Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year's Day!

May God's Kingdom be faithfully furthered by His People in 2006.


Monday, December 26, 2005

Biblical Potpourri for 500 . . .

The study of the Bible is an inherently political action, in more ways than one. There are, of course, the oft noted ways in which this is so, such as the way reading the Bible establishes the relationship between Church and world in public life; but there are more intramural ways in which reading the Bible is a poltically charged endeavor, and I'm not talking about denominationalism. A good deal of commotion is generated in what one could call "departmentalism".

It seems like studying the Bible in an academic setting means being swallowed whole by colonizing sub-disciplines, all of which vie for supremacy among specialists. The net effect of hyper-specialization is that not only is a pastor (such as myself) beset with choices between different translations of Scripture, and choices of interpretations within the text of Scripture, and choices of hermeneutical schemes to interpret Scripture, and choices of theological systems that are faithful to Scripture, but with the choice of which one of these questions is more important than the others! Which questions are most determinative in trying to understand, preach and obey the Bible?

Bart D. Ehrman argues that textual criticism is every bit as ideological as it is textual - how can a person even begin to engage in "biblical theology" if the selection of texts which supposedly constitute an author's (or set of editors') "theology" is arbitrarily selected by contemporary scholarship? The theological nature of variant readings mean that in selecting what is supposedly the "original" text one is ultimately aligning herself with competing theologies. How can Scripture be said to be inspired if we don't even know which words belong to Scripture? How reliable are the manuscripts which make up the Bible? How substantive were the changes and is the original text recoverable? Even if it does make sense to speak of an "autograph", what does the fact of scribal changes say about the cohesiveness of Christianity in its earliest days? Moreover, if one can't establish an authoritative text, what's the point of doing theology or talking about interpretation?

Biblical theology is an enterprise that is notoriously spoken of as "in crisis" even though it continues to pulse with activity. While the Biblical Theology Movement can said to have been leveled by the criticisms of James Barr and company, the academic task of establishing a plausiblly historically situated theology continues. Moreover the basic project of Biblical theology seems an invioble part of Biblical studies as a whole. Baruch Spinoza or J.P. Gabler didn't invent the concern that the Bible should speak for itself, with its own categories and agendas. The idea that the Bible should be understood on its own terms instead of serving as a dogmatic diving board is something close to a universal intuition. It's this inutition that makes the discipline of Biblical theology an invetibly colonizing force on other disciplines, ready to slap the hands of the ambitious systematician, reprove the anachronisitic philosophical categories of the hermeneutically fanciful and carry the banner of Biblical authority for the Church.

On the other hand, without dogmatics it becomes unclear what unites the cacophany of divergent voices of Scripture in all their historical particularity. What does something Isaiah said in his historical context have to do with anything Matthew might say in his? Can one even "preach the Gospel" without engaging in some kind of supra-historical creedal synthesis? For all the lofty ambitions of Biblical theology, its historical interests yield such a strict emphasis on diversity that the Bible collapses into a disjointed product of human imagination instead of the singular voice of God. But more than that, theological preunderstandings and creedal loyalty subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) fund both historical criticical and Biblical theological methodology; and that fact places systematics in a position of primary importance.

The new totalizing force in Biblical studies seems to be the issue of how one relates to the postmodern turn, which has brought with it a self-critical emphasis on philosophical starting points. Postmodernism seeks to pull back the curtain from our detached claims to theological knowledge, revealing the wizard of culturally informed theories of truth and justification. Epistemology has become the new prolegomena. One can't engage in any level of the theological task without giving account of the philosophical superstructures within which it takes place. I would have never imagined that being interested in Biblical studies would impel me toward the likes of Wittgenstein, Searle, Heidegger, Tarski or Davidson.

Textual criticism, biblical theology, systematic theology and philosophy are just a few of the sub-disciplines within the guild that seem to draw all others into their orbit, defining the problems and solutions in light of their own gravitational fields.


If you're in ministry, which of these disciplines do you believe is most determinative in trying to faithfully minister the Bible to your people?

If you're in the academy, does this picture misrepresent the current state of affairs?

If you're neither (or both) of the above, do you think that there's one primary "center" for theological studies, and if so what is it?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The results are in . . .

David Palmer
David Palmer

My wife and I LOVE the series "24" - but for the life of me I can't figure out how I managed to be President Palmer on this quiz. Someone want to explain it to me?

Which 24 Character are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

UPDATE: Here are the results for my wife:

Kate Warner
Kate Warner

Monday, December 12, 2005

Dig Doug?

Occasionally I get a hankering for conspicuously ornamental prose, and that's when I wander over to Doug Wilson's Blog and Mablog. While I can't always agree with him, I dig Doug's style. Of all the the white knights fighting for the claim of a truly Reformed heritage Doug seems to be one of the most reasonable and even charitable. His assessment of N.T. Wright's various contributions was a still small voice of sanity among the clamor of warrior children suiting up for battle.

On the other hand, there are certain topics which elicit some of the most vengefully florid verbage you'll ever hear from Doug, and postmodernism happens to be one of those subjects. In a recent post he criticizes the theological moves being made by postconvservatism by making a distinction between the autonomous, secular Enlightenment varieties of foundationalism (the Cartesian variety) and dependent Christian versions of it (inerrantism). The fundamental problem with the Enlightenment project, says Wilson, isn't the existence of foundations but an ethos of selfishness. In his view, rationalism is idolatry because it assumes that objectivity and certain knowledge flows from the self while true Christianity maintains that it flows from God. The problem with postmodern criticisms, then, is that they are decrying the impossibility of objective human knowledge without advocating (or demonstrating) dependence upon God's provision of it in the Scriptures. The desire to formulate interpretive strategies which mitigate human objectivity or propositional certainty is thus seen as "modernity's nervous breakdown"; a "whimpering selfishness".

All of this isn't completely untrue - there are some ways in which postmodern theology seems to miss the irony behind discussing the complexity and impenetrability of "revelation". In what sense does it "reveal" anything? But what Doug (and a good many others) seem to miss is the very issue which postconservative theology seeks to wrestle with - and that is, of course, the hermeneutical issue. To speak of the Scriptures as an authoritative source of theology is uncontroversial among many postconservative evangelicals; the problem becomes how the Scriptures function authoritatively in light of hermeneutical (not textual) indeterminancy. The fact is that our only access to the Scriptures is through subjective medium.

It's hard to disagree with all of Doug's railing against both the enthroned and the chastened Self. It's equally hard to refrain from celebrating the truimph of the triune God in "de-centering" the Self as He speaks in Scripture. What remains puzzling, though, is how we can come to the Scriptures without our "selves". Does God come to the Scriptures for us, on our behalf, or must we come to hear Him speak? Is there some way to come without bringing ourselves with us? If not, how have we been "de-centered" by God? What accounts for the discrepancies between the Spirit taught theologies of Luther and Calvin, Wesley and Warfield or, for that matter, James White and Doug Wilson? Which party is being autonomous in this case? Who's doing the whoring? More importantly, how do we know, and how do we avoid it ourselves such that our theology truly represents the mind of God as revealed in Scripture? Is it possible for two people to be dependent upon the Spirit, committed to hearing Scripture's voice and not their own, both being thoroughly "de-centered by the triune God" to disagree on what Scripture says? What does all of this say for the Bible's authority?

