A Defense of “Biblical” Against Interpretative Nihilism.

The recent controversy surrounding Rachel Held Evans’ book has fortuitously coincided with some close rereading of Richard Hays’ Moral Vision of the New Testamenta work that is simultaneously awe-inspiring for its scope and frustrating for its ambiguity.  The question it pursues is straightforward:  what are the conditions under which we can say a position is “biblical?”

I won’t take up Hays here, as fruitful as it might be.  Instead, I mention him to simply point out that the question itself is worth pursuing.  But notice how it is framed:  what are the conditions under which, rather than “is it possible at all?”

Over at CNN, in a distillation of her project, Rachel writes:

And yet evangelicals have grown so accustomed to talking about the Bible this way that we hardly realize we’re doing it anymore. We talk about “biblical families,” “biblical marriage,” “biblical economics,” “biblical politics,” “biblical values,” “biblical stewardship,” “biblical voting,” “biblical manhood,” “biblical womanhood,” even “biblical dating” to create the impression that the Bible has just one thing to say on each of these topics – that it offers a single prescriptive formula for how people of faith ought to respond to them.

But the Bible is not a position paper. The Bible is an ancient collection of letters, laws, poetry, proverbs, histories, prophecies, philosophy and stories spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own.

When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word, we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t quite fit our preferences and presuppositions. In an attempt to simplify, we force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone and turn a complicated, beautiful, and diverse holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.

She closes by repeating a bit that I originally took issue with: “The fact of the matter is, we all pick and choose. We’re all selective in our interpretation and application of the biblical text. The better question to ask one another is why we pick and choose the way that we do, why we emphasis some passages and not others. This, I believe, will elevate the conversation so that we’re using the Bible, not as a blunt weapon, but as a starting point for dialogue.”

Rachel’s right to point out the way theology has become dominated by its adjectives, though the problem isn’t limited to “biblical.”  I bet if we used Trinitarian, missional, incarnational, biblical, Christological, and Gospel-centered (surely I’m missing some–help me out!) we’d have a massive list of books on a host of different subjects, all trying to bridge the gap between revelation and the world.

Now, those are all useful adjectives and I am in favor of keeping them around.  But it’s easy to allow their use to replace the work of an argument, as though adding a dash of Trinitarianism everywhere was somehow going to solve all the problems.  (The Trinity will–our Trinitarianism, though?)  In fact, I have sometimes wondered if rather than our endless attempts to connect theology with the world we might not be better off reviving our interest in first-order theological questions, like those now-arcane minutiae differentiating the proper relationship between Christ’s two natures that the early church thought important enough to spill massive amounts of ink over.

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United St...

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United States Library of Congress, demonstrating printed pages as a storage medium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, given this concern, I’d like to try to shore up a corresponding one that I raised in my review of Rachel’s book.  Because Scripture is a good deal more than the “starting place for dialogue.”  It happens to be the criterion by which that dialogue proceeds as well, through differentiating between those conclusions which are “biblical” and those which are not.  If it’s only dialogue that we want, or even dialogue that we want to emphasize, we shall have to own up to the fact that Plato simply does it better.  Socrates simply outquestions Jesus.  If Scripture is in the last analysis the starting point for dialogue, rather than the norm for faith and practice, then it doesn’t seem like it’s doing much for us other than providing a less-beautiful backdrop for our own cultural projections backwards into the text.  I suspect Rachel doesn’t want to go this route–and I haven’t read all her blog posts on the subject, so I’ll admit to postulating here only to make a broader point–but then the path toward interpretative nihilism is just as much of a temptation as that of treating Scripture as a bludgeon.  I am trying to answer her caution with a caution, in other words, just to clarify what’s at stake.

Let me put it this way.  Rachel has reminded the world of how troublesome “biblical” can be.  She did it in the context of womanhood, for reasons I understand even if I am not sold on.  But what of those non-womanhood areas where the Bible has something to say?  Shall we do away with biblical ethics, for instance, because its conclusions are just as contested?  Or what of biblical theology?  Or what of biblical economics, with its corresponding concern for the poor?  And how does this criterion get established in a non-arbitrary way?  We ought not prematurely land on a conclusion of what’s “biblical,” but we ought not to deny the possibility of getting there either.  The whole fun and drama of biblical interpretation is that being wrong is a possibility, but so is getting it right.  What’s more, our prophetic mode as Christians is contingent upon our accurately bearing witness to the divinely revealed Word.  It’s precisely those who wish to speak prophetically who should hold on to “biblical” the firmest.

