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Beware CNN Bearing Bible Verses

Beware CNN Bearing Bible Verses

Mom’s Grave Marker

When my mother passed away in April, my brother and sisters and I chose a text for her grave marker: “I will content with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children” (Isaiah 49:25, KJV). It was one of mother’s favorite texts, and her concept of “children” was broad. She was a nurse and a teacher and was involved in the lives of many.

There was, however, a period in her life when she was deprived of her favorite text. Someone with scholarly credentials told her that the text didn’t mean what she thought it meant, and that she could not claim this as a promise for herself that God would save her children.

She confided this to me in the car one day. She was deeply saddened not to have this text, but she didn’t want to use it if she was misusing it.

Now if one looks at the context of the passage, both literary and historical, it is not talking about spiritual salvation of the descendants of a modern American mother, or of keeping them safe from all danger. It’s talking about the exiles of Judah who are to be brought back to their homeland. In that sense, anyone outside of the time frame of 2nd Isaiah cannot claim the passage for themselves, as it isn’t talking about them. It’s addressed narrowly and specifically.

So are quite a large number of Bible verses.

So here’s how I responded. I told her that yes, indeed, the historical context was different, but that I saw in that passage something about the character of God, portrayed in this passage. God is a God of redemption and works to redeem. God is interested in the generations to come. (It might not surprise you in this context to learn that Psalm 78:1-8 is my theme text for my teaching ministry. God cares about the generations to follow.) I could certainly find many other texts to indicate this as well, but Isaiah 49:25 encapsulates it very well, while placing it in the context of God’s negative judgment as well. This suggests in turn that God’s judgment is intended to result eventually in redemption.

So while the text was not addressed to Myrtle Neufeld in the 20th century (which was when the conversation occurred), and did not specifically speak of her children and what would happen to them, it did express God’s nature and desire for those children. My mother was never naive enough to believe that, despite any choices made, God would make everything right. What she did believe was that God was working to save her children at all times and in all circumstances.

Mom decided that she could use the text after all. Mission accomplished.

So today I read this article from CNN. What struck me in this was not the debate about Romans 13. I have definite opinions on that, but at the moment I will only note that people I respect deeply, who are both sincere and well qualified, disagree with my definite opinions on Romans 13. Well, I should acknowledge that many agree as well! I’ll get to the matter of disagreeing on the meaning of texts in a moment.

The passage that struck me was Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Or let me quote a bit more in context:

10 It is a great joy to me in the Lord that after so long your care for me has now revived. I know you always cared; it was opportunity you lacked. 11 Not that I am speaking of want, for I have learned to be self-sufficient whatever my circumstances. 12 I know what it is to have nothing, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have been thoroughly initiated into fullness and hunger, plenty and poverty. 13 I am able to face anything through him who gives me strength. 14 All the same, it was kind of you to share the burden of my troubles.

The Revised English Bible. (1996). (Php 4:10–14). Cambridge; New York; Melbourne; Madrid; Cape Town; Singapore; São Paulo; Delhi; Dubai; Tokyo: Cambridge University Press.

You know something? Here’s the comment from the article:

When the Apostle Paul wrote that line, he was referring to a Christian’s ability to withstand suffering. It wasn’t about winning; it was about enduring loss. Paul wasn’t taking a victory lap; he was in prison contemplating his execution, says Van Voorst, a professor at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan.

Um, true. Paul didn’t play basketball. But he wasn’t just talking about a Christian’s ability to withstand suffering. He was talking about being able to handle whatever life throws at you. If you’re a basketball player, what life throws at you might be a career-ending injury or it might be an opportunity to make a couple of free throws to end the game victoriously. Yes, it is quite possible to apply this verse in ways that are not appropriate. It doesn’t mean you’re always going to win, for example.

Neither does Romans 8:28ff. The passage goes on to say that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. It’s a powerful passage about spiritual things, about our ultimate salvation. But it’s also a powerful passage about God being with us at all times. It doesn’t mean things will happen the way I want them to. It does mean that, in the end, what God works out will be good. And yes, that good may come in the next life.

I have two major problems with what goes on in this article, though first I must note that many things noted there about abused texts are quite correct. It’s certainly possible to misuse a text. It’s also possible to disagree quite rationally about the meaning of a text or to rob that text of all applicability.

