That’s not a bad answer. Sometimes, however, we need to go a bit further.

Paul’s going to do just that starting with Romans 12. Now some people write, teach, and preach as though Paul talks about theology and then makes a break with his theology in order to talk about action or ethics. I disagree. Paul makes clear in Romans 12 that he is building on what he has said before, and what he says is very well founded. We should read his “therefore” in 12:1 as tying this together.

Because God is faithful, because God has given us his grace, here is the result.

Using the Word “Law”

One of the critical elements in understanding Romans, which leads up to this point, is Paul’s usage of the word “law.” When I was in my late teens a person I respected greatly told me that the big mistake in reading Romans and Galatians was misunderstanding “law.” This person told me to understand it as “Torah,” i.e., the practice of Judaism. The issue of the law here was one of whether gentiles needed first to be Jews.

This is doubtless one of Paul’s points, but it is far from Paul’s whole point. That definition works better in much of Galatians, where requiring gentiles to practice Judaism, with the entry point of circumcision, is much more central. In Romans, Paul uses “law” in some different senses.

Our tendency here is to try to find out which one sense Paul is using and then apply it throughout, but this may not be the best approach. “Law” can have quite a sizable semantic range, including God’s divine law and purpose for all time, specific bodies of law, such as the Torah as a whole, or the instructions to Noah, or even specific commands. English usage of Law doesn’t quite extend to a body of broad instruction, but that is part of the range of Paul’s usage.

A Diagram

Here’s a diagram I provided to my class. I’m going to write a few notes about it. Obviously, this is abbreviated. We have spent months getting to this point with my Romans class.

I started to put all the notes and the text on the diagram, but that proved a bit too complex and confusing. So herewith a few notes.

God has made no plan ever that was not intended to produce a holy people. God has a glorious purpose for us, and reaching that purpose perfectly is the ultimate goal. We have, however, all fallen well short of that, and we continue to fall short. But God’s grace is sufficient.

There should be no balance between faith and works or grace and works, because these are different things and cannot be balanced. There is no amount of works that I can do that will force God’s hand or earn God’s favor. I like to use navigation by the pole star. Think of yourself orienting your journey by sighting Polaris. You do not believe you’re going to get to Polaris by walking in that direction, but you do believe that you’ll get to another destination. The fact that you cannot reach it doesn’t make it less of a guide for what you can reach. (You can find my calculations on the north star here, along with much other verbage!)

The key here is the invitation of grace, the invitation to be “in Christ,” in which we allow God to work on us and change us, but we cease judging ourselves or others according to the ultimate perfection of a goal we cannot possibly attain.

Idolatry

The short line at the bottom left deals with idolatry. The true problem with idolatry is that it places something less than God in the place of God. That can be our own desire to attain, to be in control. We like to be in control. We feel safer if we can say that God will take us to heaven because we have completed a list of chores. But that’s placing something less than God in God’s place.

Similarly, we can place something less than God’s perfect law in the place of God’s law. (My friend Pat Badstibner has written about this in The Law Is Not Soggy Corn Flakes.) I use Paul Tillich’s terminology to some extent, that idolatry is making something not ultimate your ultimate concern. So we have those who decide that this perfection thing being unattainable, we need to find something attainable and do that.

Doing the attainable with God (see Philippians 2:12-13 and John 15:1-8) is just fine. God knows where he can take you, and through sanctifying grace will guide you there. (Here’s where I depart from Wesley’s plan. I don’t believe in Christian perfection. I believe that is only accomplished with glorification. It should be made clear, however, that the perfection Wesley spoke about was not the attainment of all of God’s glorious purpose for us either.)

We start to step into idolatry when we start to trim God’s standards so that they look better to us. By this, again, I don’t mean looking at attainable goals. In fact, that is precisely what God has done with us. I show this in my diagram by the lines representing God’s commands and laws for times and circumstances.

God’s goal is always the same, but God works this out in many different ways in various times and places.

God’s Grace Is the Context

On the right I put the long red line that represents God’s grace. That is the one and only thing that connects us to an infinite God. Only God can cross that gap.

Let me apply this now to the particular question that came up in class multiple times. What do we do about sin in our midst? Do we forgive, excuse, confront, ignore?

And here is where we need to watch out. Matthew 7:1 is, I think, one of the most misunderstood and simultaneously disobeyed passages of scripture. It’s an important command. We also have Matthew 7:15ff regarding watching out for false prophets and knowing them by their fruit. Is this latter not an act of judgment?

I would say that we have to regularly inspect fruit and make decisions based on that. We might have to choose between one person and another to lead the children’s ministry. We might have to decide whether a pastor or teacher is acting as a false prophet. Those would be acts of judgment in one sense.

Guidance

The guidance I see in my chart is simply this: We also judge and inspect fruit in the light of the law and the laws.

First, we understand ourselves to be the objects of infinite grace. We are, ourselves, sinners, in need of God’s grace and action. I realize many find this hard to accept, but I see it in the context of broader reality. I am so pitiful that without God’s creative power I would not exist at all. Thus saying I need God in order to do good is a minor derivative. From that flows the idea that all depends on God.

Second, as recipients of God’s grace, we know that God is working in us and through us and that we are witnesses to the working of God’s grace. I often tell Christian audiences that there’s no question whether you will witness. The question is whether you will be a good witness or a bad one.

Thus we conduct all our fruit inspection in the context of the knowledge that we are recipients of God’s infinite grace, and not as superior people looking down upon lesser mortals. That position is left to God.

So how does that help one decide whether to confront or remain quiet?

Simply this: It sets the context. What is right becomes the question of what is the right thing to do as a recipient of God’s grace. Proverbs 26:4-5 provides a similar issue. Read it and then ask yourself the question. If I find a fool speaking, which should I do? Listen to the Holy Spirit and decide in the context of grace.

All to God’s Glory

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all things to God’s glory.” So ask, “Am I doing this for God’s glory, or am I doing it to justify myself or even glorify myself?” and “Is this done as an act of grace, or an act of condemnation?”

Substitutionary Atonement: One of Many Perspectives

Substitutionary Atonement: One of Many Perspectives

I have often annoyed people by saying both that I believe in substitutionary atonement, though I prefer not to use “penal substitutionary atonement,” and also do not believe it is the sole reason for, view of, or metaphor to describe what God did in the atonement.

So it’s nice to link to Roger Olson, who may be a bit less critical of substitutionary views than I am, but yet explains both the positive in this theory of the atonement and also some of the misunderstandings. If nothing else, this may help us discuss serious presentations. Well worth reading.