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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.

In Controversy, Build Community

In Controversy, Build Community

So the disciples decided to send help to the brothers and sisters living in Judea, as each one was able. They carried out their plan, and had Barnabas and Paul deliver their gift. (Acts 11:29-30)

This is a short verse, but I think it’s very sweet. As the story of Acts progresses, we’re entering the phase of controversy between those who are welcoming gentiles to the church (without their first becoming Jews) and those who don’t wish to do so. It will get quite heated as Paul’s ministry gets going.

But here there’s a simple pause. The believers in Antioch send what they can to the believers in Jerusalem. Nobody is asking which side of the controversy they’re on.

Here’s the principle: In controversy, build community.

Taint None of Us Perfect, Never, Nohow

Taint None of Us Perfect, Never, Nohow

A manuscript fragment

(Leave Christology out of it!)

Reading the post A Similarity Between Reasoned Eclecticism & Byzantine Priority over on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog (HT: Dave Black Online, Monday, June 6, 12:35), set me to thinking. Fair warning: This will be a bit rambling. These are thoughts triggered by the post, not largely in response to it.

The limited number of comments focus, as might be expected, on New Testament. In fact, it seems to me that most discussion of textual criticism tends to focus on the New Testament, and this sometimes leaves the wrong impression. For example, to a query about the reliability of the biblical text an apologist might respond with the number of manuscripts we have … of the New Testament. But what about Hebrew Scriptures?

If I were to answer the question posed (and if it’s not obvious, I’m not a practicing textual critic), I would have to say that when looking at a passage in the Greek New Testament I’m going to look at the external evidence first, and then the internal. This is for practical reasons. With the number of New Testament manuscripts, versions, and quotations available, one hopes to find the best reading somewhere in the external evidence. Internal evidence can help refine one’s choice, but in practical terms, most of the actual readings are likely to be contained in some manuscript somewhere.

I wouldn’t argue that all readings that ever existed are to be found in one of our extant manuscripts. There is a theoretical place for a conjecture. So I wouldn’t say that the external evidence places a fixed limit on where we can go with the internal evidence, but I would say that it sets a pretty fair boundary. I would require substantial evidence to go with a conjecture, and even then, it might be a conjecture about an original reading that would generate the external evidence as we have it. So it’s a line, but it’s a line in the sand. It can be moved. In my experience, however, it is rarely necessary to move it.

But when we turn to the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, the situation is much different. The manuscripts we have come from a time much more removed from the composition of the texts involved, and there are less of them. I think the time between the composition of a text and the first extant manuscript receives too little attention in discussions, because the time before a text is established as sacred is when I suspect much of the variation will occur. It’s quite possible that there are a number of New Testament variations that we don’t consider simply because they are no longer represented in the manuscripts.

The shift to Old Testament textual criticism was rather interesting for me, as it seems to some extent that you travel to a different world. There are necessary differences because the nature of the external evidence is different. There are even more differences because there are more texts that are obscure. In reading commentaries, one might think that for OT texts lectio dificilior is turned on its head as one runs through possible readings, including conjectures until one finds a reading that “works.” Nobody is going to quite say it that way, but that is how it often feels. And, of course, lectio dificilior has its problems in that it’s quite possible that a difficult, yet translatable, reading could be introduced by error. So it’s not an absolute.

In the Hebrew scriptures we have more cases in which a passage is truly obscure. Nobody really knows how to translate or interpret. So you get a translation and footnotes. I had a professor in graduate school who absolutely hated the idea of conjectural emendation. He simply wouldn’t accept any. But he’d accept some very wild conjectures on how to translate the text that is actually there. He and I went a few rounds on what the difference was between arbitrarily conjecturing a text that you could then translate or arbitrarily choosing some English words you could say were a translation of the text. In either case, the meaning presented by your translation is a conjecture.

Conjectural emendation has a bad name, and there is a good reason for this. Critical commentaries on Old Testament books are often filled with conjectural reconstructions of the text that have very little basis in either an internal analysis of the text and transcriptional probabilities or in any external evidence. Often the emendations simply make the book fit some theory of composition, or better represent the theme that the commentator believes, for whatever reasons, must have been intended by the author or redactor.

Nonetheless, in theory, it is possible that a reading not contained in any manuscript could be the correct reading. The problem is always making a solid case that it is. Few conjectures have managed to gain the support of a strong consensus of scholars.

