Monthly Archives: November 2012
My daily Bible reading had me in the book of Lamentations this morning. One of the real blessings of my daily Bible reading is that my schedule calls for me to read a section long enough to be challenging, yet not so long as to be oppressive (or, at least in my mind. YMMV). Just to let you know, I read anywhere from 7-8 chapters a day, not counting Sundays when I have a different schedule. Even though this is a lengthy reading, every so often one or two verses jump out at me as if I have never read them before. That is what I find so interesting about this particular plan. The text speaks to me in its own way, rather than me telling the text that it has to say something to me. Of course, sometimes I am so distracted that I can’t hear any of the verses, but that is okay because I know that tomorrow is a new day, and I will read that passage again in due course and at that time it may speak volumes to me.
So, as I was saying, today I was in Lamentations. Now, I don’t know about you, but I cannot recall ever hearing a sermon taken from Lamentations, and to the best of my recollection, I have only preached one. So, as I was reading along and following the prophet’s anguished cries over the destruction of Jerusalem I came across 4:13, which in my Common English Bible reads this way:
It was because of her prophets’ sins, her priests’ iniquities, those who shed righteous blood in the middle of the city.
Wow. Reading the books of Kings and Chronicles and the prophets you would get the idea that Israel and Judah were punished because of the sins of the kings. The author of Lamentations thinks otherwise. Oh, to be sure, the kings were a sinful bunch (at least all of Israel’s kings were, and a great many of Judah’s). But the author of Lamentations (Jeremiah?) saw through to the real lack of leadership – the spiritual leaders.
Today, especially among conservative pundits, bloggers, and preachers, the entire problem with the United States resides solely in the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Why, if we could just sweep out the mean, nasty, ugly heatherns that are making all those mean, nasty heathern laws, well we could fix up the country just like she should be.
I don’t think God is going to give our political leaders a pass when it comes to morality and the way in which they have led our country. But I think there is another group that is going to get a lot more scrutiny than I think they are going to be comfortable with, and that is all those conservative pundits, bloggers and preachers that are calling for the roof to fall in on all the liberal politicians.
Simply put, the people cannot go where they are not led. And if the so called leaders who are complaining the loudest are not forging a way for the people to follow, then they need to shut up. And if they are forging that path, then they need to shepherd those who are following instead of shooting arrows at the other guys.
Real leadership involves more than just identifying where the other guys are wrong. It means that you have to both teach and live the ideas that you believe are right. Leadership does not mean holding up a wind sock and then going in the direction of the prevailing current. It means setting your course and courageously maintaining that course whether the wind is at your back and the sun is shining brightly or if the wind blowing mercilessly against you and the sun is hidden by the clouds. The one who says, “I will take a poll and whatever my people feel is best, that I will do” is not a leader. That person is a charlatan. That person is a fake. That person is a coward.
Real leadership means standing at the point, and quite often standing alone, to take the arrows from the enemy in front and, quite frequently, arrows from the discontented hiding behind. Leadership is not acquiescing to the whims of the majority, but it is confidently proclaiming the way of truth and safety. Real leadership means that the leader makes demands that might at times cause his or her followers to make sacrifices. Fake leadership promises only blessings and success.
As I view the religious scene in the United States I see a lot of men (and women) who are comfortable in their positions who have done their homework well and know exactly where the winds of popularity are blowing. They know how to play the game of politics with brutal, almost demonic efficiency. They know how to play the fearless general when necessary and they also know when to pull out the robe of the martyred hero when the situation calls for it.
Jeremiah provides the perfect illustration of the concept of Godly leadership in a time of personal unpopularity. He tried desperately, with only minimal and fleeting success, to get the people to hear and accept God’s truth when virtually every power – political and religious – was against him. He may have lost the battle, but we have his story as a lasting tribute to the necessity of having spiritual leaders who are willing to go against the current of modern culture in order to speak the word of God.
I am really growing weary of preachers who stand in the pulpit and declare that the real problem with American resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. No. That person is just the result of the real problem with America.
The real problem with America stands behind the pulpit every Sunday morning and preaches a false word – a lying deception. The real problem with America is the spiritual leader who refuses first to hear the Word of God, and so refuses to proclaim it. The real problem with America are the so called “conservative” preachers who preach week in and week out “peace, peace” when there is no peace.