Just because we “tend to” ignore countervailing evidence within the text when we use “biblical” doesn’t mean that we have to.  And the only way to get rid of one bad use of “biblical” is to rehabilitate it and replace it with a better.  I suspect that the danger of a biblical nihilism that repudiates and rejects the possibility of finding genuine coherence and meaning is more subtle and corrosive than it appears, because it will always sound so inclusive and nice.  The deconstructive work of skepticism turns out to be not terribly hard at all.  It’s pointing toward the text and saying “This, this is the way we must go” that proves to be a challenge.  Yet if we as Christians are to offer the world more than what it already has on offer, we must not so problematize “biblical” that we leave it behind altogether.  For where else shall we go?  There, in the authorized witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus–there are the words of life.

(And see also my good friend Matt Milliner’s typically provocative pointing toward visual exegesis.)

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The King Jesus Gospel: A Review

I’ve been almost completely offline the past couple weeks, so I’m behind on everything.  But I just noticed that Leadership Journal published my review of Scot Mcknight’s new book The King Jesus Gospel.

McKnight’s central critique is that contemporary evangelicals have reduced the gospel to the plan of salvation, or to the question of how an individual gets saved. McKnight is careful not to dismiss the importance of personal salvation or of justification by faith, but he contends that the plan of salvation is not the whole gospel, and that in equating the two, evangelicals have made a dangerous mistake.

McKnight writes that the gospel is “the salvation-unleashing Story of Jesus, Messiah-Lord-Son that brings to completion the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.” McKnight unpacks 1 Corinthians 15, observing how the Good News includes not only Christ’s saving work on the cross but also the rest of the story: the Resurrection, birth of the church, and the fact that we are moving forward to the “full consummation of the kingdom when God becomes all in all.”

This expanded understanding of the gospel shifts the terms of the discussion. In a brief interaction with John Piper, McKnight points out that asking whether Jesus preached Paul’s gospel is a legitimate question, but that the question is backwards. Since the gospel comes from the Gospels, he contends, we shouldn’t be asking if Jesus agrees with Paul, but whether Paul agrees with Jesus. For McKnight the primary presentation of the Good News comes from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. To define the gospel as the plan of salvation (and specifically, justification by faith) is to ignore this crucial fact.

 

Christian Influence Fail: Rob Bell and Time Magazine

I never really cared about Rob Bell. I’ve never read his books but I like his nice videos. They seem like they might be attractive to people, maybe help influence doubters or seekers to examine Christianity a little more closely. His blurb in Time Magazine, however, will do the exact opposite. From Time’s 100 Most Influential People:

Is hell real? it’s a question that has vexed the Christian church for two millennia [Cate's Note: has it?]. Who gets saved, and, come to think of it, what does it mean to be “saved” in the first place?

Rob Bell thinks he knows — or, more precisely, he thinks we can’t know, because the biblical discussion of salvation (as with so much else) is contradictory…

Wielding music, videos and a Starbucks sensibility, Bell is at the forefront of a rethinking of Christianity in America. Traditionalists don’t like what they’re seeing, for Bell’s questions cut to the heart of a faith that requires what the poet Coleridge called a “willing suspension of disbelief.” (emphasis mine)

There are a lot of problems with these short paragraphs, but let’s start with the sly appeal to authority. Coleridge coins this phrase in a discussion of his personal method of revealing truth through poetry. In Biographia Literaria, Chapter 14 he says,

In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads'; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Not only is Coleridge not talking about religious faith at all, but he’s referring to a way of revealing truth through characters and stories just a bit too fantastic. In this context, the willing suspension of disbelief is a way of engaging in a story in order to understand bigger and better truths about the nature of humanity, the world, and maybe even God. This might indeed be an interesting way to talk about Bell and his less-than-literal hermeneutical methods, but it certainly isn’t what comes across from the author of Bell’s mini-biography, nor is it what the average Time reader is going to pull from that statement.