  1. My first problem is this: Biblical scholars can suck the lifeblood from Scripture. With enough historical study, one can assure that nothing in Scripture applies to anything in anyone’s life. Scripture is understood in community, and how it applies to the present grows out of the community and its understanding. It is important to use historical scholarship as an anchor. It’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the history. But for those who believe that God is still God, it’s quite possible to think that God might act again in ways God has acted before. If you don’t believe God is still God, your argument is on that point, not in the understanding of Scripture.I would hope that scholars would encourage, inform, and edify the members of the community, not nit-pick them into abandoning a personal reading and application of Scripture.
  2. My second problem is simply this: If we understand that there are multiple possibilities for ways to understand and apply Scripture, we should also expect that a news article from CNN that quotes a couple of scholars cannot settle the issue of meaning for multiple Scriptures. This is why I prefer “I disagree with that view” to “That view is wrong.” There are some really bad interpretations out there, but some of those are held by highly qualified people, and a response should include careful argumentation. “There’s another way to view this” will accomplish more, I think, than “Your view of this is stupid.”

Most obviously, I might suggest that a short article is hardly going to set the record straight on multiple Scripture passages. I found places I agreed and places I didn’t. I know of serious commentators who would agree and some who wouldn’t.

As a life-giving, spiritually invigorating support, a text can be wonderful. As a club to beat up your neighbor? Not so much.

Literal Problems, Literally

Literal Problems, Literally

I found Should we read the Bible literally via Facebook, and want to commend it to my readers. I can’t tell for sure, but I suspect the writer is perhaps more conservative than I am, yet he makes many points I frequently try to make. I think he may be a bit too optimistic on the hope of recovering the word “literal” from popular abuse.

I’ve often said that if I could take one saying away from Christian conservatives it would be, “The Bible plainly teaches …” Our frequent disagreements as Christians seem to challenge that idea. It’s always possible that the teaching is plain and we just want to work around it, but who has the right view and who’s working around? It would be better to just bring forth the arguments in favor and let someone else decide how plain it is.

On the other hand, the phrase (regarding the Bible) that I’d most like to take from liberals is “We don’t take that literally.” The problem is, how do you take it? The meaning of the word “literally” is “literally” not that settled. Biblical scholars and theologians use it differently than the general population. So whether you’re telling someone to take it literally or not, the odds are they’re going to understand it differently.

For example, I regard Genesis 1 as never having been written with the intention of developing a sequential, historical, scientific view of origins. Rather, it speaks in the context of its current cosmology and gives God’s role in creation. Contemporary readers would likely have perceived it in those senses, but there’s no necessity that one do so, and the elements the stories are trying to convey are not harmed by changing chronology or method of creation. (In my view, at least!) I do not doubt the reality of God’s action. Is that literal or not? It’s a bit more difficult to answer that question than the example of calming the sea in the referenced article. But that’s why I suggest that “not literal” is also not helpful.

What we have to do is specify how we do read the text. For example, I read Genesis 1:1-2:4a as liturgy and the rest of Genesis 2-3 as myth, in the best sense of that word. “Myth” frequently becomes a synonym for “not true” when, in terms of literature, it speaks to the foundational function of a story in a society. A myth might not be a true story, in the sense of narrative history (we often use “literal” here), but it also might be. Historical events do become myths in functional terms.

Ian Paul makes that point in the referenced article with regard to the story of calming the sea. There is extended meaning. One can take the sea and the boat allegorically, but the allegorical meaning is built, for many at least, on the idea that the underlying story really happened. I would disagree that one can’t get allegorical meaning if one doesn’t take the story as historically real, but there would be a difference in that meaning.

All of which simply leads back to the first point. We need to be careful with our use of language. I think that too many Bible students use their own definition of literal, by which I mean the one understood by most Bible scholars, and tell people they should interpret the Bible literally. People in turn believe they are being told to make the Bible concretely applicable no matter what. Which problem is not helped when someone like Tim LaHaye says to take the Bible literally if at all possible, and then applies it by making all the symbols of Revelation apply in a concrete sense to future physical events. Some of the words in Revelation do refer to such things. Others refer to spiritual things. There is a variety of usage. It’s a vision; expect some variety in the author’s (and Vision-givers) intent.

Most importantly, try to be aware of how you are taking a passage. Literal/figurative is not adequate. What type of figure is it? What time of reality does it reference?

In answering those questions, you may well discover why I so dislike hearing that “the Bible plainly teaches.”

A Note on Modern Prophecy and Prophets

A Note on Modern Prophecy and Prophets

I was given the title “liberal charismatic” (not as a compliment) because I believe that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are potentially in operation today and that God speaks to people now as much as he has at any time in history. On occasion, this makes for trouble, as people expect me to accept a variety of professed prophets as somehow authoritative due to the office they claim or that is claimed for them. In other word I believe in prophets and prophecy, but I do not consider any particular prophet authoritative as such.