If the preachers in the pulpit would lead the people in the pew, then the president on Pennsylvania Ave. would be of no consequence. If our politicians have so much authority in the realm of morality and ethics, exactly whose fault is that?
I have noticed something as the road behind me gets longer and the road in front of me gets measurably shorter: some people seem to age so much better than others. It has been my pleasure to know some of the sweetest, kindest, most gentle “seniors” on the face of the earth. And I have known some of the most bitter, hateful old crows that you can possibly imagine. What is interesting about some (although not all) of the bitter, hateful group is that people who have known them for many years cannot understand the change that has supposedly changed the person. “Old weird John was such a nice person” they often say. “I just can’t imagine what has come over him to make him this way.”
I have another theory. Based on my now half-century plus experience in watching people age, and doing a fair amount of it myself, I am convinced that the “change” is not so surprising at all. There has been a change, to be sure, but the change is not in attitude or personality. What has changed is the person’s ability to mask that attitude or personality.
First, the legal disclaimer: I know there are sudden changes in a person’s health that affect temperament. Strokes, illness and other issues cause sudden changes that are easily explained and, although painful, can be excused. Other diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease can slowly change a person’s mental status. I am not talking about these physical or mental diseases or crises.
The change I am talking about is the gradual decline in someone’s ability, or even willingness, to hold offending attitudes and behaviors in check. A younger man or woman may have to hold his or her tongue in order to maintain a job, or keep a privileged position in society. As they age they either no longer fear losing the job or the position, or they may feel that they are immune from criticism, so little by little more of their true feelings and attitudes creep out. Before long someone that was once known as a kind and gentle spirit becomes a raving racist or other hate-monger. Those who thought they knew them cannot understand what happened, but the reality is the person was always a racist or hate-monger. As a younger person with much more to lose they simply had the will power and strength to keep their feelings to themselves. Who really knows what lies hidden behind our carefully constructed social facades?
Okay, segue to the the point of this post. Many people (primarily religious conservatives) are in full panic mode about what has “happened” to the good “Christian” nation of the United States of America. Certain laws are passed or certain freedoms are granted and, at least on one level, it would appear that Chicken Little is correct – the moral sky is falling. But I want to ask another question, perhaps just for the purpose of discussion –
Have we as Americans really changed, or are we simply becoming what we have always been?
The grand old lady that we call “America” is now well over 200 years old. Her bones are getting creaky, her skin a little saggy; she still has quite a bit of spit and vinegar in her, but she certainly is not what she used to be. And, just as a human changes with age, so has she. And, I am wondering (actually, I’m not just wondering, I really think this) if the biggest change is not that she is losing her morality, but if in fact the immorality that she has always managed to hide is now managing to come to the surface. It is not that we have suddenly discovered immorality. It’s just that the prim and proper young woman just doesn’t give a hoot anymore who she offends, so she is just going to let everyone know what she really feels.
Stop and think about it for a while. At what point have Americans not been greedy – even to the point of covetousness? You might need to ask a descendant of an African slave or a Native American Indian before you casually answer that question. But we did not call it greed or covetousness, we called it “Manifest Destiny.” Or at what point in the past 200 years have Americans not been transfixed with sex? I remember reading The Scarlet Letter in high school, and if I am not mistaken, Nathaniel Hawthorn was not a contemporary of Hugh Hefner. Concerned about America’s decline into the drug culture? How well did our little experiment with Prohibition work out? You see, there is not a single one of the 10 Commandments that I find more willfully violated today than it was 200 years ago. What I do see is that 200 years ago we were just far better at keeping our systemic spiritual rebellion hidden. Or, if it did happen to come out in the open, we just did a better job at re-naming it so that it was politically acceptable.
Today, Americans have lost their will power or their strength (or both) to keep those sins hidden. We prefer our covetousness to be blatant. We want our sexual promiscuity to be front and center. Our kids don’t respect their parents, so why should they respect school officials? Parents of little league football players physically assault game officials, so what is the problem with shooting up a theater full of movie watchers? If my body is my own then who are you to legislate anything that I want to do with it? How dare you tell me what I can or cannot ingest, or inhale! I am an American, born and raised in the land of the free and the home of the uninhibited.
The United States of America may be changing, but I do not think that it is changing in the way that many people think it is changing. I think we are simply becoming what we have always been. The change is that we simply don’t care anymore if anyone knows that we are a grumpy, mean, miserable person. We’ve been that way for 200 years, and we are just tired of hiding it.