Does any of this make any difference to you and me as we try to study our Bibles? Well, yes and no. The problem, as I see it, is to acknowledge the value of textual criticism without believing one must get to that elusive “original text” in order to have good theology or be a good disciple.

I would suggest that it’s important to seek the best text of scripture simply because it’s important to seek out the best information we can on any subject. At the same time I don’t think we need to be concerned about variants, even substantial ones. We tend to take the biblical data in a selfish way, as though all the manuscripts exist in order to provide us with an accurate view of scripture. But each one of those manuscripts was (part of) someone’s Bible at some time and place. I can worry about whether the Hebrew text behind the Septuagint (LXX) is better or if the Masoretic Text is better, but early Christians lived and did theology with the LXX and the Reformation (not to mention Judaism) thrived on the MT. These aren’t just witnesses to which text I should use; they are Bibles, sacred texts, used by real people.

The much criticized Vulgate, abandoned by protestants in pursuit of the sources, was nonetheless the Bible for many people. So in modern times was the Living Bible, as flawed as I think it was as a translation.

If God desired the kind of precision that some of us seem to think is required of the biblical text, I think God would have taken a different approach. But instead of a clean process in which we can give absolute or near absolute answers to all questions about the text, we have a variety of materials produced in different ways. While we long for perfection, for the inerrant text, we don’t actually have it. The claim of inerrancy is made for the autographs, not for any text you have or are likely to have in your hands.

Which, incidentally, is why I have little use for the doctrine of inerrancy, one way or the other. And let me be clear that I do mean as expressed in the Chicago Statement. I just don’t care whether the autographs were inerrant or not. If God was happy to use an error-prone process of transmission, why must I conclude that he somehow protected the original manuscript.

Let me illustrate. Supposing that Ezekiel (my very most favorite prophet) is hearing from the Holy Spirit, and he slips and writes the wrong word on the page. It’s a mistake. The manuscript is now no longer inerrant. The autograph is flawed. Oops!

Now suppose instead that the first scribe to copy the book made the very same mistake, after which the original was destroyed. Now we have only one copy of the book of Ezekiel, and it has the very same error.

The first scenario is considered problematic. The second is OK. It’s a copyist’s error.

I disagree. God has chosen to provide God’s Word to us in written form with every evidence of human involvement all along the way. I find it amazing that the text has been preserved as well as it has been. I find it more amazing that it has been available, used, and defended by people in so many places and at so many times. Many of these people were defending texts that various modern scholars would call “corrupt.” They might have been preaching from a manuscript copied by a careless scribe. And yet preach they did! And they lived out their faith as they knew how.

It’s not just thousands of witnesses to the text. It’s thousands of Bibles used by many more thousands of people.

We ask the question of whether we can rely on the text. I think it’s the wrong question. The question is whether we can rely on God who, through the Holy Spirit, has been speaking since before anyone conceived of a Bible and who is ready to talk to us today. We’re not perfect. None of us. We don’t have perfect texts. None at all.

But we can work through the multitude of materials available to us and so communicate not only with God, but with the community of faith that God has established. It’s a community that extends across time as well as space. It’s made up of people who were never perfect but always trying and hoping.

Now don’t let the fact that we can’t get 100% of the original, perfect text keep you from getting as much of it as you can. And don’t let the fact that you can’t really know all there is to know about God keep you from trying to get to know God better.

I think that God has set this up so that in trying to know God better (vertically?) we also need to get to know and appreciate one another (horizontally). It is in community that we come to know.

Or better, it is in community that we keep on the journey toward knowing.

Seven Marks: Genuine Relationships

Seven Marks: Genuine Relationships

nt church booksThe fourth mark of a New Testament church that Dave Black finds in Acts he calls genuine relationships. The early believers devoted themselves to the fellowship, to their community. There are so many words for it.

9781631990465mIn America today we rarely think of the church as a community and even more rarely as our community. Yet much of the New Testament’s teaching on the church centers around things that relate closely to this idea. We go to church for a “service.” We don’t participate in community. We take our children there for some moral education, not so that they can build relationships for their life. Often we barely know one another.