Unfortunately the problem doesn't dissolve in rhetoric (even Wilson's mostly delightful rhetoric). The plain fact of the matter is that Spirit-filled Christians of great learning and admirable lifestyles give persuasive cases for opposing theological commitments while at the same time claiming an equal share of God's authority - and that's the best case scenario. In the worst case scenario pernicious regimes and self-serving individuals help themselves to the authority of God's Word in order to bolster their own ideologies. Claiming to "stand on God's Word" thus becomes an impenetrable bulwark of self-preservation, deceit and manipulation. That's what postmodernism seeks to expose. Postconservatives may acknowledge that God has spoken in the Scriptures and that it is authoritative; what they are wrestling with is how that works. How can our apprehension, systematization and application of Scripture can be said to represent God's mind, given the fact that we can't understand revelation apart from all of our limitations? As these brethren cast about for answers, I can't say I always agree with the positive suggestions for a way forward; but for all the hellish controversy Doug's been through (lovingly handcrafted by Presbyterians standing on the word of God), I can't see why he can't recognize some small glimmer of prophetic quality in that critique.

For all of the rhetorical panache of Wilson's closing illustration ("God tells Adam to stay away from the tree, and Adam walks over to it, whistling, telling himself that 'to pretend that he, a finite creature, was capable of understanding, still less comprehending, this voice from the numinous realm -- why, that would be the true arrogance. And gee, that fruit looks good. I believe I'll have some'), the sad fact is that one needn't craft clever parables to illustrate the abuses of Biblical authority in Western history. The examples are all too real. Is it possible to be too sqeamish about Christian collusion with Nazi Germany in the name of the Scriptural mandate to "be subject to the governing authorities"? But the problem is worse than that. It isn't just that some people do bad things with the Bible; it's that the fact that everyone claims their own interpretations as God's authoritative decree without the possibility of falsification, which of course renders any concept of authority useless. That's not to say that there's no consensus as to what the Bible says, or that it's not authoritative; but it is to say that there is plenty of conceptual work to be done in terms of how it functions authoritatively in light of these issues. To say "just read it" is more than disingenuous - it'd dangerous, because the highest form of self-exaltaion is to equate oneself to the living God and invoke His name in the advancement of falsehood. Postconservative theologies are sincere attempts to treat these issues with appropriate solemnity.

In light of that, it may be worth asking, "has postmodernism actually influenced evangelicals to give the triune God their middle finger in the way Doug fears?"

Observe one of Doug's frequent debate partners on the topic, P. Andrew Sandlin; he has listed a few tenents which can be said to be influenced by postmodernism. Among them are the analagous way in which men apprehend God (sharp Creator-creature distinction), the ontically holistic nature of knoweldge (a being, not a mind, thinks), the fact that humans only see in partial glimpses, not exhaustively, the danger of human arrogance in ascribing one's own views to God, and the fact that our theology should be dynamic, open to change in light of Scripture. All of that sounds like a fairly "de-centered self" to me.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Take, Eat . . .(part 2)

1 Corinthians 10, at first glance, struck me as a strange smattering of topics artifiically smashed together by someone with attention deficit disorder. Paul speaks about the children of Israel in the wilderness, and seems to want to instruct the Corinthians with their example; but then the topic of communion pops up out of nowhere in verse 17. After that he launches into the topic of food sacrificed to idols, and then communion again, and then meat sold in the marketplace, and then “doing all things for the glory of God” – what does any one of those have to do with the rest? After spending some time trying to answer that question, I think I discovered what the obstacle was, and (as usual) it was to be found less in the text than it was in me; namely, in my shallow expectations about what Church should be. I default into thinking of the church as a service; but Paul thought of it as a family that extends even beyond those now living (the children of Israel "ate spiritual food" and "drank spiritual drink"). The relevance of Israel's appetite for idolatry and the Corinthian confusion over meat sacrificed to idols are all bound together by verse 17 – when we partake of Christ together, we become family, and we are thus (verse 24) to “seek the good of one another.”

Paul's point seems to be that recieving Christ and fleeing idols is something done by a community, not by piously introspective individuals. By recieivng Christ and fleeing idolatry we mark ourselves out as the one people of God; those who, through Christ, are to suceed where Israel failed. The issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols wasn't so much a crisis of personal morality, but a call for the Corinthians to be a distinct people from their pagan neighbors (something Israel failed to do). Yet, as verse 27 indicates, Paul's desire isn't for selfish community formation. Love is the rule, both among believers and unbelievers, which should manifest itself in a desire to protect their consciences. But in all of these things the driving concern is for the integrity of the community, marked out by communion.

The ancient world held table fellowship as one of the highest forms of friendship, intimacy and unity. This is why the issue of who Jesus chose to eat with was such a big deal to the Pharisees. The Pharisees even saw their tables at home as substitutes for the altar in the Jerusalem Temple. Their outrage at Jesus not “washing his hands” before he ate betrayed their concern for sacramental purity and community identification, not legalism or neurotic hygiene. Those who were allowed to come to the table together were defined according to ethnicity, race, class, wealth and status.

But in Jesus, Paul says, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, barbarian and Scythian all come to the same table. It’s no wonder that the early church was viewed as destructive to society; it broke down all the divisions that people thought of as necessary to keep its proper order! By eating at the Lord's Table together, the disciples were doing something revolutionary – they were reorganizing their family relationships, their friendships, and all those they would associate with not around extended relatives, common interests, shared status or level of income but around Jesus. Communion shattered societal norms of friendship and family.

The early church was just that: a family. They provided for one another; they paid one another’s debts; they ate in one another’s homes; they adopted uncared for children in one another’s families; they opened their homes and finances to one another and even called one another “brother” and “sister”. And that, believe it or not, was every bit as weird and suspicious to the Roman world as it would be for us today. For people to share in one another’s lives like that, to that degree – to not just call each other “brother” but to actually treat one another as immediate family members, was considered “unnatural” in the Roman world. But at the same time it made some people uncomfortable, it drew thousands of other people to the table, and into God’s kingdom.

When we take communion we aren’t just affirming our union with Christ in mystical fellowship; we’re affirming our union with one another as friends, but more than just acquaintances who share a common faith. We’re affirming a union that’s more like limbs to a body or the members of a family in a household. When we take of the same bread and drink of the same cup we receive the same Jesus and recognize that no one among us recieves more or less than another. 1 Co. 11:27 warns us to take this proclamation with utmost seriousness. This verse is usually used as an exhortation to "search your heart" for any moral failing that might make you unworthy of participating in communion. Sometimes a moment of silence is even provided to help you uncover any unconfessed sin that you might need to take care of before taking part. Maybe that's not a bad idea - but it has nothing to do with what Paul's actually concerned about.

Verses 20-22 give us an idea about what "unworthiness" he has in mind: “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.” Apparently when the Corinthians came to the Lord’s table the wealthy (those who owned homes) pushed their way to the front of the line in their debauchery and left nothing for the poor brothers among them – those who “have nothing”.