The question this change raises for the church of Jesus Christ is stark: Are we going to “go along with the crowd” so as not to upset the masses and make them think that their behavior is wrong, or are we going to stand up, risk everything, and proclaim to a bent and broken world that it is bent and broken?
The future is here folks. It’s not going to get better after the next election or the one after that, or the one after that. America’s true colors are now currency green, Playboy pink, anger red and conscienceless black.
If we do not work on changing the soul of America, changing her President or a Supreme Court Justice is simply not going to make any difference. But that spiritual change will not happen as long as we refuse to admit that we have a problem to begin with.
Everyone repeat after me … “Hello group, I’m an American, and I’m a sinner…”
Dum de dum dee dumm…..we finally arrive at # 15 in my trek through ruminations and explanations of the 15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection. This has been an entertaining little jaunt down memory lane for me (some of these truths date back many years) and I hope these posts have at the least stimulated some thoughts for you.
Here is #15 and its corollary:
15. The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.
15a. However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.
Those who read this blog regularly know that I am a member of, and minister to, congregations of individuals associated with the churches of Christ. At our best moments we live out the ideal of non-denominational Christianity, simply taking the Bible as the Word of God and, without adding to it or taking from it, we seek to follow all that God has revealed in the Bible. However, when we fail to live up to that ideal our failure is, well, spectacular. In many respects we have turned a movement of non-denominationalism into one of the most hardened denominations you can possibly imagine. Some of our more vociferous leaders have mouthed the words, “we speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent” only to speak volumes where the Bible is silent and to remain utterly silent where the Bible shouts. But, I dare you to find ANY religious body ANYWHERE that lives up to its stated goals and aspirations. I would far rather associate with a group that fails to meet heavenly goals than one that meets every earthly goal with absolute perfection. It does not take any courage to curse the darkness. It takes some real vision to light a lamp. I want to be one that lights a lamp.
Oops, kind of got off on a tangent there…
What I wanted to point out was that like many different groups, the Churches of Christ in America have all too often been guilty of a sense of “historylessness” that has crippled it as a movement. If you have a bent sense of humor such as mine this can and does make itself manifest in the strangest of ways. For example, a generation or two ago one of the most prickly invectives you could use against a member of the Church of Christ was to call him or her a “Campbellite.” This is because of the powerful influence Alexander Campbell had in the creation of what has been labeled the “American Restoration Movement.” This movement spawned three related religious groups – the Disciples of Christ, the Conservative Christian Church and the Church of Christ. So, to label a member of the Church of Christ as a “Campbellite” was a real slur, seeing as how Campbell never wanted his name to be associated with his efforts to restore New Testament Christianity, and indeed his goal was to go back to the New Testament and simply live those teachings. Now, what is funny today is that if you called a member of the Church of Christ (especially someone under the age of 40 or so) a “Campbellite” they would stare at you like you had a third eyeball right in the middle of your forehead. The irony is palpable. Older members do not want to be called “Campbellites” because they do not want to be tied to an early 18th century historical figure, younger members are absolutely clueless as to the existence of this early 18th century figure. And so many members of a group with one of the most richest, interesting, and provocative stories in the history of religion in the United States simply do not know of or they refuse to acknowledge their diverse and compelling history.
Hence my 15th Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection. This one is for me – a reminder of who I am and what my brightest stars call me to be. I need to acknowledge the fact that I could not see as far as I can see if I were not standing on the shoulders of giants. I cannot read my Bible today without hearing the voice of my mentors – some of whom have joined that “cloud of witnesses” that awaits their final reward. But those men (and women!) all heard the voice of their mentors when they read Scripture, and on and on it goes back throughout all of history. You can only read the Bible once as if you had never read it before. Every other time your reading is influenced by your first reading, other teachers, other books, other influences. If we attempt to excise those influences we rip the fabric of our story – our history - and we lose far more than we gain in the process.
The more that I read of Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone and Moses Lard and “Racoon” John Smith and David Lipscomb and many others the more I am enthralled by their courage and their spiritual insights. These men were truly prophets crying in the wilderness. They saw something that was truly unique, and they attempted to get others to see, to understand, and to accept their vision. Their goal was a united church, one that could stand only on the pages of the New Testament, without all of the competing creeds and confessions of faith and human structures. They differed on a great many issues, some of which were substantial. For example, Barton W. Stone never felt comfortable with the concept of the Trinity, because he felt like that was a human word and not a divine word. They differed on the exact meaning of baptism (Campbell was more precise than Stone) and on the invitation to the Lord’s supper (Stone was a little more generous) but they all agreed that if we could return to the New Testament teachings then we could return to a pure church.