If I were Bell, I would be horrified by the article. The only actual quotation of Bell’s used is relatively harmless, “In the book, I write about how some have believed that all will be reconciled,” he told TIME, “and while I long for that as I think everybody should long for it, I don’t take a position of certainty because, of course, I don’t know how it all turns out.” This sentiment is one the Church Universal could emphasize a little more; that we, that God himself, wants no man to be lost. I think we could also say alongside Bell that no one really understands the nature of eternity, ultimate separation from God, or what it will someday mean to live as people saved. But what comes across instead is a leader of the Church who doesn’t believe that the Bible is trustworthy, and who fits right into what the secular world would like to believe about us, that we are believers of fairy stories, and the best that could be said of us is that some, like Bell, are more humble about it than others.

 

Literally?

Last week, Justin Taylor highlighted an article on the history of the interpretation of Genesis 1. I almost posted a rapid response, as the history of biblical interpretation is my big specialty. But I feared the appearance of posturing for traffic, and I strongly dislike origins debates. They tend to be clear as mud, sticky as pitch, uncivil, and arrogant. And I’m not just talking about the conventionally dreaded young-earth set. The days of creation and the age of the earth are not tier-one issues, but they are hardly minor technical points. We must not rank theological disputes by how agreeable we find the topic, our conversation partners, or what those who overhear us will think.

Taylor’s post touched on points that need to be raised if we want to have a real, productive debate. For now, I’ll limit myself to the post and not the underlying article, which was not easily obtainable by a general audience when he posted it. His list of conclusions looks unhappily similar to a list of common misperceptions and oversimplifications in the use of historical interpreters. Mere variety of approaches does not exclude the possibility of clear truth, as I’m sure Taylor would agree on other matters. The use of, and accommodation to, science by Augustine and Calvin was a two-way street. They often modified received science to suit their theological and hermeneutical purposes. Likewise, to modern ears their insistence on adherence to scientific reason seems inconsistent with their actual interpretations of Genesis. Likewise, “theological” interpretation and “literal” interpretation are not mutually exclusive. One can find the theological significance of creation to be more important than duration and means, and still be “literalistic” when directly addressing the latter. Calvin certainly was, and Augustine had his moments. Too often, old-earthers (including theistic evolutionists) claim the “spirit” of Augustine or Calvin, while young-earthers claim their direct statements on the points in question. Continue reading

What are Theologians For?

What are theologians for? What are they supposed to do? If the theologians of the world went on a retreat together and made a list of objectives for 2011, what would be on it?

I’m not sure how to answer these questions. But in Thomas Torrance’s book Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, he spends time on something I probably wouldn’t have put on the must-dos of a theologian. This task maybe wasn’t something Torrance explicitly considered part of his work, but the result is all the same for the careful reader.

Torrance starts by doing what everyone knows theologians do: talk about words in the original language:

We note first the Old Testament custom of speaking of the raising up of a prophet, or king or judge or priest, where the ideas of provision and appointment are blended together. The New Testament uses both egero and anistemi in this connection. Thus when the New Testament speaks of Jesus being raised up, it evidently refers not only to the resurrection of his body from the grave but to his being raised up as the appointed messiah, the anointed prophet, priest, and king. The resurrection implies the installation or enthronement of Jesus in his offices as Christos, the anointed one.

Torrance does not stop here or immediately move to other word studies. He explains the significance of these words as they connect to the narratives of the Old Testament:

Jesus is raised up as a root out of dry ground, the shoot of the vine, after it had been cut down to the ground. It is a miraculous act, in line with the raising up of seed out of the barren womb, as in the cases of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, etc. This idea also plays its part in the accounts of the virgin birth of Jesus, but here we see already how the birth and resurrection of Jesus are linked, for together they constitute, in the understanding of the New Testament, the raising up of the new seed in whom all nations will be blessed, the first-born of the new creation.

What I like so much about this is Torrance’s connection of the Virgin Mary with Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth. By making this connection, Torrance directs the reader’s attention toward the ascending drama of redemptive history. He helps us see the richness of God’s story, the beauty of Christ as the crescendo of every Old Testament story of a miraculous birth to a barren woman. (I can only briefly note the brilliance of God’s crescendo: Christ’s birth echoes those of Isaac, Samuel, and John, but punctuates the image by expanding it with Mary’s virginity.)

