Monday, September 28, 2009

And Justice For All

As I was listening to an online sermon and reading a blog, a weird case of simultaneity (my new favourite word, even though I can't pronounce it) occurred - both the preacher and the blogger were talking about God's justice and mercy in antithetical terms. "God is just" and "God is merciful" were put forward as mutually exclusive descriptions of God's character, and so the puzzle is how can He be both; how do we reconcile these two opposites?

In the above mindset, a simple definition of justice and mercy is the following:

Justice is getting what is deserved.

Mercy is not getting what is deserved.

Given these definitions, it is quite natural to pit one against the other and therefore wrestle with God's embodiment of both. The problem, however, is that when it comes to justice, "getting what is deserved" (especially in the punitive sense) is not the entire biblical perspective. Far from it, in fact.

We tend think of justice almost exclusively as retributive justice - the criminal receives fitting punishment for his crime(s); he gets what's coming to him. But when it comes to justice as it is portrayed in Scripture, retributive justice is not the dominant form, both before Christ and most certainly after Him. Consider these passages from the Old Testament:

The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. - Psa. 103:6

It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice. Psa. - 112:5

Hear my voice according to your steadfast love; O LORD, according to your justice give me life. - Psa. 119:149

Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore He exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for Him. - Isa. 30:18

There are dozens of other verses that could be examined, but a quick look at these chosen few will lead to some surprising conclusions.

Psalm 103:6 describes God's actions towards the oppressed, whom He treats with "righteousness" and "justice". These two words crop up together numerous times, and are almost synonymous in some instances. For example, Amos's famous passage calling for justice to roll like waters and righteousness to flow like a stream. Therefore if we don't think of righteousness in terms of punishment befitting a crime, we shouldn't jump to that conclusion with regards justice. The psalmist is clearly not saying that God punishes the oppressed in a just manner, but that His justice brings healing and restoration to their desperate condition.

The next verse (from Psalm 112) equates dealing generously and justice. We think of dealing justly with people in a "balance the books" way, but here the psalmist says that generous giving is an act of justice; not grace, not mercy, but justice.

Psalm 149 brings justice together with God's steadfast love. The psalmist is pleading to God for life, and makes his plea on the basis of God's justice. To our ears this sounds foolish -- "Getting justice from God means getting what you deserve, and since you're a sinner you deserve death" -- but this particular writer did not possess our narrow-minded view of justice. For him, God's justice and God's steadfast love could be mentioned in the same sentence without any need for a reconciliation between the two words, and so he felt free to appeal to God on the basis of His life giving justice. This is all a far cry from our death-sentencing God of justice.

Finally, if it's not already clear, Isaiah does my job for me by actually saying that God's graciousness and mercy flow out of His justice. He declares that YHWH waits to show grace and mercy to His people "for (or 'because') YHWH is a God of justice", which wreaks havoc on our either/or approach to justice and mercy.

As I said, this is just a small sample of passages that deal with justice, but they help make the rather surprising point that God's justice and God's mercy are not to be thought of antithetically. Retributive justice should not be all we know of the subject. Scripture is pregnant with a "restorative justice" motif, whereby the lame are made to walk, the captives are set free and the broken-hearted are healed. Jesus brings to fulfillment God's vision and promise of healing justice, coming as He did not to condemn the world, but to "let justice roll down like waters" (Amos 5:24), to "proclaim justice to the nations" (Matt. 12), to "put the world to rights" as N.T. Wright might say. (Yep, I just equated what N.T. Wright might say with Scripture.)

An important question remains - How might all of this relate to the cross? I'm still scratching my head on this one slightly, because this is usually the place where justice and grace (or mercy) are pitted against each other, and there is certainly a case to be made for it. For example, Jesus got the punishment we deserve (thus God's justice is satisfied) and we are therefore able to receive God's grace. But is there another way of looking at the atonement in light of some of the above? Is this where Christus Victor comes in? To be continued, perhaps...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Suggestion

A few bibliobloggers (as the kids are calling them these days) have been suggesting possible Bible-themed films that could be made, e.g. the life of Solomon, or David perhaps. This brought back to mind a suggestion I made in Scripture School last year as we studied the book of Acts - somebody should write a film on the life of Paul.

You could contrast his early life with that of Jesus, showing him learning at the feet of an esteemed rabbi in Jerusalem while the one he would later call "Lord" worked as a simple carpenter in Nazareth. Then of course there is Paul's initial life post-crucifixion and resurrection, present as he is at Stephen's stoning and at the forefront of Jewish antagonism towards this impure sect proclaiming a most blasphemous message - a crucified Messiah of Israel.