In addition to my closest spiritual relatives, however, I am also captivated by the insights of some more distant cousins. I love reading the Roman Catholic Henry Nouwen, and the Anglican C.S. Lewis wrote the second largest section of books in my library. The largest section in my library was written by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I also have selections from Ignatius of Loyola, St. John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and Richard Peace. In other words, I try to read as broadly and as deeply as I can, realizing that no one single group has a corner on truth, and that for all of their mistakes and misunderstandings, these men and women all communicated some profound spiritual truths. If the teaching initially comes from Scripture, I am not particularly concerned about who God uses to put it in words I can understand.
But now for the corollary – I must and do recognize that all of these men and women, Campbell and Stone included, are all merely mortal human beings. Yes, they all communicated some great spiritual truths. But they all had failings as well. Campbell and Stone were both blind to the fact that they were creatures of history, and that it was impossible to erase 17 hundred years of history to “restore” a culture that was long dead and buried. As much as I am transfixed by the spiritual insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I recognize that he had his blind spots as well. The moment we place anyone, in any time period, as THE model for our teachings or behavior we have created an idol, and God will have nothing of our idolatrous worship.
AND THAT INCLUDES MY INTERPRETATIONS AS WELL!
When everything is said and done I have one redeemer, one savior, one messiah – Jesus. I have one God, the Father and creator of all. The Bible is not to be an idol I worship, but a sign and a pointer to Jesus and His Father. It is they whom I am to worship, not my leather-bound Bible, nor my immediate mentors, nor my long distant and dead mentors. I can learn from all men – some more than others but none exclusively. I can give thanks to God for their insights, but I can never put any of them on a pedestal.
I have a rich history, and you can take it from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. I will not surrender an inch, nor a decade, of what has been given to me. My parents gave me something that cannot be bought, measured or sold. They gave me a faith that is over 20 centuries old and is as new as the dew on the grass this morning. It is as real as my daughter’s gentle kiss and as profound as the love of my wife. I will never understand it, but I will always live in its shadow. And that might be my greatest undeniable truth of all.
This one comes straight from my recent (and not so recent) doctoral studies –
14. Theology cannot be separated from morality and ethics. Healthy, genuine theology demands action. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy!
First it might help to clarify a couple of words along the way. Theology, as I have been using the term, is simply the study of and the presentation of the results of the study of, God and his relationship with man. Every person who reads the Bible is involved in theology. Those who read and study in order to teach are involved on another level. Those who do so for a living are involved on another level. But, in reality, the only way to avoid being involved in theology is to avoid any reading of Scripture or any discussion of God and/or God’s relationship with man.
Orthodoxy, by way of etymology, means “right praise” or “correct praise” or some related concept, but which has come down to us today to mean “right, or correct doctrine.” It is the right, or correct, or proper, way to think or believe. Therefore, if we say someone or something is “orthodox,” we mean that the person or the item under discussion is right, correct, or proper. If a person or a belief or an item is “unorthodox,” it means that they have defied convention, are rejecting the norms of a particular group, or are just about a half-bubble off of plumb.
Orthopraxy means right or correct behavior. We in America tend to reward orthopraxy even if the doxy is not quite so ortho. For example, we may praise a child for a certain behavior, even though it is quite obvious that the attitude of the child is anything other than acceptable. As parents we would always love to have the orthopraxy be motivated by orthodoxy, but many times we are just happy that the room is clean, regardless of the stink-eye we get as we walk past the door.
In theology, I’m afraid orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not so separable as for one to be pleasing to God in the absence of the other. Let’s see how God intended one to flow out of the other, and for the other to strengthen the one. We will look at two examples from the life of Jesus.
In the first, Jesus confronts someone who has the orthodoxy down pretty tight, but who cannot seem to follow through with the orthopraxy. A lawyer put a fairly standard question in front of Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds with a text of orthodoxy, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” Notice the question has nothing to do with doing (at least at this point – it is related to what is “written” and “how do you read?”) The lawyer responds with orthodox perfection – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Notice Jesus’ response – “You have answered right.” But then he moves to orthopraxy, “Do this, and you will live.” What follows then is what we know of as the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” At the end of the parable Jesus asks, “Which of these…proved to be the neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer is much too orthodox to praise the despised Samaritan, so he meekly said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37).