Without a theologian, we would undoubtedly miss the relationship between the word denoting resurrection from the tomb and the word denoting anointing. Torrance also shows, however, the artistic unity of the Bible; he serves as a tour guide of the beauty of scripture. I believe this work of the theologian serves two functions.

First, Torrance deepens any reader’s apprehension of the glory of God by showing the extended drama of God’s activity through history. This service blesses every Christian soul. Second, Torrance highlights for the Christian artist an image worth exploring. His explanation of the significance of the words in the original language opens artistic avenues that would go undiscovered by non-theologians. This service blesses Christian artists, who then bless every Christian soul.

I wonder: do enough theologians produce material that artists would find helpful? Do enough artists consider theologians indispensible sleuths for finding hidden metaphors? I’m not sure, but to me this is an exciting possibility for the often under-developed concept of Christ’s body working in harmony. Suppose bearing one another’s burdens was not limited to emotional or physical challenges, but professional and intellectual ones as well.

Mixing Fibers and Levitical Prohibitions

Mention the prohibition on tattoos in Leviticus 19:6 and it’s 98.7% likely that the immediate response will be, “Yeah, and don’t wear a cotton/polyester blend, either!”

Now, I take it that the existence of polyester suits is a prima facie case on behalf of mixing fibers.  Clearly, a good God would want to save us from such atrocities.

The rejoinder is, of course, a reference to the prohibition on mixed fibers in Leviticus 19:19.  If you want to appeal to the prohibition on tattoos to make a case against them, you have to engage–the argument goes–in a pretty selective reading.

What no one has, to my knowledge, pointed out in context of the debate over tattoos is the oddity of the prohibition on mixing fibers.  If you look at Exodus 28, the priests are commanded to make garments that seem to require…mixing fibers.

There’s lots we could make of this regarding the nature and purpose of the holiness laws in Leviticus 19.  But given that this realization is new to me, I plan on ruminating on it some more before drawing any fast conclusions.

Defining the Gospel

Talking about the Gospel is all the rage these days.

Everyone wants to know precisely how big it should be–does it include working for justice (which is invariably social justice), or not?

With that in mind, I decided to put down my own definition, just for kicks. 

The gospel is the good news that God’s plan to establish a people for himself has not been thwarted by sin, but that we have been adopted as sons and daughters of God through the merciful atonement that his son Jesus Christ offered on the cross on our behalf, and that our restoration is applied to us through the power of His Holy Spirit.

Of course, that’s a way of putting it that might have so many ambiguities that it dissatisfies everyone.  I’m okay with that.

Many of the debates about the content of the Gospel rest are trying to navigate the relationship between the individual and the social, and ultimately end up relying a false bifurcation between them–which I see lots of good reasons to reject.

McLaren’s ‘New Christianity’ and its Greco-Roman Narrative

I haven’t yet read McLaren’s latest, mostly because of financial restrictions.  But I’ve been keeping one eye on the critiques, if only to see where the perceived weaknesses are if I ever make it around to it.

And  Fuller New Testament Professor Marianne Meye Thompson’s take is the one that has sparked the most interest for me, if only because it addresses what seems to be a central feature of McLaren’s vision of Christianity:  critiquing the “Hellenizing influences” on the Christian faith.

This critique is made frequently enough.  You can find it in N.T. Wright, in feminist literature, and in various strands of postmodern theology more hostile to traditional evangelicalism.  But Thompson contends that with respect to McLaren’s version of “Greco-Roman thought,” the distinction between Greco-Roman thought and Jewish thought is not as simple as is often thought:

Let me give one example of how historical evidence challenges McLaren’s take on the Greco-Roman narrative and then an example of how McLaren’s own reading is as much shaped by prior ideological commitments. McLaren is right that the word “the Fall” doesn’t appear in the Bible. And it doesn’t appear in Jewish literature either. But something very much like the idea of the moral corruption of the world due to human disobedience – hardly the product of the Greek philosophical tradition– is there. One finds it coursing throughout Jewish literature dating to the period prior to and contemporaneous with the NT. It can perhaps be pithily summarized in the heartfelt cry found in certain Jewish texts lamenting the state of humankind: “Oh Adam, what have you done?” (4 Ezra 7.118) and “O Adam, what did you do to all who were born after you?” (2 Bar 48:12; cf 54:19).