This all leads up to the pivotal point of the story: the appearance of Jesus to Paul on the road to Damascus. Everything changes after this, with this one time opponent of Christianity becoming its chief ambassador. In his life as a missionary, Paul experiences the good, the bad, and the sad. Many align themselves with the one he calls Christ, many aid him on his various trips, many fear the religious and political implications of his message and thus threaten his life, one time friends in Jerusalem would now consider him an enemy to be squashed, one time enemies of his now struggle to call him friend, he grows close to his church plants yet is forced to move on and let these fledglings carry the baton (Acts 20:17-38 is a heart-wrenching example), he is imprisoned, beaten, stoned, and yet faithful to his charge right to the end, culminating in that long-awaited visit to Rome (albeit in chains).

There are dramatic sermons in Jerusalem, there is philosophical reasoning in Athens, spiritual/economic conflict in Ephesus, a courtroom drama or two, a disastrous sea voyage, miracles, heartbreak, hymn singing in prison, secret assassination plots, loose morals, and much more.

Honestly, I really think it could work if it was done right. This would be a character study, and a character study on one of the most important and influential human beings ever to live. If I were a budding screenwriter this would be my pet project, my Good Will Hunting if you will.

As for some other details, who do you think could play Paul? Anthony Hopkins played him in a made-for-TV movie some 28 years ago, but he's probably too old to reprise that role. Bear in mind also that Paul, it is generally agreed upon, was not an attractive man. Small, bald, and so forth. (Well, do you know any attractive men who are both small and bald?)

Another issue would be whether or not such an overtly Christian film could be universally received. To achieve this it would have to avoid being preachy - no easy task when the central character is, amongst other things, a preacher. I suppose a film on Paul would be inherently offensive to some, but that's not to say that, like the Stoics and Epicureans, they wouldn't want to hear more from this great thinker and prolific missionary.

Finally, a tag-line. This I have already sorted:

"And you thought The Passion of the Christ was anti-Semitic..."

Anyway, a film on Paul? Who's with me, yay or nay? ("yay" means yes)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Honest Questions - #7

So where have we come from to get to this, the seventh installment on Inspiration and Incarnation? We began with setting the scene. Enns's book comes on the back of the 20th century "Battle for the Bible". Certain pieces of ancient evidence were discovered in the library of King Ashurbanipal in the latter half of the 19th century and were subsequently used by some scholars to dismantle the evangelical doctrine of Scripture. The fundamentalists fought back (which seems to be an important aspect of what constitutes "fundamentalism"), but not in any meaningful way that engaged with the evidence. More of a "la la la I can't hear you la la la" kind of way. Enns, by challenging the assumptions made on both sides of the war, has put himself in No Mans Land as a voice of reason. There is one mediator between conservatives and liberals, the man Peter Enns.

His proposal is a model for thinking about the nature of Scripture that takes it's divine and human aspects seriously, thus the Incarnational Analogy is born. As we must hold the divine and human nature's of Jesus in tension and not diminish either, so it should be with Scripture. Like any analogy, it is not irrefutable or complete, or in mathematical language, it does not represent a 1:1 correspondence. But it is helpful, given the obvious human dimension of Scripture (the dimension Enns is chiefly concerned with in his book).

We glanced over a couple of the pieces of evidence put forward by Enns, and noted the resulting issues that place large question marks over an evangelical doctrine of Scripture. Which brings us to where we are now - looking at how these issues have been handled in the past, and how Enns suggests they should be handled in the present and future. In case you missed the previous six parts, I'll link them here for your convenience:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

"How have these issues been handled in the past?" is the penultimate step before getting to grips with the issues in the present and future. Enns asserts that the aforementioned evidence "caught the church off guard". Pre-evidence, the predominant issues in the exciting world of biblical scholarship were textual - uncovering the original form of these much-copied biblical texts. Post-evidence, there was a shift from text to context, with the dominant question being, "What did these documents mean in their original context?" (As the saying goes, a text without a context is a pretext.)

Scholarly response to the issues raised by this evidence was divided. In one camp were those who insisted that the Bible was basically a purely human book. As Enns notes,

What modern biblical scholarship demonstrated was that the Bible shared many of the standards, concepts and worldviews of its ancient Near Eastern neighbours. When they got down to it, there really wasn't anything about the Bible itself that made it all that special, and this seemed very inconsistent with conventional notions of inspiration and God speaking to us in the Bible today.