Now, for the orthopractical who somehow never got the message as to the orthodoxical. In Matthew 15 Jesus is confronted by a group of hostile Pharisees and scribes who question him about the fact that his disciples break the orthodox practice of washing their hands before they eat. Jesus, in response, questions them about the traditional orthodoxy of giving money to the Temple that was due instead to the support of one’s parents. This, he noted, might have seemed on one level to be an honoring of God, but because the intent of the heart was wrong, the effect of the gift was tarnished as well. Jesus then quotes Isaiah the prophet when Isaiah wrote, “This people honors me with their lips [orthopraxy, PAS] but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines [orthodoxy PAS] the precepts of men. (Matthew 15:8-9). In another couple of verses that are key passages in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus refers back to two prophets, quoting Hosea 6:6 (and including Micah 6:6-8) when he says “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7). Now, it could not be said that God never commanded sacrifice (unless you want to remove the books of Exodus-Deuteronomy from your Bible), but the point of the prophets, and Jesus, was that mere sacrifice in the absence of a genuine repentant heart was meaningless (see also Ps. 51). The actions performed might be orthopraxy, but without the orthodoxy they were meaningless, and therefore, vain.
How this situation manifests itself today is tragic to an exponential degree. It is painful for me to remember the number of times I have sat in a Bible class (or worse, taught the Bible class) and had all the right, orthodox answers given to questions about love and mercy and kindness, only to walk to the foyer of the church building and hear the uproarious laughter at the telling of some obscenely racist joke. As vile as that is (and I make no excuse for it, please don’t mistake me), how much worse is the situation where a jury of all white men condemned a black man to life in prison or perhaps even death, not because he was guilty of the crime of which he was accused, but simply because he was a young black man and the victim was white. Those men might have been orthodox in their theological beliefs, but they were anything but orthopractical in their behavior.
You see, theology is NOT some head game in which we find the correct answers and then sit back and wait for the judgment day. Many in the church have turned it into that game, but I fear that they will be in for quite a shock. If your “correct thinking” never translates into “correct behavior” then of what use is having it? Can you find me a verse in the Bible that teaches we will be given a 100 question test and those with 90% or better will get into heaven and everyone else loses?
I honestly believe that Matthew 25 is the most neglected chapter in the entire Bible in most “Christian” churches. We just don’t get it. If you want a clear picture of the necessity of orthopraxy along with orthodoxy, just read Matthew 25. Notice that the accursed in vv. 31-46 are excluded from the King’s glory not because of what they failed to believe, but because of how they failed to act.
Lest you think I am diminishing the importance of orthodoxy, let me direct you to John 14:6 (Jesus, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me”) 2 John 9 (“Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son”) [note: the word for “doctrine” in the RSV is the word didache, which means “teaching”] and Galatians 1:6-9. There can be no question as to the fact that correct doctrine is essential in the Christian walk. But, essential as it is, it is not the sum total of Christianity.
Isn’t it wonderful how I can turn three short, simple and direct little sentences into over 1,300 words of soap and lather? Oh well, I hope you get the point. Let us be careful about the truth and accuracy of our beliefs. But let us be just as careful and diligent to make sure that our actions are in perfect sync with our doctrines.
There are times when you are walking out in a forest that you are so enthralled by the majesty and the immensity of your surroundings that you fail to see the tiny little blossoms and intricate little designs of the plants surrounding you. And, there are times when you happen to notice the tiny little blossoms and intricate designs of nature that you fail to notice the immensity of the forest in which you stand. Theological studies are similar in many ways.
There are times when we read the Scriptures that all we see are the commands, the “law” of God’s word. And, there are other times when all we can see is God’s grace, the “gospel” of God’s word. It is imperative, for healthy theology, to put both in proper perspective. Thus, Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection numbers 12 and 13:
12. Grace always precedes covenant. This is illustrated by the covenants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Likewise, covenant always follows grace.
13. The practical work that flows from theology, then, must follow this pattern. We are drawn to God by his grace, but in order to thrive in a relationship with God we must be bound by God’s covenant.