Going further, I very much doubt that I would have considered any ancient prophet authoritative solely on the basis that the individual made such a claim or that the claim was made about them. I doubt that the prophets themselves would expect such obedience to them apart from discernment. Moses is regarded as the greatest of the prophets in Hebrew scripture, and the record shows him making errors and being aware that he had done so. As a Christian believer in the incarnation, I would have to make a partial exception for Jesus, bearing the divine imprint (Hebrews 1:1-4), yet even here, I would suggest that one with discernment would note the message and the life and then be convinced.

It is important here to distinguish inspiration from authority. Isaiah, for example, was an inspired person. This is my belief and the conclusion of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Further, both of those traditions have declared the book that bears his name authoritative. If we had lived in Isaiah’s time, however, while many of us would consider him inspired, we would find that his authority was much less accepted. I’m guessing, in fact, that Isaiah may have said many uninspired things in the course of his life, and many things that should not have been considered authoritative. He may well have said many things that were of divine origins that never made it into his book. If we found a fragment of a scroll the purported to contain sayings of Isaiah, and if these seemed, by the best scholarship available, to date back to Isaiah and to share literary characteristics with things we consider to come from Isaiah, would this fragment automatically have authority in the church? Absolutely not. We have canonized a book, not the theoretical potential output of a person, however inspired it may be. The homilies of St. John Chrysostom are quite inspiring, and perhaps inspired, yet they do not have the authority of scripture.

Many are uncomfortable with the canonization process because however one interprets the process, it is a process in the church that results in the canon. In other words, church authorities are responsible for the collection of materials we regard as authoritative. I think it is necessary that we consider this a Holy Spirit guided process (or even more that the church is a movement guided by the Spirit, to the extent we’ll follow!) or we do not have a good basis for faith. There are those who believe the books have certain identifiable characteristics, and there are certainly some similarities, yet debates about canonicity have resulted from the fact that it’s not quite that smooth and well-defined. (I recommend chapters II [Canon] and III [Authority: Influence and Acceptance] in Edward Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully [Energion Publications, 2011], pp. 17-72, for a detailed exposition of these ideas.)

In my own book When People Speak for God, I make the statement: “The last person, and the decisive person, to hear from God is you” (p. 4). I mean that very seriously, whether we’re dealing with the interpretation of scripture or hearing a word from one who claims to be a prophet, you need to hear, discern, distinguish, and act. I believe that anyone can hear from God. I consider this very scriptural, perhaps as scriptural as anything can be. It is demonstrated repeatedly in the text. We make the people who heard, such as Abraham, Samson’s mother, or Mary, very holy and so separate them. But when they heard from God, they were ordinary people carrying on rather ordinary lives. Anyone may be inspired. Authority results from discernment.

Let me refer you to a  couple of tests for prophets in Deuteronomy. The one we hear most is from Deuteronomy 18:22, which is that if their word is not fulfilled, they are false. (Jonah would have fallen on this test, but that is for further discussion. See Jonah: When God Changes.) But there is another passage, Deuteronomy 13:1-3, which provides another test. There it says that if someone makes this claim, and even provides a sign which comes through, if they then tell you to worship other gods, they must not be obeyed.

As a final point on theory, there are those who consider that if a modern word contradicts the Bible it must be rejected, while if it is in accord with the Bible it is redundant. I would suggest that this presents a false (and possibly dangerous) dichotomy. Throughout the stories in scripture, God worked with and guided people, without ever giving an indication that this would change. In fact, I think the best reading suggests that God speaks a great deal and the limitation is more in the fact that we decide not to listen. When a spiritual movement is young and lively, people listen and generate ideas. Then comes structure. Structure is designed to limit and control this spirit. So the authorities tend to want to shut it down at the source. God is done speaking and he ended with the last book we want to see as authoritative. There is room for freedom, and there is some need for structure, but death follows allowing either of those needs to become absolute. Let there be authority, but let authority by challenged.

I wrote all of that to form the basis for the following. I listen to and apply discernment to any claim, whether the person claims to be a prophet or not. I have generally found in my experience that those who make no claim to speak for God, but just speak what they have learned in their own communion with God speak with much more authority and wisdom than those who make the claim. I think there is a great deal of indiscipline, lack of wisdom, and general confusion in much of the current prophetic movement in Christianity. I will only make specific charges if a person is part of a community of which I am a member, but for myself I work to discern what God is saying. Part of that process is listening myself.

The one way not to be manipulated is to be a student, a learner, a thinker, and to let the Spirit of Truth work. When that is said, don’t be arrogant. I could be wrong. You could be wrong. Being wrong isn’t the end of the world as long as you keep your mind, your hearing, and your discernment active.


My Life and Educational Experiences for Bible Study

My Life and Educational Experiences for Bible Study

When I am introduced to speak or teach, mention will doubtless be made of my MA in Religion, concentrating in Biblical and Cognate Languages, though the correct degree name will be shortened, and the language skill usually exaggerated. In my mind, however, there are many things that have contributed to my study of the Bible. I’ve never encountered a biblical scholar who found this surprising, but sometimes non-academics are surprised.