In the other camp was the "conservatives", who held fast to their highly-valued doctrines and thus were only prepared to engage with any evidence that supported them, while retreating from any evidence which was seen as threatening. As noted in an earlier post, ironically enough both camps made the same questionable assumption:

The Bible, being the word of God, ought to be historically accurate in all its details (since God would not lie or make errors) and unique in all its own setting (since God's word is revealed, which implies a specific type of uniqueness).

Enns goes on to paint something of a caricature by saying that,

if historical context was everything for liberal scholars, regardless of its implications for Christian doctrine, for conservative scholars doctrine was everything, regardless of the historical evidence that challenged doctrine.

Which leads us back to Enns's original intention for writing this book: to engage with ancient evidence in such a way that it is allowed to shape what we mean by saying the Bible is the word of God. Christians may affirm that the Bible is God's word, but what does that mean? Whether you identify yourself as a Christian or not, what do you think it means to call a text God's word? What should something with this title look like, keeping in mind especially the creation and flood narratives?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Defining Moments

One of the most defining moments in Scripture is when the Angel of the LORD tells Abraham not to lay a hand on Isaac. The story is familiar to most: God tells Abraham to go to Mount Moriah and offer his only son Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham obeys to the point of having a knife dangling over Issac's body, only for the Angel to intervene.

Many burning questions arise from this passage in Genesis 22, but they all boil down to one - Why did God bring this episode about? After all, without God's initial command, none of this would have happened. Abraham didn't just decide to offer his precious son Isaac to God one day. He heard a call from God to do so. The question is, why this call? What were God's motives?

The Bible gives us clear answers on one level, and yet these answers are far from clear as they inevitably leaves us scrambling for "deeper truths". The clearest answer of all is that God did this to test (or prove) Abraham. That is what verse 1 affirms matter-of-factly. The blessing promised to the world hinged on God's dealings with Abraham, and so this man from Ur of the Chaldeans needed to be put through a climactic trial and to come out the other end trusting in God. After all, tests are assigned so that the taker of the test's capabilities at a given topic are made known. The topic in this instance was Faith in God. Had Abraham failed the test, what would have happened? I think it's reasonable to say that God is a God of repeat exams. He is also a God who is faithful even when we are faithless, so had Abraham failed to carry through with God's almost impossible command, I don't think the promises God made to him would have come to nothing. After all, the promises God made to Abraham depended on God Himself, which is actually a part of what this test was all about.

A second clear answer to why this scenario came about is given when the Angel interrupts Abraham's obedience. He says to his test subject,

Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.

First of all, note that the Angel and God are mentioned almost interchangeably. Earlier, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son. Here, the Angel of the LORD says that Abraham didn't withhold his son "from me". But more to the point, another plain reason for this event is stated in the above verse - the need for knowledge. The Angel says that in light of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, it is now known that Abraham is one who fears God. Known to whom? Well, taking Scripture at face value, it is the Angel of the LORD who now knows that Abraham is a God-fearer.

Coupled with the "test" motive, this makes sense. When a teacher sets a test, she does so in order to find out where her students stand in relation to the subject being taught. Do they know their Geography or do they not? A test will find that out. Here, God is testing Abraham's faith, and He finds out that Abraham is indeed one who fears God. Therefore, God says to Abraham,

because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.

This is all rather straightforward, until we examine just who is setting the test. Human test setters need to find out information, but does God? After all, we affirm that God knows everything, and so before any of this took place God knew whether or not Abraham had genuine faith. Why then does the Angel of the LORD say that "now I know you fear God"? He knew that already, right? Doesn't God's omniscience make this test rather pointless, and thus only add to the seeming cruelty of the initial command?

The explanation often given is that what is really going on here is that God is testing Abraham so that Abraham knows where he stands. However, I'm not so sure I can sign up to this, chiefly for the simple reason that the Angel doesn't say "now you know that you fear God." If that is what is really meant, then why didn't he really say it?

Perhaps the key lies in the word "know". We think of coming to "know" something almost purely in informational terms. I don't know what the capital of Mali is, I search Wikipedia, and now I know. (It's Bamako, in case you're wondering.) The Old Testament, however, appears to attach deeper significance to this little word. For example, Genesis talks about Adam "knowing" his wife, which is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Of course that's not to imply that every time we read the word "know" in the Bible we take it to mean "have sex". But it does mean that we shouldn't just think of it as "acquiring information".