In verse 33 Paul says what he has in mind as behavior "worthy" of communion: “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Partaking in a worthy manner isn't an act of pious individualism; it involves honoring and loving all those who have recieved Jesus as members of the same family. The reconciliation of God's Creation, the advent of His shalom has begun in us, upon whom the "ends of the ages have come" (1 Co. 10:11), and communion signals the inbreaking of God's coming era of mutual, self-giving, Christlike love.

Next time you receive the elements, think about what you’re about to do. You are receiving Jesus as the satisfaction of your souls, and fleeing idolatrous cravings as "that which can never satisfy". You are identifying yourself with one people of God and committing yourself to honoring the most "unseemly" of its members. Only if you believe these things can you, as it says at the end of ch. 10, “eat or drink to the glory of God”.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Take, Eat . . .(part 1)

In preparation for communion with my congregation this Sunday I thought I'd post some of my reflections from 1 Corinthians 10 on the matter:

Because of our historical controversy with the Roman Catholic Church, and the subsequent Zwinglian over-reaction (adopted by most evangelical communities), the Lord’s table has become a naturalistic liturgical afterthought. In services I've attended, participated in and even led, there's always been a concerted effort to explain that nothing mystical is actually taking place, and that the entire ceremony is nothing more than an occassion for self-examination. But for Paul (and both Lutheran and Calvinistic traditions), communion wasn’t just an “ordinance” in the sense of a regulation which the church is supposed to meet in order to be “up to code”; he considered the holy meal “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink”. For all of the Reformers' sola fide conviction, for the most part they didn't seem to share the soteriological queasiness with which we repeat the words "this is my body" and "this is my blood". They affirmed with equal vigor that bread and wine can’t save anybody. They ardently protested against the idea that priests could somehow transform these elements into the actual flesh and blood of Christ by cultic incantation.

Yet, with Paul, they say communion as an act of mystical, spiritual fellowship both with Jesus and with one another. In verses 15-16 Paul declared that the cup is a means of blessing in which we share in Christ’s body and his blood. The children of Israel in the wilderness were supernaturally sustained by God not just physically, but spiritually; by the manna from heaven and the water from the rock which Moses struck. In their eating and drinking they tangibly experienced God’s deep personal commitment to delivering them from their slavery and bringing them into the new land; they were vividly reminded of their total dependence upon Him for their every provision. In eating, they entered into fellowship with God; they sat at His table. But they also entered into fellowship with one another. This dependence and salvation wasn’t just experienced by one, two or a two-hundred of them but by every single Israelite in the desert. They were delivered as a community, as a fellowship as a family. They all ate the same spiritual food and they all drank the same spiritual drink.

But notice that there was nothing automatically sanctifying about eating this meal; it didn’t automatically reconcile them to God, and it didn’t magically reconcile them to one another. In fact, Paul reminds us that even after receiving spiritual food and spiritual drink they still “craved evil things”. They weren’t satisfied by the meal God was providing; and so verse 6 says that their hunger turned to lust, and in verse 7 their lust turned to immorality, and verse 10 says that these evil cravings and all their attempts to fill it brought not contentment, not satisfaction, not full bellies, but grumbling. God was displeased with them, and he poured out His wrath upon them; but even before this there was judgment, because as they sought to satisfy their hunger with idolatry and immorality, they remained hungry, and they died in their discontentment.

The point here is that Christ is our spiritual food and spiritual drink, not just for when we were converted, not just for yesterday, but for the present, and for every moment we call “now”. He’s given to us in order to satisfy our cravings; and so this meal which we share isn’t just a law to observe; Paul says its one means by which we share in the body and blood of Christ and find continual food to sustain our spiritual lives. It’s a reminder that we must both receive Christ and flee from idols not once (at conversion), but always and “as often as you eat of it” and “as often as you drink it”. And he doesn’t say that we need to do that not by simply speaking about it. We receive these graces and proclaim His death until He comes by actually eating of the bread and drinking from the cup.

Consider this lengthy quote from Calvin as to the importance of the bread and the cup for our spiritual sustenance:

“For as God, regenerating us in baptism, ingrafts us into the fellowship of his Church, and makes us his by adoption, so we have said that he performs the office of a provident parent, in continually supplying the food by which he may sustain and preserve us in the life to which he has begotten us by his word. Moreover, Christ is the only food of our soul, and, therefore, our heavenly Father invites us to him, that, refreshed by communion with him, we may ever and anon gather new vigour until we reach the heavenly immortality. But as this mystery of the secret union of Christ with believers is incomprehensible by nature, he exhibits its figure and image in visible signs adapted to our capacity, nay, by giving, as it were, earnests and badges, he makes it as certain to us as if it were seen by the eye; the familiarity of the similitude giving it access to minds however dull, and showing that souls are fed by Christ just as the corporeal life is sustained by bread and wine. We now, therefore, understand the end which this mystical benediction has in view—viz. to assure us that the body of Christ was once sacrificed for us, so that we may now eat it, and, eating, feel within ourselves the efficacy of that one sacrifice,—that his blood was once shed for us so as to be our perpetual drink. This is the force of the promise which is added, “Take, eat; this is my body, which is broken for you” (Mt. 26:26, &c.). The body which was once offered for our salvation we are enjoined to take and eat, that, while we see ourselves made partakers of it, we may safely conclude that the virtue of that death will be efficacious in us. Hence he terms the cup the covenant in his blood. For the covenant which he once sanctioned by his blood he in a manner renews, or rather continues, in so far as regards the confirmation of our faith, as often as he stretches forth his sacred blood as drink to us" (Jean Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, xvii, 1; emphasis mine)."
The Lord's table is more than just a commemorative ceremony; it's a means of grace by which we are drawn into intimate fellowship with God.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Which one is the Blue Raja?

Here's a hint: he's the dumber one.

Believe it or not, I honestly couldn't tell at first. I was equally attracted to both of them.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Postmodernism: Stale, Mate?

I encountered the following quote from the Generous Orthodoxy Thinktank which seemed to affirm my take on postmodern influences for Biblical studies a few days ago (namely that it's fundamentally a critique, and not a viable project in itself). The mouth from which these words hail is that of Clifford Geertz, whose work apparently exercised influence over postliberal thinkers such as Hans Frei - no surprise, given his emphasis on community in understanding the world.

I think that postmodernism is past its sale date. It is not irrelevant, it had tremendous critical importance. However, as a pattern for future development I think it is a dead end. I think we should listen and learn from them and then move along. They have with their critique helped to clarify some of our fundamental concepts, such as culture or interpretation, but they will not last as a program in themselves. And that, the clarification and critique, changed the direction of anthropology. Therefore, my way of interpretive anthropology will go on much chastened by this. We will no longer have a simple-minded notion of what interpretation is; we are now aware of the problem of meaning-realism, and so forth. All this is terribly important. Personally, they influence me, and to some degree, I am still a part of it. As for cultural anthropology, it will in my view go on in reasonable continuity with its past.

What do you think?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Book Bonanza

This is one of the books I got for free at a publisher's reception. John Armonstrong sees this book as an important attempt to see both the human and divine facets of biblical revelatioon in thier apporpriate fullness. He generally praises the book in his review and laments the treatment it's recieved in Reformed circles. For those who may be interested, Joel Garver also wrote a review here.