I thought I’d list some of the key experiences, many of them not of my choice, which have nonetheless been critical in forming my thinking and informing my study.

  1. Bible memorization. As a preteen and early teenager I attended a small private school where we memorized substantial Bible passages. By substantial I mean that we memorized Psalm 119, all 176 verses, Genesis 1 & 2, many Psalms, Luke 2, and so forth. We also memorized scatterings of texts on various topics. This memorization, which I certainly would not have accomplished if it had not been required, has nonetheless stuck with me and helps me see the broader picture. I don’t have to go read Isaiah 53 or 58, because I memorized them, and though I could not repeat them in the KJV (which we used), I still have a fair idea what’s there.
  2. Bible survey. At the same school we were required to memorize titles for most of the chapters (we covered the Psalms by knowing what chapters were in the five books). Along with memorizing, this again helped me with an overview, and made it much easier to find content that I need. I still surprise people by pointing them to a book and range of chapters even when I’m not sure of the specific verse they’re looking for. Further, we had workbooks which asked questions about the text of the entire Bible. These were not thought questions, but content questions. I think it’s unfortunate that people who teach critical and independent thinking often forget that having the facts at hand is useful in thinking, and those who teach the facts often forget that facts strewn about the landscape are not so helpful unless they are critically examined and ordered. Sometimes “Bible study” turns into a simple recitation of opinions, in part because students are so unaccustomed to reading the text and making their own judgment regarding the meaning.
  3. History and historiography. There is an obvious benefit to knowing biblical history and related ancient history. I think some study of other history–any other history–is of great value as well. One of the problems we have with studying the Bible both “seriously and faithfully” is that we make up special methods for studying it as opposed to other texts. We also make up rules for studying biblical history which might not be accepted elsewhere. There’s no substitute for actually reading and studying some good texts on history unrelated to the Bible.
  4. Sociology. I hated my undergraduate sociology, but I’ve come to value that area of study, though I still consider the one undergraduate course I took to have been seriously deficient. People are people, and studying how people behave and respond helps me read Bible stories more faithfully.
  5. And yes, language. Learning to read the biblical languages is valuable in many ways, including being able to spot nuances in the way things are expressed more easily. One of the most important things I learned, however, was how complex the process of translation can be. When you are first learning to read another language (and often for much longer), you are really mentally translating the text into your native language. It can be a struggle and should give you a great appreciation for those who translate on a professional basis. It’s so much easier to criticize scattered renderings where you have a strong opinion than it is to produce a quality translation of a substantial portion of the source text.
  6. English, my native language. The process of understanding an ancient text and then expressing it in modern terms will tax your knowledge of and fluency in your native tongue. Many times I have been trying to express something from the Greek or Hebrew text and have stumbled for lack of a good English expression. Many really bad ideas in biblical studies have resulted from this, such as claims that “English can’t really express this idea.” The real issue is can you use your native language creatively.
  7. Church life. I don’t think you’ll understand the Bible unless you’ve experienced church. I don’t mean that church is such a good representation of what’s in the Bible. Usually not so much. But a great deal of the Bible story is about people trying to form and maintain communities, and if you haven’t actually tried, you may not understand them. I hate church politics, but at the same time church politics is a necessary thing. Politics is what happens when people try to act together. You can do it well or poorly, morally or immorally, but you will have to do it.
  8. Experiencing family. I have nothing against folks who are single, and I remained single until I was 42, and then married and acquired a family all at once. When I was single I was always of the opinion that raising children was likely more difficult than I could imagine. I was right! But again, understanding people who thought of themselves as God’s family is easier after experiencing the parent side of being a family as well as the child side.

There are other things that have helped, but I hope I have made the point that there are many things other than languages, and indeed many things other than academic study that help one understand. These other elements are even more important if one wants to teach. Being able to clearly express a set of ideas involves not only knowing those ideas well, but also knowing the medium of expression (language, art, etc.) and the audience well. The hermit professor, sitting like Simeon Stylites atop an ivory tower, has little impact on the world around.

But further, I suspect not one reader of this post does not have one or more of the experiences I listed, or perhaps others I have not. That means that the person without the degree in biblical languages also has a contribution to make. We ought all be prepared to listen and learn.

Resources for Progressive Preaching: Pastor2Pew

Resources for Progressive Preaching: Pastor2Pew

One of the least accurate characterizations I hear about progressive Christians is that they don’t care about the Bible. Now it’s hard to get a single image of the average or perfect progressive Christian, so generalizations are hard to make, but let me note that the generalization that progressive Christians in general disrespect the Bible, is not accurate.