Look also at the New Testament and what Paul says to those troubled folk in Galatia. He talks about them coming to be known by God (chapter 4). Were they not already known by their Almighty Creator who knows everything? In one way they were, but in a deeper, relational way they were not. I don't think I'm pushing the boat out to far in saying that there is is a knowledge of us that God doesn't have, but which He gains in some deep, intimate way. Paul also says in 1 Corinthians that,

If anyone loves God, he is known by God.

This language is extremely relational. It is knowledge between two persons, not knowledge between a person and a piece of information. Relating this back to Abraham, can we say that this ex idol-worshiper became known by God in some deeper way as a result of this character trial? Rather than simply saying that God already knows everything, I think we can posit some kind of increase in God's knowledge with regards Abraham, but not knowledge as we know it. Something more profound. And something which caused God to re-affirm His promises of blessing to Abraham, so thrilled He must have been with His chosen one.

Any thoughts on the matter?

Monday, September 21, 2009


...I just read this thing that you wrote in college
A trenchant critique of anthropology being accepted as a social science
And not the art of educated observation.

Would you believe me if I said that you could take the above words and fit them into a catchy song? Such is the talent of Mike Kinsella, a.k.a Owen, that I think he just about pulls it off. He's just released a new album, with A Trenchant Critique (the song from which the quoted lyrics were extracted) being one of the ten songs featured. Feel free to check it out here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mulled Over Thoughts

About a week ago I posted a link to a Southern Baptist Seminary video to do with N.T. Wright, with a view to questioning the panel's definition of what is and isn't the gospel. The gospel, according to Al Mohler and co. is basically the following:

We are sinners at enmity with God, deserving of punishment.
Jesus died for our sins, thus taking upon Himself our punishment, and opening the way to fellowship with God.

Of course I don't disagree with any of that. Not one stroke. Nor do I intend to downplay the reality of penal substitution, wherein Jesus bore our sins in His body on a tree, becoming -- in some ultimately unknowable way -- sin for us.

But the surprising news of the gospel is that something so astounding as Christ dying in our place isn't even all there is too it. There's more, and it goes deeper. This is why I found the panel's dismissal of Wright gospel definition so disheartening. I think they have lost the forest for the trees.

Tom Wright said that as all roads lead to Rome, all discussions of justification lead to the Book of Romans. The same can be stated for discussions of the gospel, for that is what the letter to the church in Rome is about.

The reason I embrace Wright's definition of the gospel -- The crucified and resurrected Jesus is Messiah of Israel and Lord of the world -- and actually find it to be more accurate/complete than that of the Baptist panel is simply that it is more in line with Scripture as a whole. Look at what Paul writes in the opening verses of Romans:
...set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God in power according to the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord...
For Paul, the gospel was not so much a spiritual truth told in legal jargon as it was a narrative. God's narrative, based on His calling of Abraham and the promises He made to Him, based on His anointing of David and the promises He made to Him, and fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, in whom all the promises of God are yes and amen.

This is why Paul can write in Galatians 3 that God preached the gospel to Abraham, and moreover, this is why Abraham was and is a vital part of the gospel. It is a story the ends in blessing for Abraham, yes, but it is also a story about world-wide blessing that comes through Abraham.

We do the gospel a disservice when we divorce it from God's sweeping drama that originated with Abraham's calling. This is what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 15 when he repeats the phrase "according to the Scriptures". He is not talking about proof-texting, where little snippets of Bible passages that hint at the death and resurrection of Jesus are used as proof that prophecy has been fulfilled. He is talking about Jesus being the One in whom the story of Scripture finds its completion or telos; the One in whom the gospel of God preached to Abraham is brought to fulfilment.

Contrary to Dr Mohler, I think pronouncing Jesus as Messiah and Lord is a pretty good summary of this gospel.

The Baptist gospel (as I'll unfairly call it) is also too narrow in its scope of good news. I'm not saying that Wright addresses the following issue head on, but I think his gospel summary leaves open the further dimensions of the good news in a way that the "Jesus died for your sins" summary doesn't.

Going back to Abraham and that proto-gospel preached to Him by God, this is what it consisted of in a nutshell:
In you (Abraham) shall all the nations be blessed.
Blessed. Not only let off the hook -- as wonderful as that alone would be -- but blessed. Blessed through the seed of Abraham, which is Jesus. And what is that blessing? Paul goes on to say that it is "the promised Spirit". The gospel doesn't stop at us being redeemed from the "curse of the law". It continues on to our "life in the Spirit". The book of Romans doesn't start at 3:21 and stop at 3:26. Nor is discussion of the gospel restricted to these crucial verses. Exclude the Spirit from all gospel talk, and what your left with is good news with no power.