I’m not trying to make us all extroverts. I’m an introvert. I tend to make small numbers of closer friendships. I’m not talking about the number of friendships we each make. I’m talking about how we fit together into this larger community, one that includes various personalities, a wide variety of gifts, people who are like us, and also people who are not-at-all like us.

What we think about our community is going to impact everything else we do. Dave’s first mark is “evangelistic preaching.” That’s proclamation of the good news. But is the “good news” of your church the idea that one can join up, provided they’re not too different and become just like everyone else there? Or is the good news that through God’s Spirit we can all, with our various backgrounds, become one in Christ Jesus, contributing with various gifts, and receiving the salvation and healing that Jesus offers?

I suggest reading 1 Corinthians 12-14. Don’t skip over chapter 13. So frequently people who want to study about spiritual gifts study chapter 12, those who want to look at church order and how to structure your meetings at the church read chapter 14, and those who want to talk about love read chapter 13.

But that is to miss what Paul is doing. In this book Paul is looking at the various reasons why there are factions in the Corinthian church. When he comes to the start of chapter 12 he’s looking at the great gifted ones who lord it over everyone else. Genuine love, as expressed in chapter 13 is the key. How can one identify genuine gifts in action? It’s by the way they operate under the direction of that one Spirit and the way they carry out love in the church.

1 Corinthians 13 is not about marriage but about the church. It gives good advice for a marriage because it tells us how genuine relationships work.

ThriveHow do followers of Jesus work together when the church meets? Chapter 14 tells us they work for “edification.” That’s building. That building is based on the genuine love that is expressed in chapter 13. So these three chapters work together.

I heartily recommend Dave’s chapter, but I’m going to quote this time from Ruth Fletcher in the book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations. Fletcher defines a difference between “friendliness” and “welcome”:

Friendliness assimilates newcomers into what already exists; welcome integrates newcomers by helping them know they belong. Friendliness says, “We’re glad you came to our table. We hope you feel at home here eating what we like to eat and doing things the way we like to do them.” Welcome goes beyond friendliness to say, “We want you to bring your gifts to this community. We know when you offer those gifts that we will be changed by your presence among us.” (p. 78)

Fletcher implicitly provides us with a good description of community. Rather than being a place where the current members give and others receive, it’s a place that welcomes people to become part of the giving, whatever it is that they may have to offer.

Bruce Epperly discusses this in his chapter Faith Without Fences

One of the critical things we need to look at in the church if we are to be such a community is gossip, judgment and criticism. For us to help one another grow, we need to be able to talk about ways to grow. Serious discussion of spiritual growth will not prosper where there is no trust, and gossip destroys trust. Gossip is always followed by judgment and criticism, and it destroys community.

Losing this spirit of judgment does not mean that one loses the ability to discern between different options, nor that one cannot recognize sin or destructive behavior. It does involve a change in the way we think and talk about these things. Our talking will be impacted by our thinking. Don’t imagine that you can pretend not to be judgmental and nonetheless deal with issues as a community.

I’m fairly unreceptive of the complaints of those who think that repenting of gossip, judgment, and criticism (three sins endemic in church life) means that we can no longer reform or call others to repentance. Gossip, judgment, and criticism don’t result from a genuine desire to help others find repentance. They result from our desire to feel that we are better than others and to let others in our inside group know that we are better than others.

A genuine concern for others will result in talking to them and doing it in constructive way. Note that this isn’t a strategy change. It’s repentance from a sinful approach (judgmental) and a turn to a genuinely constructive  approach (edifying/building). If we have genuinely repented of the need to feel morally superior to others, I think we will generally know the difference. Most of us have been helped to find a better approach to some issue by a more experienced or knowledgeable friend. It feels different.

One critical point is that it comes from relationship. I have friends who help me with my business decisions who can quite comfortable tell me that some idea would be idiotic. We’ll laugh and go on to a better plan. Why can we do that? Because we have a relationship that comes before the correction. I highly value those friends and that correction. It has saved me from many errors.

“Genuine relationships” open the way to the various elements of community. If you truly want to help those you think are on a wrong path, establish a genuine relationship with them first. As you do so, you may become aware that you also have things in your life that can be improved by what you learn from them.

I think back on growing up in my missionary family’s home. You could not visit my parents’ church without getting invited to lunch. Not invited to join us at a restaurant, but to come join us for the family meal. My mother always made sure she had enough to feed guests. One never knew who would be a guest.