One conservative response to this is a list of biblical positions on doctrine, as held by the same conservatives, which progressives do not espouse. If progressives fail to see these very clear teachings of Scripture, how can they possibly be regarded as anything but disrespectful? On the other hand, progressives sometimes point out conservative doctrines on things like money and the treatment of others that they feel—equally strongly—are violations of scriptural teaching. Rev. Steve Kindle even wrote a book about all this, titled I’m Right and You’re Wrong: Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it. Clearly it’s a book containing the answers to all of life’s questions, including the meaning of life. (No, not really, but it will help you understand why you don’t have those answers.)

Now Steve has set out on another project, designed to help progressive pastors find commentary on the Lectionary passages. He acknowledges the difficulty that not all pastors, progressive or otherwise, follow the Lectionary, but you have to start somewhere. In searching for resources Steve found that the material one could use in speaking to one’s congregation in a relevant way was embedded in a mass of material that used approaches that were not nearly so helpful. So he started Pastor2Pew.org. On Tuesday night, I interviewed him for our Energion Tuesday Night Hangout. Here’s the video:

My title, “A Progressive Christian Preaching Scripture” may sound snarky. In fact, it may be snarky. But ask yourself this: Who am I being snarky about? What I’m really trying to do is emphasize my own point here: There are many progressive Christians who study Scripture, write about it, preach from it, and believing, as strongly as any fundamentalist, that they are living it. They are just finding different things there.

I don’t know precisely what to say about the people Steve is interviewing, except that I didn’t find anyone there so far that I don’t want to hear. I mention Walter Brueggemann above. Steve also interviews Energion author Bruce Epperly. Bruce spends a great deal of time studying Scripture and doing the homework that means he deserves to be heard, not only by other progressives, but those in other streams.

I strongly recommend Pastor2Pew as a resource both for progressives, and for others who would like to get some challenging and different approaches to the text. Even if, in the end, you reject them, I think you’ll find that your understanding deepened as you did so.

PS: Check out our Energion “Church Health” category, including Steve’s book Stewardship: God’s Way of Recreating the World.

Thoughts on Releasing a New Book about Jonah

Thoughts on Releasing a New Book about Jonah

esther and jonahI believe that it’s easy to let our theology keep us from reading the Bible, especially the narrative parts. The Bible is filled with stories. One example is the story of the flood. When Genesis 6 says (using the KJV), “It repenteth me that I have made man,” the first reaction is to try to explain how God didn’t really repent, thus preserving doctrines of omniscience expressed particularly in foreknowledge. A vigorous desire to preserve one’s theology can prevent one from hearing the story as it is actually told.

Jonah is just such a story. It’s very easy to make this a story about obeying God. The story was explained to me when I was a child as an illustration of the bad things that could happen to you if you went against God’s will. Another lesson, often taught at the same time, is that God can and does work miracles. Many people have seen belief in the whale (really more like “great fish”) as a test of one’s belief in the truth of scripture.

But to spend our time on the reality of the great fish, whether to disparage the idea or uphold it, is to stray from the story.

I’ve been delighted to publish a couple of books by Bruce Epperly that deal with Bible stories from a less theologically defensive position. Bruce tends to let the stories speak and as such he gets lessons from them that we might otherwise miss. A few months ago we released Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure. I commend that study to you.

This week we released another book about stories, Jonah: When God Changes. Just the subtitle is likely to unsettle a few people. I think it’s good to be unsettled. I think that Jonah was unsettling when it was first written and it was intended to be.

We often have to work hard to love and care for people who are actually very similar to us. We tend to discount the command of Jesus to love our enemies. But in Jonah we have a call to love people we now hate—and with good reason!—and to take God’s message to them. While Jonah’s message sounds like a “fire and brimstone” sermon, it becomes a call to salvation, just as Jonah feared it would (read the last chapter)!

Bruce really works this little book and calls to our attention things we might normally miss in pursuit of theological comfort. I suggest that you give up that comfort and read the book!


We’ll have it for $4.19 pre-order pricing (even though it’s already printing) on Energion Direct. We’ll keep that up through Labor Day. Find a couple of other books to go with it so your order is at least $9.99 and you’ll get free shipping.

From Inspiration to Understanding eBook Editions

From Inspiration to Understanding eBook Editions

from inspiration when peopleOne of the joys of being a publisher, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned a couple (hundred) times before, is the authors I get to work with. I have long considered our understanding of biblical inspiration and authority to be critical to discussions of Christian theology, polity, and ultimately our day to day life. Often we can at least get our bearings in serious debates by at least identifying the differences in how we are using the sources.