Paul says in Romans 1:16 that "I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation..." Can we really separate the power of God from His Spirit, and thus draw lines between the gospel and the Spirit? If Paul felt the need to include Romans 8 in his prolonged presentation of the gospel of God, then surely we must be open to the vital role of the Spirit in the grand narrative of God's blessing being poured out on all nations. Is not God's presence amongst us the reality we lost in The Fall? Then surely its availability once more in a most definitive way counts as good news.

Anyway, consider these to be a few mulled over thoughts in need of further mulling over. For example, is Jesus being Israel's Messiah relevant to those who need to hear the gospel today? Paul doesn't mention Israel in his sermon on Mars Hill after all. But he does mention that other part of his gospel, the bit about God judging the world through Jesus. Where does this leave the gospel when it comes to 21st century ears?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Honest Questions - #6

The previous couple of posts in this series dealt with some Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) documents related to Scripture's creation and flood narratives. We finished with three questions: How does this evidence influence our understanding of the historical nature of the biblical story? Are the creation and flood accounts in Genesis historical fact, or they simply hokey stories ripped from surrounding cultures to be dismissed by serious-minded people? What does all of this to do the belief that the Bible is the Word of God?

Peter Enns begins to tackle these problems by closely examining the perceived issues people have when confronted with this ANE evidence.

He first of all calls a general assumption into question, that assumption being that the more Genesis looks like the Akkadian texts the less inspired it must be. Is that something you assume? Is Enns right to question it?

The problem these ANE texts raise can be boiled down to the historicity of the Genesis accounts. How can we say that they are true when they look so much like these other ancient texts? The ANE stories have widely been branded as myth, and given that a text such as Enuma Elish has to do with divine family feuds, we're quite comfortable giving them this tag. However, as Enns points out,
Christians recoil form any suggestion that Genesis is in any way embedded in the mythologies of the ancient world.
We do, don't we? Christianity is intertwined with historical truth, and so we can't have it in bed with something so untrue and made-up as myth. But what if we simply misunderstand what "myth" actually is? Enns gives the following (generous) definition of myth:
An ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories.
The people of the second millennium BC were not at liberty to talk about the universe in our modern, scientific terms. No doubt some of them looked up at the night sky as we do and wondered how it all came to be, but any answer they could contemplate would not be in the form of string theory. Their answers came -- as only they could -- in the form of stories. We do not know when tales about the gods arose, but as Enns muses,
I like to think that the imprint of God is so strong on His creation that, even apart from any knowledge of the true God, ancient peoples just knew that how and why they were here can be explained only by looking outside themselves.
However, all of this talk of myth and stories creates quite a big problem for Christians today. An honest question arises: If these ANE documents are categorised as myth (as defined above), and if we can safely say that the biblical stories are at least somewhat similar to these documents, does this mean that myth is the appropriate category for understanding Genesis?

The simple point Enns intends to make is that the Genesis accounts are also examples of ANE texts whether we like it or not, and so we should be careful about what standards we hold them to. After all,
Is it not likely that God would have allowed His word to come to ancient Israelites according to standards they understood, or are modern standards of truth and error so universal that we should expect premodern cultures to have understood them?
Enns argues for the former perspective, an argument we will get to in the next post or two.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Seeing God Work

As far as the ordinary man in the pew is concerned, God is dead. His daily life runs its predictable, gilt-edged, humdrum course without reference to God. He would of course be scandalised by the suggestion that God is dead, but if it were true it would make no practical difference to his life. His work, his home, his sport, his politics, yes, and even his church life would all run on very much the same. They have no place for God; not practically, at any rate.

Rev. Dr R.T. France, 1970

These sober words were written almost forty years ago, and yet the “ordinary man on the pew” today would surely feel their conviction if he was honest with himself. As one such ordinary man, I can only utter a regretful “Amen” to France’s diagnosis.

As he says, we would be aghast and outraged at the mere suggestion that God is dead, and rightly so. Yet our surprise and anger would be founded on semi-believed theological propositions, and so would hold little weight with those making the provocative suggestion, and even with ourselves. We are trying to live in a world without gravity while simultaneously holding to Newton’s universal law of gravitation when debates about gravity emerge. We float to meetings about gravity every Sunday where we affirm its authority over our lives, and then float back home, further steeped in the theoretical knowledge of gravity (or perhaps not), but with its reality all but lost to us.