In Mexico, when a mother and son needed refuge from violence, she was invited into our home, even though there was a threat of violence to us involved. She was different from us, of the Chamula people, and only spoke a bit of Spanish, much less any English. But she had a home with us as long as she needed it.

Think about your own church. Would a visitor be welcome? Any visitor? As you bring in new members do you try to remold them after your own image or do they become a genuine part of the church family with their gifts and their warts? Does anyone in your church invite people home to lunch or dinner? Are your homes open? If someone was escaping domestic violence would they get a referral to a nearby shelter or would someone in your church open heart and home to them? If you see young people in your church without parents do you gather in groups to complain about “this generation” or do you decide to welcome the opportunity to get to know them and even mentor them?

I think becoming a community built on genuine relationships will require a great deal of repentance on the part of the American church. But if we want to truly be disciples of Jesus, carrying out the gospel commission, this is one mark we can’t afford to lack!

A Note on Sacraments and Sacramental Acts

A Note on Sacraments and Sacramental Acts

Meditations on According to JohnI’ve generated a bit of surprise by my agreement with Dr. Herold Weiss (Meditations on According to John, chapter 18) in last Thursday’s video study from the gospel according to John (not to mention my Sunday School class), that the gospel is not attempting to institute or to teach sacraments.

As a foundation to this brief note, you might want to either read Weiss’s chapter (pp. 151-158), watch my video (about 1 hr, embedded below), or both. I’m just going to follow up on a couple of items here. I suspect not that many people will watch an hour of me talking, so I will try to make these notes self-contained.

First, the video:

My view of the sacraments is simple: I think that there are public actions and rituals that we take that reflect what is happening spiritually. I do not believe that the presence of Jesus in these activities is dependent on having ordained clergy to preside. I don’t believe that the rituals in themselves are valuable.

The value of sacramental acts is that they help us recognize and participate in the spiritual reality that is behind, in, and through them. Thus if I partake of communion, a shared meal, and then spend the following week withholding food from those in need, or cutting off fellowship from people I don’t like for various reasons, my act of communion has become a dead ritual.

Weiss discusses the difference between footwashing and communion in his chapter. One has become a sacrament and one a sacramental act, the latter rarely performed. I could perform the ritual act of footwashing, which rarely has the same impact or feeling that it would have had in Jesus’ time, and then go out and refuse to place myself in the service of others. In that case, the act of footwashing would be a dead and empty ritual as well.

In the video I relate the experience of my own baptism, at which time we celebrated, as Seventh-day Adventists do frequently, by washing one another’s feet. I was partnered with a Chamula gentleman (this occurred in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico when I was nine years old) who had walked for days to be at this event. We were both newly baptized. He laughed when it came time to wash my feet because I had shoes, while he had but sandals, and I had walked a half mile or so as opposed to days. Washing his feet was meaningful to me and has stuck with me.

Despite my views, however, I don’t go out offering formal services of the Eucharist as an unordained person. Despite the fact that I don’t think the presence of an ordained pastor should be required, this is an act that is, by nature, done in community. As a member of a United Methodist congregation, part of my duty is to act in community.

At the same time, I believe that I can and should make every meal a sacramental act. The greater joy I get from the celebration of communion in the church congregation is not that I believe God is more present there, but rather that it is an act I perform in community and covenant. Sometimes in order to be in community, we have to do things the way the community does them, whether we think these things are special or not.

At the same time I have become fully convinced of the concept of open communion, and by this I mean fully open. I have long accepted the notion that when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11, talks about taking this “unworthily” he is talking about the way in which the celebration is done, not about the character of the person receiving it.

By nature of its source, in the shared meal, and its institution, which included offering it to Judas as he prepared to betray Jesus, I think this sacramental meal is intended to invite and not to exclude. It is reaching out, not commemorating our special status as members of some inner circle. Thus communion should be offered to all both in church and when we share our meals with others. I question the idea of a Christian sacrament that celebrates membership in the club.

But, you might say, what about baptism? Surely baptism can’t be for everyone!

Yes, baptism is different, yet it is different by its very nature. It is the testimony, the ritual representation of our dying with Christ and being raised with him to new life. It is a singular (generally) event. It does not celebrate how we have become special, but rather how we have chosen to give ourselves up and become part of a community, a community that, in turn, reaches out to draw others in.