Because of my interest in this I wrote the book When People Speak for God, which is generally at a popular level. After I wrote that book, I encountered Dr. Vick through one of my other authors and received his manuscript for From Inspiration to Understanding. If his book had been written before, rather than after mine, it would have contained numerous footnotes referencing Dr. Vick’s work.

When we laid out From Inspiration to Understanding at Energion, we were using Scribus, which is actually an excellent page layout product, but is not quite the thing for an extended, thoroughly referenced book. The footnotes had to be laid out by hand, and were done as chapter end notes. This doesn’t convert well to electronic format, so there has been a considerable delay in getting the ebook editions out. But now they are complete.

You can get more complete information on the Energion.com News blog. This is a book I strongly recommend, and the pricing of ebook editions makes it much more accessible.

The Bible Was Not Written to You

The Bible Was Not Written to You

I’ve discussed this before, and discussed it both in my books When People Speak for God and Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic. I was asked after my Sunday School lesson last Sunday whether Zephaniah’s prophecy in 3:1-8 applied to America.

Let me annoy everyone: No and Yes.

There is pretty much nothing in the Bible that’s addressed to you. One could argue such passages as John 3:16, which are talk about the world in a way that probably encompasses all time. But in general, the words of the Bible are addressed to specific people at specific times. They are also spoken by specific people, but that’s a bit beyond this post.

I start this with the Ten Commandments. They were not written to you. We often treat them as the most universally applicable part of scripture there is, though we don’t actually keep them as Christians. As someone who grew up Seventh-day Adventist, I’m unusually aware of the Sabbath command. We Christians don’t even start to keep it, yet we pretend the Ten Commandments are central.

And we’re right not to keep them literally and specifically because we can read right at the start that they were addressed to a particular group of people at a particular time, and that group was not us, nor was that time now.

Nonetheless, if we consider the Bible in some sense inspired, we will see divine principles going into action in the life of the people of Israel. Those divine principles will be relevant, and will likely make those Ten Commandments applicable again—in principle. It’s interesting that while we claim to keep the Ten Commandments, and fail to do so literally, we also seem to miss out on the principles, such as not portraying God with any images. There’s an important principle behind that command, yet we create both mental and physical images of God that are both limiting and indestructible. God, for us, is in a box.

And that fourth commandment isn’t irrelevant. Time belongs to God because he’s the creator. In my view, God doesn’t claim less time, but rather more. How do we honor God with our time and recognize him as creator with each minute?

But further, the Bible was not written to people with our philosophical and scientific views. Our options for how to think about things have changed. So if we’re going to find the principles, we’re going to have to see through the cosmology and the metaphors and translate them to our time and place.

Why couldn’t God speak directly to us and make it clearer in our terms? I would suggest several things: 1) God does speak to us today if we’ll listen, 2) It’s important to realize that God has spoken at many times and in many ways (Heb. 1:1), 3) It’s important to become part of the faith community over time as well as across space and culture, 4) The search for God may well be more valuable than finding God.

I think that if we truly treated the Bible as the treasure it is, as the combined experience of a community of faith over time, it would help us understand how to be God’s community today. Understanding metaphors that are foreign to each of us personally can help us bridge the gaps that must be bridged every day in order to live as God’s people doing God’s work in God’s world.

God has spoken. God is speaking. God will speak some more.

Are we truly listening?


Note also: I’m Right and You’re Wrong: Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it by Steve Kindle.

Is There Such a Thing as a New Testament Church?

Is There Such a Thing as a New Testament Church?

nt church booksI’m planning to finish resume and complete my blog series on Seven Marks of a New Testament Church with added commentary from the books Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel. This process was interrupted by SBL, by some bug I picked up in Atlanta that slowed me down for several days and by the time taken to catch up afterward.

In the meantime, I encountered the following:

There is no blueprint for churches in the New Testament, and to try to form New Testament churches is only to create another system which may be as legal, sectarian, and dead as others. Churches, like the Church, are organisms which spring out of life, which life itself springs out of the Cross of Christ wrought into the very being of believers. Unless believers are crucified people, there can be no true expression of the Church.”—T. Austin Sparks, Words of Wisdom and Revelation, p. 62, (quoted in Frank Viola, Finding Organic Church, p. 19).

There’s a great deal of truth in that statement, but there is also a great deal of danger. Let me quote a couple of paragraphs from Frank Viola from just before he uses this quote to illustrate:

Consequently, the “biblical blueprint” model is rooted in the notion that the New Testament is the new Leviticus. Advocates approach the Bible like an engineer approaches an engineering textbook. Study the structural principles and then apply them.