This is another give-away title I picked up at the conference. It looks to be typical of Packer's sanctified optimism, and for that reason alone promises to be a refreshing read. You can read David Neff's write-up on it from Christianity Today.

Richard Horsley's work on Paul and Empire make this a tantalizing complement to Thiselton and Fee as I preach through this epistle. Horsley sees the Corinthian Christian community as an alternative polis and highlights the political nature of Paul's gospel.

I'm looking forward to reading some comments on Romans outside the New Perspective axis of controversy. Keck's apocalyptic reading of Paul and commitment to let Romans stand on it's own (instead of smashing it together with Galatians) will make this a fun read for my Sunday School preparation.

Tom Wright whimsically commented about the horrible title afforded this treatment biblical authoirty, along with the random picture slapped on the front cover. Yet the depiction of Jesus on the front of Wright's treatment of the Bible's authority seems appropriate, since he strenuously argues for biblical revelation's dependence upon God's own authority exercised in Jesus. Here's a taste of Wright's thinking about the matter from Vox Evangelica.

I've immensely enjoyed the other volumes of The Scripture and Hermeneutics Series, and this one looks paritcularly good with contributors like Gerald Bray, Chris Wright, James Dunn, John Webster and Charles Scobie. If Dunn's contribution is any indication of this volume's quality, I can't wait to dig in! There's a brief revew for your consideration at Beginning With Moses blog.

Since the whole point of the series is to engender deeper understanding of the biblical text it's fitting that they focus an entire volume around the actual work of interpretation. Reading Luke, the latest offering in the series, features some first rate contributions from Anthony Thiselton, Joel Green, David Wenham, I. Howard Marshall and Max Turner. In addition to theological interpretation and issues of language, an entire division of the book is given to issues of historical reception of the Gospel.

One of the most enjoyable sessions I attended was the panel review of this new reference volume from Baker. The criticisms included a lack of attention to historical critical issues and a leaning toward the Reformed Anglo-American contributions to the topic; but these criticisms aside, it looks like a truly majestic piece of work, and I've been looking forward to its publication for a year now. I've already perused a few articles and have enjoyed it immensely as a bedside "readers digest" of diverse theological interest. With the conference discount, this is the best 25 dollars I've spent in a while!

I heard John Milbank speak at SBL and I have no idea what he's talking about. I've had my interest in Radical Orthodoxy piqued by reading Hauerwas and Yoder, but thus far I've never encountered its British roots. In attempting to read this book on the plane back to Idaho I felt as though i'd been dropped into the middle of a debate I didn't understand. All that to say I think I may pick up Smith's other volume on the topic to get some idea as to what's going on, but until then I'll have to take this one slow with a broadband connection close by so that I can look up all of the unfamiliar nomenclature.

I've already read much of this book and was enthralled by the colorful and coherent picture Hays paints here. Using the categories of community, cross and new creation Hays masterfully draws a unified thread from the tapestry of New Testament witnesses. For a less than glowing appraisal, see Dale Martin's review; but for a more evenhanded treatment, see Mark Goodacre and Gilbert Meilaender.

Friday, November 25, 2005


. . . okay, not PETA. But I did return from ETS/IBR/SBL/AAR this week, and I had a marvelous time with some of my most cherished, colorful, Caucasian friends around the country. Even though it wasn't long before our room began to smell like a Bombay bus station, spending time with these guys is always worth the price of admission. Please accept my apologies for the sparse posting! In any case, after having some time to process the various papers and conversations I experienced, I thought it might be appropriate to blow the mucus which is my reflection onto the Kleenex which is this blog. Why else would I call it "Soylent Green"? Rather than chronicling the iterations of my thoughts in every individual seminar I attended, allow me to enumerate some general themes I found to be of interest:

1) Epistemology: In just about every session I attended, the issue of epistemology lingered around the edges of the paper, only to come periodically crashing to the center, especially when dissent was expressed by panelists or audience members. When it comes to theological discourse, it seems increasingly the case that Jerusalem has actually been relocated to Athens. Issues of prolegomena and theological method have become hot-button topics in Biblical studies, and in many ways I see this as a positive development: Evangelicals are now being forced to lay their philosophical cards out on the table and expose their epistemological underwear. This kind of methodological strip-poker is the necessary beginning for any meaningful rapprochement in that it must be acknowledged that the correspondence theory of truth, accounts of epistemic justification, and traditional theories of language can neither be found in the pages of Scripture nor referenced as “obvious” common sense. Being forced to defend these notions in all of their philosophical technicalities highlights just how NOT common sense the issues really are.

In other ways, though, the center stage given to philosophy can be somewhat frustrating. For one thing, the theologians discussing the issues don’t always have formal training or adequate grasp of contemporary debates in epistemology, which inevitably leads to muddled distinctions, well-worn caricatures and passé (re)formulations. My frustration with this is particularly acute, since I’m only being introduced to these issues via theological debate, only to find out upon further research that my confusion has as much to do with the major participants as with my own initial unfamiliarity. What is foundationalism, and is the rejection of it a rejection of both strong and weak varieties? By anti-realism are we referring to a metaphysical or epistemological position? Is the debate over foundationalism about epistemic justification, or is it a disagreement as to what counts as knowledge in the first place? Is a rejection of correspondance a rejection of Truth? In listening to the debates the answers to these questions aren’t always clear. What is clear, however, is that engagement in these disciplines (philosophy and theology) is crucially clarifying for both parties. The discussion between Merold Westphal, James Beilby, John Franke and Kevin Vanhoozer at the Evangelical Philosophical Society was especially helpful in illuminating this point. Keep watching this site, as I may be posting an mp3 of this session soon.

2) Postmodernism: The buzzwords in greatest currency at all of the sessions I attended were terms related to postmodernism - postfoundationalism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postconservativism and the like. The fact is, whether one likes it or not, the contours of contemporary debate in most of the disciplines within the guild of Biblical studies (including theology, hermeneutics and missiology) is being shaped by the variegated challenges of postmodernism. The positive effect of this has been the chastisement of positivistic excess and the cultural hegemony exercised by these disciplines under the guise of rational purity and detached objectivity (and hence the increasing discussions of prolegomena mentioned above). Yet, the negative effect is that since postmodernism tends to be more of a critique than a positive contribution, the void left by such criticisms tends to be filled by an untenable skepticism which seems incompatible with the missional prerogatives of the Church. Most of the friendly wrangling with my pals at the conference was over these sorts of issues, but the tension remains - how does one appropriate the global criticism of postmodernism, and the potential it holds for subverting the traditional impasses of Biblical studies, without resorting to nihilistic incredulity? Fortunately some positive contributions have been made in light of postmodern: Though Vanhoozer mentioned that he was "cooling" to speech-act theory as a panacea for all theological ills, I still think it represents heuristic value for textual meaning; Reformed epistemology holds some promise for an account of theological knowledge (while Bruce Marshall attempts a different account by way of a semantic conception of truth ala Alfred Tarski); critical realism is, if not rigidly methodological, at the very least an attitudinal middle-way between positivism and skepticism; Barth has proven to be a resource for a theological account of our knowledge of God, the Bible, and the (in)adequacy of human language, etc. As for the lasting value of these and other proposals, time will tell.