Even though these are numbers 12 and 13, I have been aware of this inter-connection for many years before I created this list. I’m not really sure why they showed up so far down, I think originally they were higher, and as I added to my list these just got moved down. These truths are certainly evidence that “further down the list does not implicate lesser importance.” These truths are absolutely critical if we hope to apprehend the message of God’s word accurately.
When we look at the “forest,” the expansive message of God’s word from Genesis to Revelation we see God’s grace on every page, in every story. This is such an obvious truth that this is the only thing that some people see. They only see forgiveness, love, mercy, and the repeated attempts by God to reclaim his stubborn people.
When we stop and sit down and look around us, however, we notice all the little details of our theological world. These are the covenants that follow after the acts of grace that God freely gives his people. But, once again, some people only see these covenants, and somehow are oblivious to the greater forest around them. These people can tell you how many laws are in the Bible, and can recite a great many of them verbatim. If you mention the word “grace” to these people their first response is, “yes, but…”
The necessary move of theology is to hold both of these energizing components of Scripture in their proper relationship. Grace always precedes covenant, but covenant always follows grace. God never demands without first providing. However, God never provides without placing restrictions, or in Biblical language, a covenant.
God gave Adam a self-perpetuating garden. God demanded Adam to follow his instructions regarding the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
God gave Noah the sign of the rainbow, a sign of the covenant, God demanded that Noah and his descendants obey him completely.
God gave Moses and the Israelites freedom from the Egyptians, God demanded obedience to the Torah, his law for the Promised Land.
God gave all mankind the gift of his Son, God demands that we follow his Son in covenanted obedience.
This duality, this relationship can be described in different ways. One common way of looking at the relationship is the interconnection between law and gospel. Some religious people, even Christians, only see law in the Bible. For them the whole text of Scripture is one big list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Other religious people only see gospel. “Christ has set us free” is their motto. One way that this bifurcation plays out is the separation between Old and New Testaments. The legalists in the bunch love to quote the Old Testament (especially when the verse they find is in their favor), the libertarians can only use the New Testament (and, obviously they studiously avoid the codes of ethical conduct listed in the epistles of Paul, Peter, James and John).
I wonder how much mischief has been wrought on God’s people when His story of creation, redemption and recreation was divided into “Old” and “New” Testaments, and then further subdivided into smaller and smaller sections. The trend toward becoming legalists is a dangerous one, and one that has been present literally from the day the Mosaic law was given. Jesus himself criticized the legalists of his day when he said, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life” (Jn. 5:39). Two thoughts in that passage stand out to me. One is that the Jews searched the Scriptures, meaning that they spent much time in reading and study. Two, they thought they could find eternal life in a legalistic, “covenantal” reading of Scripture. Jesus confronted them on both ideas. Scripture should not be thought of as a compendium of law codes that need to be studiously “researched.” The Bible is a record of God’s interaction with His creation – which does include sections of law codes, but is far more than those law codes. And, most importantly, salvation is not found in the words of the text, but only in the blood of Christ. The words of the text point us to Christ, and they are authoritative (2 Tim. 3:16), but we cannot afford to put the cart in front of the horse.
But, lest we shed the mantle of legalism only to become libertarians, Jesus also confronted the “anything goes as long as you have the right motive” way of “gospel” or “grace only” thinking. No one could argue with the Samaritan woman’s desire to be pleasing to God, and yet Jesus clearly told her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (Jn. 4:22) Later, Jesus would tell his disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (Jn. 15:14) So much for “anything goes” theology. In fact, even a superficial reading of the gospel accounts reveals a Jesus that repeatedly challenges his hearers’ superficial understanding of God’s grace. Libertarians have been and will always be with us, but we must be careful not to slip into their moral and religious utopianism, no matter how attractive they may make it appear.
So, my bottom line – grace is everywhere and in everything in the Bible. Grace is God’s beginning and ending point. God created mankind with an act of total love and grace, and he will recreate us with that same love and grace. But, covenant always follows grace. If God created us to live in a “graceful” relationship with Him, we must understand that he places upon us certain restrictions and commands he expects us to follow. Obviously we can never follow them exactly or completely – here is where grace reenters the picture – but we certainly have the power to “obey the commands” (Jesus’ words!) that God has placed in front of us.
Grace and covenant, law and gospel. These are not opposing concepts, but complementary ones. The more we rightly apprehend and apply them, the fuller and more complete our walk with God will be. We will cease to be “dualistic” thinkers, only seeing things in one light or another, and we will truly become the worshippers in “spirit and truth” of which Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman.