But church planting is not a form of engineering. And the New Testament isn’t a rule book. It’s a record of the DNA of the church at work. … (Finding Organic Church, p. 19)

I would love to spend some time discussing this view of Leviticus, which is, in many ways a record of the DNA of Israel as God’s people at work, but I’ll skip over my perennial annoyance with the way Christians handle the Hebrew Scriptures. And Leviticus is definitely closer to a  rule book than is anything we have in the New Testament, however inadequate the term may be in describing the book.

Again, I would certainly agree that the New Testament doesn’t provide a “rule book” for your church, though we need to consider our understanding of the term “rule book” as well. Even rule books differ in approach! I would also agree with, and even applaud, the characterization of the New Testament as “the DNA of the church at work.” But there’s a certain negative view of engineering involved here, which is just one of the things I think is potentially dangerous.

There’s an interesting form of binary thinking that seems to go on with the question of whether and how we apply the Bible to anything. Someone asks whether the Bible teaches a certain thing that we believe, and the pious thing to say is that it does. So we say it. Then we’re left trying to find just where it does say it. Take the doctrine of the trinity, for example. Does the Bible teach it or not? Can I discover anything about the Trinity from the Bible? Well, if you want a doctrinal statement of “trinity,” such as you’ll find in any of the Christian creeds (yes, they differ, but take any one), then you’ll have to admit the Bible doesn’t say that. Yet the pieces, or at least the questions, start from scripture. I think you can say something similar about almost any of our doctrines. They are rooted in scripture to various degrees, but we wouldn’t have so many confessional statements if the Bible clearly said what we wanted it to.

Having grown up as a Seventh-day Adventist, I confronted this problem early. We were a church that believed in the Bible and the Bible only. Anyone could study the Bible for themselves, and the Bible was sufficient. Well, except that people kept getting the wrong things from the Bible. So we had a doctrinal statement and  baptismal covenant. When I was baptized I publicly affirmed a substantial list of doctrines, all of which the church regarded as biblical. But it was not regarded as sufficient that I affirm the Bible; I had to affirm the list.

I think humans tend to be somewhat binary in our thinking. On discovering that the Bible doesn’t actually have a full list of the “true” doctrines or the “ideal” rules for governing your church congregation, we decide that there’s nothing at all. Let’s get away from talking about characteristics, habits, marks, or even transforming moments. The true church is the one that is produced by people transformed by the gospel.

And yes, it is. Transformation by the power of the gospel is where it starts and it is the key. But we still read scripture. We still have to decide to meet somewhere. We still are going to do some things during our church service and not others. We’re still going to choose some activities in carrying out the church’s mission and not others.

The danger, I believe, is that we do this sort of thing without thinking and consideration. Transformed people will be motivated to carry out the gospel commission, but will they know what to do next? Generally there is someone who leads. I have been in churches that claimed that their worship services were run by the guidance of the Spirit and were very free. No rules.

Well, on paper. In their rule book it was true. But in practice, there was a definitely hierarchy. Who was a prophet who would speak? Who would give the message, which was as long as, if not as organized as, the sermon in any mainline or evangelical church. The “free Spirit” definitely flowed in the way human beings directed.

In fact, despite my apparently sarcastic description, it is quite possible that the Spirit was flowing precisely as the Spirit wanted to, having chosen to work through those people. But if so, there was more structure than people were willing to admit. There were leaders in the congregation. They were just not acknowledged as formally as they were elsewhere.

And it’s in this informality that there is a certain danger. If we do not acknowledge and plan our leadership and our actions, then some form of leadership happens. It may be good or it may not. But very frequently in places where structures are not defined, people with forceful personalities, or even people with negative agendas can take over the process. These persons are very hard to move aside to allow the Spirit to actually move, because they will often deny what they are doing.

So how do you avoid this? More importantly, how do you avoid this without turning the church into a bureaucracy and the Bible into a procedures manual?

Well, I think you go back to the source. Not just the New Testament, though that should be our starting place as Christians. And not just the Bible, but rather the Bible combined with our discernment and what we can hear from the Holy Spirit as we listen to the Holy Spirit and discern what we need to do as a community of believers in Jesus. I think this will be a constant process as we look at what is around us, at who we are, at our Lord, and how we can be the body of the Anointed One in the world.

We can even learn a little bit from engineers in this process. Yes, engineers can be very picky people. I’m reminded of something Jody said as she was about to enter the doctor’s office. She was taking a particular action which she wanted the doctor to note because, she said, “Doctors are very much cause and effect kinds of people.” Engineers likewise. Every time I get into my car and every time I get on an airplane, I am very happy that engineers are cause and effect kinds of people. That’s because I really like the causes to get together and produce the effect of my car staying on the road and the airplane staying in the sky as needed. I flew nearly 7,000 hours in the Air Force relying on that sort of thing.