3) Theological interpretation: There seems to be a growing interest in the Bible as a Christian book. While that sounds like a stupid thing to say, the fragmentation of Biblical studies into adversarial sub-disciplines has presented a well-recognized crisis for churchly appropriations of the Bible. Historical criticism and biblical theology emphasize development, dissent and fundamental disunity in the pages of Scripture while theologians and systematicians wrestle these particularities into submission so that Christians can meaningfully speak of one book, one Gospel. Unfortunately the tug-of-war between unity and diversity has resulted in something worse than a stalemate; it’s created a taut rope for educated clergy to trip over. But a heartening turn was felt at this year’s annual meetings with Baker Academic and Brazos Press both publishing commentary series dedicated to the theological interpretation of Scripture, as well as The Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, a stupendous compendium of articles related to this attempted reclamation of the Bible for the Church. Of course the Scripture and Hermeneutics Series has also attempted to grapple with the issues raised by the Bible turf wars. Concurrent with these ongoing publications is the formation of a new study group within SBL, as well as a biannual journal dedicated to the topic. Hopefully these developments, alongside burgeoning theological projects which emphasize the controls of community identification and the rule of faith, represent a return to Biblical studies as a churchly endeavor.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Dealing with Disunity (Final)

Scraping the surface of 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, it’s clear that Paul’s vision for Oneness among the redeemed community is of desperate importance. But as one continues through the chapter what becomes even clearer is his contempt for its disruption. Paul’s tone in 1 Corinthians sanctifies sarcasm in legitimate moral outrage. The pinnacle of the apostle’s rhetorical razing comes in 4:7-8 – but its precursor shows up as early as his very first paragraph. Verses 13-17 read, “Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.”

As much as Paul despises rhetoric for the sake of rhetoric, he masterfully baptizes it for Christian use in what’s called a “reductio ad absurdum”. This sort of argument carries your opponent’s thinking to its logical end in order show its absurdity. Parents employ this timeless classic in response to the perennial complaint, “But everyone else is doing it!” The familiar reductio ad absurdum in that case is (say it with me), “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” The force of the argument is to expose the disastrous logical implications of a particular line of thinking – and the best way to do that is with a question. In addressing the Corinthian mindset, Paul’s got three of them.

The first is, “Has Christ been divided?” For Paul, church splitting absurdly implies that Jesus Himself can be broken into pieces and parceled out in chunks among various factions. How this follows from disunity is not easily discernable for most modern evangelicals, since Christ and the Church are typically held at arm’s length from one another. Resigned to the impossibility of moral victory and desiring to minimize the damage to Jesus’ reputation, the only available coping mechanism is to see His ministry as radically independent from that of the Church. But this is a fantasy. The Church, like it or not, is in mystical union with Jesus Christ. So much so, in fact, that 1 Co. 6:15-20 says when a believer joins himself to a prostitute, he’s not only defiling Himself – he’s defiling Jesus too. 1 Co. 12:27 puts it even more plainly – “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” The neat distinctions we make between Christology and Ecclesiology can be worse than misleading; they can blind us from the fact that the Church is His body, and as such bear His reputation, constitute His earthly presence and mediate His ongoing ministry. As such, seeking to separate believers from one another is a direct assault on Jesus Himself because, though comprised of many members, He is one.

This first question reveals an absurdity in their view of Christ’s Person; the second question exposes the absurdity in relationship to Christ’s work. Even though he used his own name, he could have just as easily inserted the names of Apollos or Peter – none of these men died on your behalf – so why are you choosing sides according to your loyalty to them? I think we should feel free to read the names of any respected teacher in the Church, past or present in verse 13. Is this where the lines that divide us should be drawn? Should we be organizing ourselves according to these sorts of loyalties? Paul’s answer was plainly, “Hell no.” And the reason for that is because of the nature of Christ’s work on the cross – it demands exclusive loyalty. Neither John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon nor John Wesley died for our sins. Neither John MacArthur nor Rick Warren reconciled our rebellious hearts to God. And since it was none other than Jesus who did that, there is no other loyalty which should be used as the acid test of Christian fellowship. The oft-repeated ultimatum, “Do you stand with X or do you stand with Y” exemplifies Satanic brilliance, because regardless of which option we choose, we’ve inadvertently hacking the heart of true discipleship: exclusive loyalty to Jesus Christ.

On top of these implications Paul piles on one more absurdity – “Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” These divisions reflected different spiritual heritages, the products of different discipleship. Some were influenced more by Peter, others by Apollos; some were the products of Paul’s teaching, and still others claimed to be purists, relying only on the words of Jesus Himself. Surely, then, these divisions reflected different faiths! Not so. No matter who their spiritual fathers were, every single believer in the Corinthian community, as well as every single believer in Macedonia, the Empire, in both times past and present were all baptized into the same name: that of King Jesus. And that baptism was based not on receiving the good news about Paul, Peter or Apollos, but about Jesus, who God has made Lord and Christ by virtue of His death and resurrection. The message of the cross was the basis for baptism in the name of Jesus, and therefore dividing the fellowship was a way of emptying the cross of its significance. The cross brings men of every tribe, tongue and nation into one body through baptism. Gal. 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I’ll close this series of posts with a searching quote about these verses from Gordon D. Fee:
“It is easy to see the urgency of a paragraph like this for the contemporary church, which not only often experiences quarrels such as these at the local level, but also is deeply fragmented at every other level. We have churches and denominations, renewal movements that all too often are broken off and become their own “church of Christ,” and every imaginable individualistic movement and sect. Even in a day of various kinds of ecumenism, the likelihood of total visible unity in the church is more remote than ever. This fragmentation is both a shame on our house and a cause for deep repentance. If there is a way forward, it probably lies less in structures and more in our readiness to recapture Paul’s focus here – on the preaching of the cross as the great divine contradiction to our merely human ways of doing things.”

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Dealing with Disunity pt. 3

When considering the exhortation of 1 Corinthians 1:10, maybe your picture of what a factious person looks like is something like the Neighborhood Watch villain. He’s easy to spot and, of course, he doesn’t look anything like us. Knowing our own hearts such as we do, and giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt, we recoil at the idea that such a word could possibly apply to us without overstating the case. We may be rough or over-zealous at times; but typically we reserve this sort of terminology for King James Only people, or hyper-Calvinists, or maybe Rick Miesel. And while these assessments would be correct, Paul's down-to-earth description of disunity in verses 11-12 should give us pause. The extremities of sinful behavior too easily serve as distractions from the very same roots which lie in our own hearts.

Notice that the first manifestation of factious behavior is manifested in what Paul calls "quarrels". The word there is literally “strife” in the plural – the same word used in Titus 3:9: “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife[s] and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” Quarrels aren't discussions; they're not friendly debates or healthy in-house deliberations; they describe a kind of verbal sparring which eventually alienate us from one another and rupture trusted friendships. We all know the difference, though we often pretend we're doing one while we're really doing the other. But quarreling isn't simply the action of shouting at one another – it’s also a way to describe the state of a relationship. “We’re quarrelling” doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re at this moment engaged in hostile verbal debate – it means that our friendship is being strained and our fellowship is being disrupted by our heated disagreements.