Because this list is organic in nature (it just kind of grew from a little seed) and was not systematic (I did not sit down one day to create a list of 15 Undeniable Truths in any particular order), it might seem a little disjointed. One of the disjoints occurs here with #10.
10. Attitudes and beliefs have consequences. Words, used to express those attitudes and beliefs, have equal consequences. Words chosen to convey spiritual concepts have eternal consequences.
What I am addressing here is the inseparable connection between thought and action. If we have the attitude that our race is superior to another race, we are going to act out that air of superiority, even if it is subconsciously. If we believe our particular religious belief is correct and every one else is wrong, we are going to act out that air of superior righteousness even if it is subconsciously. Every belief that we hold has an ultimate consequence. If we believe all human life begins at conception, if we believe that all war is wrong, if we believe that all humans are sinners – all of these beliefs will cause us to act in certain ways, or at least support those actions. On the other hand, if we believe human life begins at birth, if we believe that some wars are necessary, if we believe that all humans will eventually be saved to live in eternity with God then we will have, or at least support, opposite actions.
Moving up one level on the scale of emotional attachment, once we verbalize our beliefs those consequences become even more entrenched and we are even more likely to put our beliefs into action, and the consequences are evaluated more severely. Why do you think that prior to every significant or solemn occasion there is an oath or confession given? Witnesses in legal proceedings begin their testimony with an oath. Police officers, military enlistees, our elected officials – all high and powerful positions are inaugurated with an oath of loyalty and a promise to abide by the highest code of ethics. Even the athletes at the Olympic Games are required to take an oath promising to compete fairly (a lot of good that does for the integrity of the games, by the way). That is why we hold our officials, police officers, and athletes to a higher standard. We say, “But the promised on oath that they would follow the Constitution…” or whatever standard they are using for their allegiance. We just hold a couple to a higher standard if they stand before a minister or priest and promise to love, honor and cherish one another until death does separate them.
Now, moving up yet another rung on the ladder of emotional attachment, when we use our words to convey spiritual truths, those words have eternal consequences. This, in my mind, is what makes theology such a “heavy” endeavor. We are not simply speaking our opinions (although we do that to be sure). We are using our human intellects to form and fashion words that, if they are to be believed, will have eternal consequences for those who follow them. And, if they are not to be believed, why are we using the words to begin with? We can say with absolute impunity that “the best cake mix in the world is ……” or we can suggest that “the best football team in the NFL is the Minnesota Vikings” (true, by the way) and if someone agrees or disagrees with us there is no lasting implication. But the moment we say, “Thus says the Lord…” we enter into another realm. We are no longer speaking as a baker or sports fan. We are no longer operating under the umbrella of plausible deniability. Those who dare to speak of God must accept a higher level of accountability.
This, I believe, is what James is referring to in James 3:1. He is not saying we have to have perfect knowledge (no one can attain that) nor is he saying we have to be a certain age, or pass a certain test of orthodoxy. What he is saying is that once we offer words on God’s behalf, those words can be used to either draw people closer to God or drive them away from God. That fact is at the same time a harsh reality, an awesome responsibility, and an incredible opportunity. James is commenting on the fact that many people want to take advantage of the opportunity, and thereby make a claim to human glory and praise, without carefully considering the harsh reality and the awesome responsibility.
There is a prayer in the Bible for would-be theologians. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful prayers in all of Scripture. It also happens to be one of the shortest. It would do all of us who have the desire to speak of the Holy things of God to memorize this prayer, and to recite it every time we get up in front of an audience to speak or in front of our keyboard to type a blog. These are the words of one who was inspired by the situation in which he found himself, and although humbled with the prospect, did not flinch from the responsibility. The words are these, and may we make them our own –
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Ps. 19:14)
Let me begin by reviewing UTFTR # 9:
9. In regard to the point above, it is especially important if you are unable to read the original languages to refer to as many translations of the Scriptures as you possibly can. To limit your study to one translation is to limit yourself to one perspective, one set of translation principles. Reading from multiple translations allows for other ideas and concepts to inform your final conclusions.