One thing an engineer can do is study one thing, see how it works, and duplicate the effect by creating a similar machine. Such principles applied to scripture might include looking at the church in the New Testament and asking what caused the church to grow. Can we duplicate that? Of course times and circumstances have changed. In fact, they changed from one moment to another in New Testament times. Engineers can also take a device and adapt it to different circumstances.

I have a smartphone, for example, that is water resistant. If I drop it in a puddle, I should be able to pull it back out, dry it off, and go on. I haven’t tried this. The prior model of the same phone didn’t have this capability. Some engineers got together and added new capabilities to the ones the previous model had. I used that previous model, and I like the new one better. There are principles that apply to both.

And that’s important. It’s nice to say that if our church comes forth from people who have met Jesus and been to the foot of the cross (or one of those other common phrases). That must be the foundation, because church will doubtless not work with people who have not been transformed (or better, are being transformed; we are none of us there yes). But this is a principle I get from reading the New Testament. And it’s not the only principle I get.

The good engineer knows how to look at principles and apply them to a new environment. The good Bible student knows how to look at the church in action in the New Testament and find out how to apply not every action they took, but the fundamental principles by which they tried to live, to our modern times.

So Seven Marks of a New Testament Church doesn’t provide you with a rule book. It doesn’t replace the New Testament. It certainly doesn’t replace the gospel. But it shows you what one worker in the vineyard has discerned as principles that can be applied. The other two books, Thrive, and Transforming Acts, are doing the same thing.

The problem isn’t really thinking like engineers. The problem is bad engineering, engineering that applies rules without understanding. Not inflexible engineering that ignores the complexity of human communities. Engineering that ignores reality is just bad engineering. I, for one, think the church could use some genuine, good engineering.

What Creationists Could Learn from Herold Weiss

What Creationists Could Learn from Herold Weiss

creation-5We’re starting a new series of posts on the Energion Discussion Network and the current author is my friend and Energion author Dr. Herold Weiss. He’s the author of the book Creation in Scripture, the first in a series discussing creation from the point of view of those who accept the theory of evolution. That note should tell you that Dr. Weiss’s work can be controversial, as are all discussions of this topic.

I don’t happen to like the terms generally used, but it is generally somewhere between frustrating and futile to try to change language. “Creationist” has become the label of those who believe in a recent (read 6 to 10 thousand years) creation in a literal week, while “theistic evolutionist” labels those who believe God is creator but that the process of evolution is how he has chosen to diversify life here on this planet.

Dr. Weiss does something in his first post in this series that tends to annoy creationists (using the definition above). He calls their view unscriptural. The typical view of a creationist is that their view is scriptural while the theistic evolutionist has chosen to ignore the Bible in favor of evolutionary theory. No matter how strong the evidence for evolution (and they will, with few exceptions, maintain that it is weak), they would not see how it could override the Word of God. So the argument, at least as they generally present it to me, should be couched in terms of their strong convictions about scripture and the weak convictions of the theistic evolutionists, which are to be defended.

But neither I nor Dr. Weiss thinks our position is biblically weak. In fact, I did not change my view from a young earth creationist, which I was until some time during my third year in college, because I had studied evolutionary science. My science requirement was fulfilled in a chemistry class, taught, by the way, by a young earth creationist. It was in doing research for a paper that I found that I could not reconcile the biblical texts on the basis required for young earth creationism. The starting point was chronology, and it wasn’t even comparisons with archeology. It was simply looking at what must have happened between two points in the biblical story, and determining that it was beyond extremely improbable; it was impossible. And further, there was no report of some sort of miracle to connect the dots.

From there the question changed for me. Why is God presenting the story in this manner? (I’m ignoring here all the things I have come to believe about biblical inspiration over the years and discussing my thinking at age 20.) From there I started to ask just what it means to me that God is the creator and how that doctrine reverberates through scripture.

And this is what I think creationists can learn from Dr. Weiss. No, I’m not suggesting they will all read his book and decide to become theistic evolutionists. He isn’t even trying to make that case in the book, and I know my own views would be unlikely to change in reading one book. What he does that is important is look at how creation, and its implications, is presented in various parts of the Bible. Creationists seem to me to be hung up in Genesis 1-3, important chapters to be sure, but not the only thing in scripture on the topic. And yes, I do think these chapters are important, even foundational, even though I read them differently. And no, I’m not claiming that creationists are ignorant of all other passages. What I’m suggesting is that they are not brought into the discussion enough.

Too much of the debate about creation and evolution is concentrated on when and how and too little is focused on so what now?.

I think it would be great if we spent more time on the third question. Yes, we’d still disagree on when and how, and we’d still argue that both of those questions impact the answer to the third, but we might have a chance to shed a bit more light. I think Dr. Weiss has facilitated that.