God is no theory to be proved. He is a reality to be experienced. The reality. “In Him we live and move and have our being” said Paul to the philosophers of Athens. The apostle to the Gentiles was under illusions about the necessity of God for all of life. Suggest to Paul that God is dead, and he would not have entertained the notion, as we wouldn’t either. But if one took a look at his life, it would be extremely difficult to even make such a suggestion - the dramatic conversion from violent opponent of the church to chief church-planter, the miracles, the Christian communities formed under his apostleship, the power of the Spirit in his life and ministry -- all of these things speak of a living God, active in the church for the sake of the world.

I recently co-lead a discussion at the youth group in our church where the topic was “Christianity; or, What have we gotten ourselves into and why should we stay in?” One of the questions was simply “What reason(s) did you have for becoming a Christian?” There were numerous answers given, but one in particular struck me: Seeing God work.

Note the present tense.

In giving due priority to the historical work of Jesus (or work of God through Jesus), we have surely been faithful to those first witnesses. But I think that in doing so we have neglected the present power of the living God in ways that were never intended by those who placed such great weight on the cross of Christ.

Without intending it to, this post ties in with those undeveloped thoughts on the gospel from a few days ago. We have in some circles a gospel of the past and the future: Jesus died for my sins, and so I get to go to heaven when I die. This is perhaps why that Southern Baptist panel was so dismissive of Tom Wright’s gospel summary that Jesus is Lord. It’s a present tense statement!

God as a living, present, active reality makes us uncomfortable. We can handle knowing that Christ died for our sins. That’s good news that talks directly about us, and we like that very much. But Jesus is Lord? Well, that focuses on Jesus, and so the good news of such a reality is already lost to us since we are not the centre of attention.

Does seeing God work now fit into our gospel? Or are we willing to neglect this reality to the point where God, for all intents and purposes, is dead? The ordinary man or woman sitting in church needs to hear of the Lamb who was crucified. But they also need to hear of and experience the power the resurrected Lord whose reign has already commenced, and who exhorts us to bring every aspect of our lives -- our home, our sport, our politics, and yes, even our church life -- under His kingship.

“A God to be reckoned with”, says R.T. France. A “Transcendental Interferer”, says C.S. Lewis. What do we say?

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Cyclical Way

The cyclical way of the Kingdom:

The love of God produces love for God which leads to obedience to God which looks like love for others which cultivates love for God in others.

It's amazing that crap you come up with when you're sitting in a park looking for something to do, but all you've got on you is a sheet of paper and a pencil.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Against the Grain

There is a video of a panel discussion posted on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary website. The topic is N.T. Wright. If for some reason such a thing interests you, watch it here. I am neither Southern nor a Baptist, which is probably why I found the discussion to be largely unfair, and a touch ironic. As has been pointed out by others, it is the height of irony for those who hold fast to Reformation teaching to constantly appeal to tradition (as these learned gentlemen do) when somebody seemingly goes against the grain.

Anyway, to the point. This panel briefly touch on N.T. Wright's succinct gospel definition, which is the news that the crucified and resurrected Jesus is Lord of the universe, or something. to that effect This, they say, is not the gospel. Or at least it is not good news. Depraved man lies in great peril when confronted with a perfect Lord.

I won't go into all of the ins and outs of this, but it seems to me extremely harsh to proclaim that Jesus -- the man who went around doing good to depraved sinners -- being Lord of the universe is not good news.

Also, in Romans 2 Paul talks about "that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ". What would the panel have to say about Paul including God's judgment as part of his gospel? Something about tradition, perhaps.

I don't know the full extent of the gospel, but I do think that many under the Reformed umbrella cling to 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 in such a way that anything lying outside of these verses is not the gospel. I don't deny the primacy of the crucifixion and resurrection, which are the focal point of God's dealings with human sin. These truths, as Paul says, are of first importance. But there is more, and evidently God's judgment is some of that more.

Anyway, just some undeveloped thoughts for you to mull over.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Honest Questions - #5

We looked previously at the ancient near eastern creation story called Enuma Elish, the “Babylonian Genesis”. Now we turn our attention to the next set of documents on Enns’s exciting reading list: Atrahasis and Gilgamesh.

These texts speak of a global flood, both of which have Noah-esque figures in them. The similarities don’t stop there. For example, Atrahasis mentions that the door of the boat was sealed with pitch, with Gilhamesh containing many striking parallels: it speaks of various dimensions, animals on board, and the quest for dry land post-flood through the strategic use of doves and ravens.