So far so good; but I suspect that our eyes are still on the branches instead of the roots. What we often fail to recognize is that no one prefers to thinks of themselves as “loving quarrels”. In fact, most of the time we engage in quarrels it’s because we think we’re doing something else - we’re championing the truth against the various manifestations of liberalism, we're standing for God and the Bible in times when it's unpopular to do so, we're being faithful to the Scriptures, come Hell or highwater . . . and so on. But bickering about the truth can still count as quarreling. And this, unfortunately, is often our speciality.

Phil. 1:15 says, “Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife (or quarrelling), but some also from good will.” Strife, like all other sins, is a deceiver. It dresses up stubbornness as "faithfulness". It paints ego as "boldness". It answers the fear of being challenged with the Bible by a call to tow the party line. In short, factious behavior always looks spiritual, and is always painted as virtuous. Always. Without exception. Notice the Corinthians didn't say "I am of Zeno", "I am of Epicurus" or "I am of "Plato". They said, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Those of us who are used to fending off criticisms of being "too harsh" or "too narrow" or "unloving" by seeing these epithets as a compliment, or worse, as a sign of divine approval, should let this bald biblical truth haunt us.

In order for our disputes to be spiritual, they must display the fruit of the Spirit. That means that our words, attitudes and even our study should be saturated with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control; and it should display not just one of these things – just faithfulness, for example – but all of them. Don't let the radical nature of that claim escape you! Imagine what our study (much less our disputes) would look like if it were characterized by the love described in 1 Co. 13; and that's just one of the nine qualities of the Spirit's yield.

Of the four very deeply drawn lines of divisions between Corinthian believers, how concerned do you suppose these factions really were for the truth? I'd venture it had very little to do with it, if for no other reason, Paul, Apollos and Peter were all devoted lovers of Jesus Christ. The clue to what drove their separation lies in the common word shared in all of their sloganeering – the word “I”! Selfishness and arrogance, not truth, stood behind their disputes. They were just using the reputations of these leaders to lend both lend credibility to their own views and to use their respected status as a wedge for other Christians to prove their loyalty.

Far from being "spiritual", divisions are usually motivated by lust and manipulation. James 4:1-3 says, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” The coattails of men like Paul and Peter are worn thin from ambitious, pouncing Christians. Respected pillars of the Church throughout it’s history have their share of uninvited tailgate parties as well. And each with our chosen personality set them up as a barometer for who we will fellowship with, and who we won’t. But when the pretentious platter is removed from this dish, and the rhetorical steam clears, what remains isn't meat(1 Co. 3:1-4); it's shriveled, poisonous fruit (Gal. 5:17-21).

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Selling My Indulgences to Spend More Time in Purgatorio

A brief interlude from my current series of posts - I just added Purgotorio to my blogroll, for good reason. Marc Heinrich is a witty Christian Hedonist (from Minnesota, surprisingly) who blogs entirely through the medium of pictures. More importantly, he also likes Radiohead. Go check it out - it's not the usual fare in biblio-blogging and it's worth your time. Express enough interest, and maybe he'll invite you to stay at his house.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Dealing WIth Disunity pt. 2

So, first, an exhortation about disunity. How do we approach this problem? Positing solutions seems simplistic from the beginning because of how pervasive and overwhelming a problem schisms have proven to be throughout Church History; but as always, solutions usually begin on the individual level. Verse 10 simply says “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.” Considering what was actually happening among the Corinthian fellowship, that seems an astonishing and somewhat naïve thing to say. The immediate issues which leap to mind in protest might be the moral ones, since heinous familial sexual misconduct, divorce, temple prostitution and reckless litigation could all be named among the Corinthian fellowship.

But the doctrinal problems were no less severe. Beyond their eschatological confusion (1 Co. 4:5-8), they denied the existence of a resurrection, and probably the resurrection of Christ Himself (1 Co. 15)! In the face of such flagrant moral and doctrinal meandering, one might wonder how Paul could even assume he was speaking to brethren at all – yet the exhortation in verse 10 addresses them as such. Lest we try to excuse Paul’s inclusive attitude by characterizing the Corinthians as simply “confused” or “mistaught”, consider that Paul’s apostleship was in question, and his ministry under skeptical scrutiny by the fledgling congregation (1 Co. 4:3-4, 9:3). But the opening of the letter in verse 2 proves that this knowledge didn’t hinder Paul from seeing the Corinthians as “saints by calling” who, “with all those in every place, call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” Christian standards of conduct were in decay, and the doctrinal situation was in dire straits, and yet Paul consistently regarded the Corinthains as a Spirit filled family of faith because of their professed allegiance to Jesus as their only Lord and King (cf. 1 Co. 12:3).

Even though he could have declared the Church an apostate fellowship comprised of doctrinal miscreants, he continued to regard them (and exhort them) as family – they were a severely dysfunctional family, but they were “brethren” nonetheless. It’s interesting to note that in nearly every case Paul uses these words, “I exhort you”, he appeals to the familial nature of their relationship (Ro. 12:1, Ro. 15:30, Ro. 16:17, Phil. 4:1-2, 1 Thess. 5:14 and 1 Tim. 5:1). Perhaps the best example of the spirit behind this kind of exhortation is in Philemon 9-10: “yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you [same word] —since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus.”

Yet Paul’s heart for unity wasn’t simply motivated by sentimental familial ties or a desire to “keep the peace at all costs”. The exhortation in verse 10 isn’t just based on their relationship as “brethren”, but on the “name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus’ name, of course, calls to mind who He is, what He’s done for us, and at minimum, His teaching. Jesus taught His disciples to be One, and to distinguish themselves from the world by their mutual love for one another (Jn. 13:34-35). Thus Paul’s desire for their unity was motivated primarily out of a holy zeal for Christ’s own reputation, which the Church sullies by the arrogance of her divisions. And this is Paul’s ultimate concern – the reputation of Jesus Christ. In order to secure this kind of obedience, he commends three practices for their fellowship to embrace at the individual level: 1) “that you all agree”, 2) that “there be no divisions among you” and 3) that “you be made complete in the same mind and the same judgment.”

1) YOU ALL MUST AGREE: Many of the words found in this passage are political terms; the word for “divisions” in vs. 10, quarrels in vs. 11 and the slogans of vs. 12 (I’m for Paul! I’m for Apollos!) all speak to the issue of party loyalty. Literally, the phrase “that you all agree” reads: “that you all say the same thing” (cf. the NKJV); but the NAS decided to translate it “that you all agree” because “saying the same thing” was a political euphemism for speaking about two or more parties setting aside individual differences to cooperate toward shared ends. This socio-rhetorical background for the language employed in verses 10-17 should dispel the notion that Paul is calling for a Borg-like doctrinal similitude among the Corinthian congregation. Far from “repeating the same doctrinal formulation”, “saying the same thing” involves, “taking the same side.” This shouldn’t be construed as mere compromise – it’s not asking people within various political groups to hide or minimize their differences. They can and should continue to engage in vigorous intramural debate –but the emphasis in this leg of Paul’s exhortation is on keeping the group together by focusing on areas which one can truly “say the same thing” for the sake of accomplishing mutual goals. In all the church’s wrestling through doctrinal and moral crises Paul is commending an attitude that sees one another as essentially on the same side – that of the Gospel of Jesus’ cross (1:17-18). The Church is defined by it’s commitment to a Gospel that proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord of the universe (12:1-3) and that proclaims His death for the forgiveness of sins (15:1-8). If a believer is forced to draw a line in the sand and take sides, Paul says that the only line which exists in God’s eyes is the line between believer and unbeliever (this is exactly Paul’s point in 1 Co. 5:9-13).