And even here we invite anyone who wishes to testify to that, anyone who wishes to become a servant.

I think this becomes a problem when we see these events as a sort of initiation, bringing us into the club of the special, in which there are other special rituals in which only other special people can take part. The “in group” view of the people of God that many of us have, consciously or not, leads us to misread scripture. The Jews weren’t chosen by God to sit around and be special. They were chosen to be a blessing. Sometimes being chosen isn’t much fun. There’s the great line in “Fiddler on the Roof” when Tevye wonders if God couldn’t choose someone else for a while.

Christians, who are often anxious to appropriate the promises made to the Jewish people, are not nearly as often anxious to appropriate the calling, the tasks, and the negative responses of others. Being chosen, being “in” with God isn’t necessarily a picnic.

In conclusion, I suppose I could say that I have a high view of sacramental acts, and that I consider sacraments to be no more and no less. My high view says God is present and active in sacramental acts. The Holy Spirit works in and through them. But just as the rituals of tabernacle and temple didn’t magically accomplish forgiveness and reconciliation, but rather accompanied God’s actions, so these sacramental acts are filled with God’s presence when done “worthily.” (Note: I’m indebted to Jacob Milgrom, author of the Anchor Bible volumes on Leviticus among many other works, for my view of the relationship between ritual and divine action. Milgrom sees this presented, in contrast to some of the surrounding religions, in the way rituals are presented in Torah.)

Of Contexts, Communities, and Individuals

Of Contexts, Communities, and Individuals

Stop Taking Jeremiah 29:11 Out of Context is the headline in RELEVANT magazine. Thomas Turner is writing vigorously about the apparently shameful misuse of this passage of scripture. He points out that it’s used on graduation cards and often quoted in words of encouragement to individuals. He summarizes:

Sure, it might make a person feel better, but this verse as we often prescribe it is being taken completely out of context. It doesn’t mean what people think it means. It’s time to back up and see what the author of Jeremiah is actually saying.

Really? Totally out of context? Read his article first, and you may see just how much of what we say about the passage is very close to the same thing. Yet I’m coming to a different conclusion on the usage of the text on a graduation card or as a matter of encouragement.

Jeremiah is not talking to each of us personally. Jeremiah is speaking to Israel. Quite true! Further, Jeremiah is talking about our high school graduations, or our difficulties in finding a job or a spouse. Just so. Jeremiah is not talking about those things. But the fact is that scripture does not generally talk to us quite that directly.

I’m a great fan of context. One has to be in order to study scripture. But I’m not a fan of the excessive or indiscriminate application of rules. Almost any rule can be misapplied or stretched. A compact, memorable rule is very much like Jeremiah 29:11—when you use it, you will tend to bypass a great deal of logic and background.

Take, for example, the etymological fallacy. This is a very real and quite pernicious fallacy. I encounter it regularly in reading. Someone lays out the root(s) of a word, and derives a meaning from them. “‘Church’ in Greek is ekklesia,” says the confident but careless preacher, “and that comes from ek, ‘out of’ and klesia which comes from the word for ‘called’, so the church is the ‘called out ones’.”

But there are some uses for etymology. One is for fun, where a speaker might help us remember a point by pointing out etymology. Provided one doesn’t claim that the etymology has the last word about the meaning of the passage, there’s no problem with this. It’s fun. It helps one remember things. In addition, it can help one with spelling. And did I mention that it’s fun?

The second is when studying obscure words which one has available in only a limited number of contexts. It’s easy to announce that a word’s meaning is determined by usage, and that we discover that meaning by observing it in various contexts. But some words might occur only once, or even just a very few times in the literature we have available. What then? Well, etymology can provide pointers. I observed this in studying Ugaritic. My knowledge of Hebrew regularly suggested possibilities for words I encountered in Ugaritic, then context would help narrow down my choices. As a student, of course, I had recourse to the available literature on the topic to check my work.

Ugaritic, in turn, suggested some possible options for understanding rare words in Hebrew. At which point the etymological fallacy would often come into play again. Ugaritic could be helpful, but it could also send the unwary off into flights of fancy.