Enns once again highlights the fact that one must not simply conclude that Genesis is directly dependent on either Atrahasis or Gilgamesh or both. But he also notes that “the obvious similarities between them indicates a connection on some level”. And so some honest questions remain:

How does this evidence influence our understanding of the historical nature of the biblical story?

Are the creation and flood accounts in Genesis historical fact, or they simply hokey stories ripped from surrounding cultures to be dismissed by serious-minded people?

What does all of this to do the belief that the Bible is the Word of God?

Enns's handling of these important questions is where we'll pick things up.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Honest Questions - #4

Evidence. This word has been mentioned numerous times in this multi-post recap of Inspiration and Incarnation, but thus far an elaboration has not been forthcoming. Herein lieth the beginnings of said elaboration. This is edge-of-the-seat stuff right here, folks.

I’m not going to touch on all the evidence dealt with in Enns’ book. To do so would be, well, boring. But there are some important points to be made regarding the discovery of ancient literature from times surrounding the world of the Old Testament. Those important points will probably be overlooked, but on the off chance that they are not, bear with me.

Enns’ plan at the beginning of this rather long chapter is fourfold: present the ancient texts, summarize the issues raised by these texts, sew how these issues have been handled in the past, and see how the incarnational analogy (described here) can offer a better grip of things that appear to shake the foundations of evangelical doctrine.

First, to the texts!

Enuma Elish
This is a creation document written on seven tablets dating to the seventh century BC, with the story itself probably originating in the eighteenth century BC at the earliest. It has been called the “Babylonian Genesis” because of the similarities between it and the beginning of the Bible. Those similarities are as follows:
  • The order in which things are created is similar
  • There is darkness before anything is created
  • There is a division of waters above and below the firmament
  • There is light before there is a sun, moon and stars
Enns is careful to note that one cannot simply draw a direct line of dependence from Genesis to Enuma Elish, as if the author of Genesis had a copy of this Babylonian text and adjusted it slightly so as to not be sent to detention for cheating. Nonetheless, the similarities are there, as well as the differences. For example, Enuma Elish presents creation as the result of divine domestic violence, where the slain body of the goddess Tiamat is turned into creation by her great-great grandson Marduk. No such cosmic battle is described in Scripture, with creation being the product of one Supreme Being’s desire. Enns suggests that Genesis may have been written for the purposes of such a stark contrast. Sounds reasonable to me.

Whatever the case, it is clear, as Enns highlights, that the author’s of both these ancient texts were operating within a similar conceptual world. To better understand books like Genesis, it is extremely helpful to get a glimpse at that surrounding thought-world. As noted at the beginning of this series, God generally speaks to people in ways they understand in their context. Fifty years ago, had an omniscient magazine editor asked an employee to write about ways of communication using some of the editors keen insights, we wouldn’t expect the employee to describe the process of emailing and text messaging. It would be gibberish to the employee, and meaningless to the readers also.

But alas, I’m getting ahead of myself. There are a couple more pieces of evidence I will mention next time around before getting to the more interesting implications. As I said, edge of the seat stuff.

Friday, September 4, 2009

See How

See how I stretch a part of you.
See how I break a part of you.
See how I make all of you

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Offensive to Our Minds

Thinking about Peter Enns' incarnational analogy has, coincidentally enough, got me thinking about the incarnation (you know the one I'm talking about). God didn't climactically, definitively, irrefutably reveal Himself as some otherworldly being; a majestic entity so far removed from humanity that its onlookers were forced to conclude that this must be God. No. God revealed Himself as a man. A Jew raised in Nazareth embodied the fullness of deity. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. He is nothing less than God with us.

Perhaps I'm wrong on this, but the incarnation -- the enfleshment of God in the person of Jesus -- seems to me to be something many of us have a problem with. Not in the sense of not being able to fully wrap our minds around it, because lets face it, we're never going to solve such a mystery. The problem I think we have is more that it's rather offensive to our minds. It's like hearing that the inventor of the television is about to unveil the full power of his creativity and imagination on an unprecedented scale, only for him to come out from behind the curtain with a television, and one that looks pretty much like the others already available. We expect more from this brilliant inventor, and we certainly expect more from someone worthy of the title "God".