2) LET THEIR BE NO DIVISIONS: Keeping with the first part of this exhortation, the emphasis there is on AMONG YOU. The word “division” is literally, a “tear”, a “gash” or a “rip”. The same word is used in Mt. 9:16, when Jesus speaks of new patches being sewn on old garments. Eventually the patch shrinks and it tears the garment. The imagery of tearing pictures relational discord and ultimately separation. If you’ve been cut from fundamentalist cloth (as I have) the mind must find some way to explain this apparent moratorium on separation. After all, there seem to be circumstances in which separation is commanded, even in this very letter (cf. ch. 5). But Paul’s point here has to do with an illegitimate separation. For those situations that seem as though separation is required, there is one (and only ONE) legitimate way to carry it out: it’s called Church Discipline. This remains the sole mechanism by which the New Testament will authorize division among those who claim the name of Christ. And before this can done (according to Mt. 18), you’ll notice that God demands we plead with the sinning brother 3 times – individually and corporately – before we can introduce separation. When the reluctant disfellowship takes place, we regard such an individual not as “a wayward Christian” or worse, with pious agnosticism about his spiritual state (“we mustn’t fellowship with such a one, but let God judge His heart”) – No, Mt. 18:17 says, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Thus the line which is to be reinforced among professing believers doesn’t correspond to a camp within Christian doctrine – it is consistently drawn as a separation between believer and unbeliever. Beyond that, Paul says, there are to be no divisions amongst us.

3) SAME MIND, SAME JUDGMENT: In this third and final leg of Paul’s exhortation he suggests the Corinthians be made complete in the same mind and the same judgment. In deliberate contrast with his description of divisions as a “tearing”, this word “be made complete” speaks of sewing back together. Mark 1:19 illustrates the idea in James and John, mending their nets. They weren’t functional while torn, and in order to make them functional again they must be stitched back together, restored to oneness. Instrestingly, the same word is used for “restore” in the context of helping wayward brethren. Gal. 6:1 says “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” The same word is also used in 2 Co. 13:11, which should read: “aim for restoration!” Put things back in order, repair what is broken, knit those who disagree back together in mind and in judgment.

Again, in calling the Corinthians to have the “same mind” Paul isn’t saying, “Resistance is futile – you will be assimilated!” He’s talking about a mind-set, a disposition or attitude. It’s a way of thinking. There’s a big difference between sharing the same opinion on everything and having the same way of thinking about everything. The former speaks to lockstep conformity with one another while the latter speaks to a shared frame of reference, the same basic pattern of thought. In this case, that same framework is about “the word of the cross”, summarized in 1:18-25 and 15:1-11. There may be different levels of maturity and different stages of apprehension (and hence differences of opinion on various shades of the message), but all share the same basic shape in cruciform worldview.

Doctors may basically agree on how the body works. They may have gone to the same medical schools, taken the same classes from the same teachers, read the same textbooks and still come to completely different conclusions. Yet, one doctor may think that diabetes has some genetic link to ethnicity while another may passionately disagree, seeing diabetes as entirely diet related. Yet one wouldn’t reserve the title “doctor” for the doctor with whom she happens to agree. They both share the same basic framework in practicing medicine, and they could likely even work in the same office with their disagreements. Hopefully both are open to reevaluation on the basis of the available data. In the same way, Christians can share the same basic framework – the Gospel – and even respect the same teachers, go the same schools, read the same Bible, and still come to completely different conclusions on a hundred different important issues. They have the same renewed mind, but they don’t necessarily agree on everything.

The issue, then, becomes a matter of disagreeing agreeably; to have debate without division. Charles Spurgeon, in a semon entitled “A Defense of Calvinism”, called this “Christian courtesy”:

Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him that, while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley. The character of John Wesley stands beyond all imputation for self-sacrifice, zeal, holiness, and communion with God; he lived far above the ordinary level of common Christians, and was one of whom the world was not worthy. I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see the truths, or at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ as their Saviour, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinists in or out of heaven."

Higher words were never spoken of Wesley, and that from the mouth of one of history’s staunchest Calvinists!

The NIV translates the word judgment, “thought” and the NLT says “have the same purpose” – the reason why it can be translated “judgment”, “thought” or “purpose” is because having the same thoughts or judgments imply that you have the same intent, or the same goal. That’s what this word means – it means “purpose.” So by asking that we have the same “judgment” Paul is calling Christians to rally around their missional mandate, which is of course our Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and King. Recall the doctor analogy again and consider that their differing views on diabetes don’t hinder them from carrying out the task for which they’ve directed their lives: treating and healing the sick. All their vigorous debate about genetics and diet aside, both want to heal those with diabetes. Few medical professionals suffer from the tragic pettiness that Christians do in their doctrinal disputes. The world would not forgive society's most celebrated physicians for neglecting the sick in order to quibble with one another in their university lounges.

So, here is the first resource in dealing with disunity – take personal heed to this exhortation. Don’t ignore the issues. Don’t be afraid to talk about your disagreements. If you are and your debate partner are both humble and teachable, you may actually end up agreeing with one another. But even if you both don’t end up fully agreeing, (and obviously that can happen no matter how humble and teachable you both are), you can still learn from one another and grow from your edification of one another. To put it Paul’s way in this letter, “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies (1 Co. 8:1).” “Seek to abound for the edification of the church (1 Co. 14:12)” and “Let all things be done for edification (1 Co. 14:26)”. When you get frustrated or suspicious with another believer for reasons moral or doctrinal, remember that unless such a one has been the object of the final stages of church discipline, you’re on the same team! Don’t be quick to draw lines of division between you and other people unless you’re willing to declare them an unbeliever (in which case you should think about the judicial processes that are to precede such a declaration). Guard yourself from the glib put-downs and air of superiority which may prevent you from fellowshipping with Christians of a different stripe. Refuse to take sides or force other people to take sides against other believers in the body. That’s not discernment - it's the definition of schismatic, divisive, factious behavior, and it’s never a godly thing to do. Go, in love, to confront those in sin with the purpose of their edification; patiently work with them and pray for them to learn and grow, and if they continue to live in sin, with a broken-heart full of hope in their restoration, initiate church discipline. But if those with whom you have conflict with are born-again, God will never sympathize with one group taking sides against the other. Let the only dividing line in your life be between believers and unbelievers.

Seek to heal division within the fellowship, not create it. Instead of trying to force separation between believers in the name of “discernment”, do the harder work of seeking to bring them together around the same mission. Have the same mind and the same purpose that’s supremely concerned with the work of the Gospel, both among us and in the world. Spend your energy, time and resources partnering together with one another in accomplishing that mission. Concentrate your ministry on tearing down unbelieving strongholds in the world. Focusing our attention there leaves us for no time for division, as there’s plenty of work to be done.