This is not exactly a doctrine of “original sin,” but it is a view that Adam’s transgression infected the world with sin and death. This same literature views the world as given over to moral corruption, that is manifested in murder, violence, cannibalism, and sexual immorality, among other sins. And there is fairly widely shared belief in the dual destiny of humankind in salvation to eternal life and punishment for sin (sometimes as construed as divine destruction and death, sometimes as eternal torment).*

What McLaren terms the “Greco-Roman narrative” sounds very much like the narratives found in Jewish literature of this period. Not surprisingly, the convictions found in that literature occur also in the pages of the NT: the corruption of the world (Romans 1-2) and the sin and death brought about by Adam (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21-24); and the depiction of two fates of humankind (Mark 9:43-38; Luke 16:19-31; Matthew 25:31-46; John 3:17-18, 5:24-29; Romans 2:7-10, 8:1-13; Revelation 21:6-8).

Again, I haven’t read McLaren, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the critique.  But as a general principle, Thompson highlights why I am wary of dismissive readings of early Christianity for being too “Hellenized.”

The Central Message of the Epistle to the Galatians

I’ve been reading through some traditional evangelicals, hunting for their understanding of embodiment.  Along the way, I came across this gem from Andrew Murray:

That there is a glorying in Christ Jesus that is accompanied by much confidence in the flesh, all history and experience teach us. Among the Galatians it was so. The teachers whom Paul opposed so earnestly were all preachers of Christ and His cross. But they preached it not as men taught by the Spirit to know what the infinite and all-pervading influence of that cross must be, but as those who, having had the beginnings of God’s Spirit, had yet allowed their own wisdom and their own thoughts to say what that cross meant, and so had reconciled it with a religion which to a very large extent was legal and carnal. And the story of the Galatian Church is repeated to this day even in the Churches that are most confidently assured that they are free from the Galatian error. Just notice how often the doctrine of justification by faith is spoken of as if that were the chief teaching of the Epistle, and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling as received by faith, and our walking by the Spirit, is hardly mentioned.

There’s been a huge debate among Protestants the last decade over the nature and meaning of justification, a debate which has reached its apex in the clash between N.T. Wright and John Piper.

Somehow, I doubt either side would be much satisfied with this.

The Gospel to the Phillipians

One of my other pet pseudo-academic theories that I occasionally like to argue is that Phillipians–not Ephesians, not Romans–is actually at the core of Paul’s theology.

It’s a crazy thesis, and no NT scholar that I know would ever make it in public, which is one of the criteria for holding it in case you ever find yourself trapped around the punch-bowl with a bunch of New Testament ge—scholars.

At any rate, allow me to endorse Fred Sanders’ take about this “sweet and unsystematic” book:

As a result, Philippians is in the odd category of being a favorite neglected book. Most of us have experienced Philippians as a loose collection of favorite verses, without much sense of what binds it together, or of what distinct contribution it makes as a book to our understanding of the Christian life. But it’s a book worth spending concentrated time with, to soak in its unique power. Its central idea can probably be seen best at the point where Paul describes Christ’s condescension in order to encourage the church to have the mind of Christ in their selfless service and Christlike humility. Paul writes from this perspective, and it makes Philippians a great help in seeing our lives correctly in this “crooked and depraved generation.”

Dr. Sanders doesn’t say this, but ‘unsystematic’ doesn’t mean ‘ununified.’

Paul’s description of Christ’s condescension is the centerpiece of the book, but it is reinforced by the specific relationships that Paul and his associates have with the church in Phillipi, relationships that are grounded in and motivated by the presence and working of the Holy Spirit.

And it is buttressed by Paul’s own personal experience of suffering, an experience that allows him to establish himself as an example to imitated by the Church at Phillipi.

All of which makes Phillipians Paul’s most personally vulnerable letter.  As the intensity of Paul’s relationship with the Phillipians is encompassed by the Gospel and the working of Christ, Phillipians provides unique insight into the dimensions of the Gospel within local communities.

There’s more to be said, of course, but Dr. Sanders is right in his assertion that Phillipians has a unique power.  It is a book worth spending considerable time with.