I take that detour to point out that we can apply rules, even good rules, improperly. Rules themselves require context. That’s true of the use of context as well. I learned before I was in High School (most of which I skipped anyhow) that one should always take texts in context. But there was a fallacy hidden in there too. The type of context I learned about was the literary context, i.e. discovering what the author said before and after, and placing the text into that context.

That’s good. We want to do that. We’ve already pointed out how Jeremiah isn’t talking about us personally. He’s looking at a community. Not only that, he’s looking at a specific community, Israel. He’s looking at that community at a specific time and in specific circumstances. What he says will be fulfilled in specific ways to those people.

And with that last sentence I blast my way right out of literary context and start looking at historical context. (Jeremiah lays out the historical circumstances of his statement in the context. I’m talking about the broader history of the fulfilment of his statement.) Now we realize that there is much more to context than just the literary context. Notice here that we also get away from a “one meaning” fallacy, the idea that a text means only one, limited thing. (And that rule could be badly misapplied as well!)

And this context can lead us to a canonical context. How do the words of Jeremiah tie in with scripture as a whole? (I will pass over the issue of whose scripture. I write as a Christian, reading as a Christian.) The exile, regarding which Jeremiah writes, becomes a historical watershed for Israel, and comes to define, along with the exodus, must of the Christian understanding of redemption. There’s a reason so many prophecies of 2nd Isaiah (40-55) are later applied to Jesus, even though in context, they have more immediate applicability. The entire event—exile and restoration—takes on new meaning in this theological context.

We might argue that this is improper usage. If Jeremiah didn’t mean it or Isaiah didn’t mean it (an assumption on our part), then how can we use it in that way? First, if we don’t accept a theological context, we’re pretty much out of business as a community with a shared theology, i.e. a shared understanding of God. Second, we do this kind of reshaping of events and stories all the time with other literature. While I believe what the author intended needs to be an anchor, a guide, even a limitation, preventing flights of fancy with the text, words do take on a power of their own in a community. (I would suggest the example of how Melchizedek is used in Hebrews, but this post would grow to long if I discussed that further.)

I’m not, however, suggested that we can just grab the text and do what we want with it because there are such things as canonical and even theological contexts. As with literary context, we have to look at what these contexts actually are and make sure that we haven’t just yelled “context” and declared victory, whichever side we’re on.

How does the theological context apply?

Well, first, we have the issue of individual versus community application. The church in America tends to be very individualistic. It’s fashionable in certain circles, to lay heavy emphasis on the community in order to counter that trend. I’m in those circles. I think we need to revive the idea of community in the church. It’s not about me, it’s about the body of Christ as a whole.

But there’s a tension in scripture and in theology on this very point. The church is a community, but the community is made up of individuals. So you have things that apply to individuals somehow. As I study Hebrews with my Sunday School class right now it’s interesting to see the tension between remembering the leaders (13:7), and everyone having boldness going before God, between the examples of faith, all individuals (11), and the great cloud of witnesses (12:1ff).

When someone today says to remember the leaders of my church, I can point out that I can move down the street and find other leaders. That’s actually a sad thing, that disunity in the church, yet it’s true, and unless you’re prepared to argue that every church’s leaders are truly following God, then there is room for me, as an individual to make a choice. In fact, I must make a choice.

So there is a tension here as well. It’s good to realize that Jeremiah 29:11 was first spoken to a specific community and that there was a specific fulfilment of this text to that community. That is important. As Thomas Turner points out, it’s a promise of the kingdom of God as well, and that’s important too.

But for the individual looking at a major life choice, the most important thing to get out of this verse may well be that God has a plan for him or her at that moment. The choice of the right college, the right job, or the right spouse may be the most important kingdom thing right then for that individual who is a member of the community of believers.

And in that very community that we want to celebrate, for which God has great plans, this text has come to mean more than just the good of the big group in the by and by. It has come to mean that, as “Abraham’s seed” I can now hear God speaking to me (Galatians 3:29), and that this individual application may be precisely what I need to hear.

We often act as though God has to pay more attention to the big things (like the triumph of the Kingdom at the end) than to the little things (where will I go to college?). But God doesn’t have limited attention so that he needs to prioritize. He can give full attention to both issues, along with billions more.

Just like those boiled down, compact rules of hermeneutics, the community has boiled down Jeremiah 29:11 and presented it as a compact promise. It’s a usage I find entirely appropriate.