Being a family is hard work because we’re all naturally selfish and proud. It takes a lot of humility to learn from one another, love to cover over a multitude of sins, patience as we are sinned against, and endurance with people that are slow to change. But we’re committed to doing that in our families, because without strong families, society decays. The Church is the most important family there is – it’s the hope of the world’s salvation, and its family Jesus died to create.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Dealing With Disunity pt. 1

After my previous attempt to highlight some of the subjective and self-important tactics used by doctrinal politicians, I was inspired to post a series on disunity from 1 Corinthians. I'll be posting them in the coming weeks, but here's some introduction to what's coming:

The division of the family is one of the most pressing problems in the western world today. A person’s family is the soil from which they grow to impact their environment, and now more than ever that soil is being poisoned with divorce, homosexuality, materialism, child-abuse and general selfish neglect. The fruit formed from that soil is unsurprisingly bitter: a dramatic escalation in violent crime, increasing gender confusion, rampant sexual promiscuity, further divorce, and further societal decay. The bond between fathers and mothers, parents and children is like an atom – you can’t split them apart without causing disastrous, far-reaching consequences.

Of course none of that is to say that someone of tremendous integrity and moral strength can’t come from a dysfunctional family – surely one can. Examples abound. But regardless of whether one can actually survive and overcome or not, what remains indisputable are the personal pains and peculiar challenges which extend from formative years of family life into adult relationships. Hence the raison d’etre of the Dobson brigade and his culture war. Evangelicals realize that not only Christian witness but societal order depends on husbands loving their wives, wives submitting to their husbands, parents refusing to exasperate their children and children obeying their parents. We, therefore, more than most, know that unless each member of this institution remains vigilant, the family will be divided, nuclear meltdown will be imminent, and the fall out will destroy civilization as we know it.

Yet this commonly shared sense of urgency about "family values" among us is conspicuously absent in regard to that institution which God deems even more fundamental to the preservation of human society: the Church. The Church is the local and worldwide family of God; the household of the redeemed. Jesus said in Mat. 5:14-16 that the it's humankind’s only light and salt, without which the world would be left in darkness with nothing to stem the tide of rot and decay. Pagan conservatism has often observed that if you divide the family and the world is in big trouble. But according to Jesus and Paul, dividing the Church, the very family of God, strikes at the heart of the world's only hope for redemption. It is the alternative to the society created by idolaters -- it's a new creation, a living preview of kingdom life. The ministry of Jesus is largely mediated through this Spirit-filled community which He rules from the right hand of God's throne. It's health and well-being are therefore vital to the plan of God for the world. The connection between the ministry of Jesus and that of the Church is so organically connected that its likened to husband and wife, head and body, vine and branches.

Jesus directly connected the Church’s visible ONENESS and UNITY to its effectiveness in proclaiming the Gospel. John 17:20-23 says, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” The mission of the Church, therefore, to some degree depends on our visible unity - the same unity demonstrated by Jesus and the Father - unity of purpose, unity of essence, unity of will, and the unity of mutual joy and synergism. The words "depends upon" are intentionally selected, for they confront the casual distinction made by many evangelicals between the Church's visible unity and the effectiveness of its Gospel proclamation (the former being the object of cynical scoffing, the latter being regarded as indespensible).

Surely the Bible speaks triumphantly about the end of the story, and we know that ultimately nothing can thwart God’s work on earth (as bleak or as dismal as the picture may look at any point in history). But we also know that even though the church can’t be stopped, it can be slowed down. It can be rendered temporarily ineffective. Salt can loose its saltiness and light can be put under a bushel. And that’s exactly the problem facing the Church at present, in all its fragmented shame. The throat of our apologetic posturing and bold proclamation is slit by our mirroring of the world's strife, dysfunction and utter lack of peace. The credibility issue isn't just a percieved problem, it's a real one: is the resurrection power of Jesus real, and is He able to give us the Holy Spirit? The dying world in which we live needs to see our oneness, not just to find therapeutic escape from the fragmentation of their own self-destructing societies; they need to see it in order to beleive that a genuine alternative to idolatrous living really does exist. "Jesus saves" may be the truth, but we give them no earthly reason to believe it.

And people have tried to deal with this problem in a lot of different ways. Some well meaning brothers want to join hands without ever debating the real issues which lie behind our division. Unity, in this frame of reference, is everyone’s duty to minimize disagreements in order to avoid dissension. We all have family members like that – they want peace so badly, they’ll sacrifice just about anything to have it (usually it's your mom). And if you do have family members like that, you know that this kind of peace is only superficial – it’s only skin-deep, and it doesn’t last. Before long, the deeply felt differences among that never get talked about begin to float to the surface, and the illusion of unity instantly evaporates. Moreover, while the conversation at the dinner table may not be heated for these folks, it isn't warm, either. The energy which should be spent on teasing, sharing and genuinely relating is spent on suppressing these deeply felt differences, resulting in sterile, lifeless small talk.

In recognizing the pitfalls of naive ecumensim, some have opted for a different solution to the problem – it’s called the doctrine of separation. If you disagree with a family member with sufficient conviction, you simply extend the offer come around to your way of thinking one last time before packng your bags to leave. Some even go so far as to advocate SECOND-DEGREE separation: that is, if you happen to agree with me, but you also choose to associate with those who don’t, we can’t fellowship together. We’ve all dealt with family members like this too – they respond to disagreements by fighting, getting indignant, and then storming off. When the holidays roll around, the real family politics begin, because if you seem like you’re too sympathetic to someone on one side, the other side will cut you off.

Both of these extremes exist in our worldwide Church family. But the only reason they exist in the Church is because these extremes also exist in our hearts. And that’s why division isn’t just a modern problem for the Church. It’s a sin problem, as old as mankind. Only 23 years after Jesus prayed His prayer in John 17, Paul was forced to write the letter of 1 Corinthians to deal with the disunity that was ripping their church apart. Nearly every other problem in the Corinthian church that Paul addressed in this letter (tolerating gross sin in ch. 5, taking each other to court in ch. 6, hurting weaker brothers in ch. 8-10, disorder in communion in ch. 11, their lack of love in using spiritual gifts in 12-14 etc) had its roots in the problem of disunity, Paul's subject of choice in the first four chapters.

The Corinthians couldn’t manage to worship and minister together as one family, in one accord. So, immediately after his greeting in 4-9, Paul gives 3 resources that wil help the Corinthians sort this mess out. Verses 10-17 introduce Paul's polemic against it by giving an exhortation, a description and an important implication about disunity. The exhortation exemplifies how to approach the problem and identifies a provisional solution, the description illustrates the sorts of attitudes and activities that lead to factions, and the implication exposes just how foolish divisiveness really is. I'll spend some time examining these points in my next few posts: but, just for posterity, here's 1 Co. 1:10-17:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all
agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in
the same mind and in the same judgment. 11 For I have been informed concerning
you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. 12 Now I
mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,”
and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Paul was not
crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank
God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one
would say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household
of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For
Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness
of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Wright and Reformed Rancor

I just came across a Doug Wilson quote from the Centuri0n Frank Turk that I thought provocative in light of my previous post. Read CenturiOn's inisightful comments (linked above), alongside these three equally insightful posts ( one , two and three ) to get caught up, if you're interested! And if you do read the above, please post your comments here! I'd love to hear your ruminations.