The humanity of Jesus certainly offended people of His day, some of whom were outraged at the way He talked and acted as if He were Jehovah Himself. They expected so much more from God, and so it is with many today who disbelieve, and dare I say, a few who do. To these (and I can include myself in the mix), Jesus' humanness is either proof that He ain't no God, or it is something not to be taken too seriously if one wants to think of Jesus as God. Some part of us (be it big or small) feels that the incarnation was inadequate as revelation, and we don't take Jesus at His word when He says that His disciples had seen the Creator simply by looking him.

Of course like all Christians I will affirm the incarnation, knowing that it was necessary for salvation. But this line of thinking makes it seem like what was going on in God's mind pre-incarnation was the following:

"Alright. So the humans have disobeyed me. The only way to sort this mess out is to die on their behalf, and I can only do that if I become human, so that's what I'm going to do. It won't be particularly God-like of me, but it's got to be done."

I don't know about you, but such thinking doesn't sit well with me.

What if, and bear with me on this, the incarnation was the most God-like thing to be done? What if becoming human was not only something God did out of necessity, but out of desire (and not only desire to save)? God's actions spring from Himself. He is not forced into action by any external system or law. To say God became man because it was necessary for our salvation is true, but does the truth go even deeper? And if so, does the incarnation begin to be less of a problem, less of an offense to our minds and hearts?


To Be Sure

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to be sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one – not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safely in the casket or the coffin of your selfishness. But, in that casket -- safe, dark, motionless, airless -- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, unredeemable.

- C.S. Lewis

Honest Questions - #3

We’re at the third stage of our whistle-stop tour through Inspiration and Incarnation, the provocative book penned by Peter Enns which consequently saw him thrown out of Westminster Theological Seminary and branded a heretic leave Westminster Theological Seminary by mutual consent.

Last week I drew attention to Enns’ statement that our problems with the Bible are more to do with our preconceptions of how the Bible should behave as opposed to how the Bible itself behaves. Enns sees his task as precisely this: to listen to how the Bible behaves and allow its own voice to shape our doctrines.

He hones in on three issues that he thinks have not been handled well in the theology of that umbrella term “evangelicism”. These three issues are:
  1. The Old Testament and other literature from the ancient world
  2. Theological diversity in the Old Testament
  3. The way in which the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament
Here are some of his honest questions (and perhaps some of yours and mine too) which arise from an examination of these issues:

“Why does the Bible in places look a lot like the literature of Israel’s ancient neighbours?” “Is the Old Testament really that unique?” “Why do different parts of the Old Testament say different things about the same thing?” “Why do the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament in such odd ways?”

Can you relate to this inquisitiveness? Have you uncovered any answers to these questions?

Enns observes that each of the three issues listed above present challenges to traditional doctrines of Scripture. The first issue challenges the Bible’s uniqueness, the second challenges its integrity, and the third its interpretation. We expect something called God’s Word to be unique, we expect it to be unified in its opinion on things, and we expect it to be handled responsibly, especially by those who wrote our New Testament. And so the evidence in and outside of the Bible appears to pose great problems to those of us who regard Scripture as God’s Word. However, as Enns wisely notes,
What is needed is a way of thinking about Scripture where these kinds of issues are addressed from a very different perspective--where these kinds of problems cease from being problems and become windows that open up new ways of understanding.

Enns’ book proposes such a way -- an Incarnational Analogy. “As Christ is both God and human, so is the Bible”. That is, the Bible is both a divine and human book, with both elements being equally important to its nature. It is not an “otherworldly” book, fallen from heaven into Israel’s lap, full of eternal musings which much be deciphered. It is a book that wholly belonged to the world in which it was produced; “it was connected to and therefore spoke to those ancient cultures”.

Enns thinks that too often we minimise or down play the human fingerprints found in the Bible, just as the Docetic heresy proposed that Jesus only appeared to be human, with his humanity merely something to be explained away. “Scriptural docetism” is what Enns calls this phenomenon, and he is surely right to reject it. After all, Scripture is full of human marks, such as the following:
  • The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek (with a smidge of Aramaic)
  • Temples, priests and sacrifices were common throughout the Mesopotamian world
  • Prophets were widespread, and not restricted to Israel
  • Israel, like the other nations, was ruled by a king
  • Israel’s legal system bears similarities with those of surrounding nations
To some, this humanness represents a major headache, but not to Peter Enns, whose incarnational analogy embraces -- even demands -- these obvious human marks. In fact, as he makes a point of noting, “the human dimension of Scripture is essential to its being Scripture”. Why?
When God reveals Himself, He always does so to people, which means that He must speak and act in ways that they will understand.

This is our starting point as we hover over the evidence (both external and internal) and allow it to bear positive fruit.