The “point above” was UTFTR # 8, which in a nutshell stated that unless we do some very serious study, and use the tools of language translation and proper exegesis as they were intended, we get ourselves into all kinds of theological quicksand. We end up with very firmly held and very devout convictions which cannot be substantiated and, when someone who knows better comes along, makes us look really stupid. At that point we can either (a) admit our error and change our viewpoint (this is painful to do and something that most Americans refuse to do) or we (b) entrench ourselves in our firmly held positions and end up looking even more stupid. Imagine the people in Galileo’s day who just absolutely, positively, beyond any shadow of a doubt knew that the sun revolved around the earth because that is what the Bible said it did. I fear today we have the same mindset in the church, although not on the same subject.
But, at the same time, I hear people say, “Wait a minute! You are just another one of those eggheaded academic elitists who throw eight-cylinder words around just to prove you are in the approved theological gang. I don’t know Greek, couldn’t recognize Hebrew if my life depended on it, and actually couldn’t care less if I did or didn’t. How am I supposed to do all this exachesus stuff?”
That is actually a fair comment and legitimate question. Let me try to explain, and I will rely on UTFTR # 9 as a way to get myself out of the corner I have painted myself into.
To begin with, I am not a Greek scholar, and my Hebrew skills are even lower. I love studying these foreign languages, and I recognize their value and so I try to do my best in working with them, but I am far from claiming proficiency. I will always remember a statement my first year Greek teacher said at the end of our painful year together. He said, “Gentlemen, you now know just enough Greek to go out and be dangerous. Please do not use what you do not know to impress people who know even less.” THAT is a great motto for any study, but particularly in regards to theological studies.
So, how is the non-professional, non-Greek or Hebrew reading, non-specialist supposed to be able to make the distinctions that readers of the original languages are able to make? In a way it is very simple, and with our digital reading platforms it is even getting easier.
The answer is to buy, read, and use as many translations of the Bible as you can. But first, be aware that there are basically three main translation principles that are used, and it does no good if you have 10 translations that use the same principle. As you read multiple translations, make sure you have a variety of translations that use these different principles. Here, as briefly as I can, is a summary of those principles:
1. Formal, or “literal” – In this theory the words and grammatical structure in the source language (Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek) are brought over into the receptor language (in our case, English) is as close a 1 = 1 equivalence as possible. Words are uniformly translated the same way, even though they may be used in varying contexts and over a significantly lengthy period of time. Idiomatic expressions are translated verbatim, even though the meaning can, and sometimes does, get “lost in translation.”
If we drew a line on a whiteboard, we could put this theory on the extreme left side of the board. On the extreme left of the left would be what is called an “interlinear translation.” This is a publication that has a line of Hebrew or Greek, and then directly under it a slavish word-for-word translation of each part of the sentence. No effort is made to make the translation a coherent English sentence. These can be a help to those who are learning a new language, but they make for really ugly public reading texts. Moving to the right of our extreme would be a translation such as the New American Standard Bible. The NASB is frequently and loudly proclaimed as the most “literal” translation available. This obscures the fact that even the NASB takes certain liberties in moving from the source to the receptor language, and you must read the introduction to notice how they do this.
2. On the far right hand side of our continuum would be the “dynamic” translation theory, and to the extreme right of the right would be the paraphrase. The dynamic translation theory recognizes that words change meaning over time, that much of what happens in language cannot be limited to specific words, and that often times you have to translate entire idioms in order to effectively communicate the message. A paraphrase goes one step further, and is usually the product of a single individual who writes what he or she thinks the text communicates, and while it may be based on the original text, it differs not only in word selection but sometimes it differs significantly in terms of interpretation. The New Living Translation is an example of a dynamic translation, and The Message by Eugene Peterson is a paraphrase. Be careful! The Message is marketed as a translation, but that is a very elastic term in regard to Peterson’s work. It is a paraphrase and should be marketed as such.
Just a hint: if a translation does not have a concordance available, it probably is a dynamic translation. Because the same source word is translated by a variety of receptor words (or sometimes even complete phrases), it is impossible to compile an accurate concordance. This is not always true, but it is a great “first hint” that a translation is either a formal or dynamic translation.
3. Somewhere in the middle between our ultra-literal “formal” translations and our ultra “dynamic” translations are a whole host of other translations that take a position closer to, but not absolutely committed to, either one of these extremes. The Revised Standard Version and the English Standard Version lean toward the “formal” translation theory, the Contemporary English Bible is closer to the “dynamic” side of the continuum. Be very careful with the New International Version. The early NIV was an attempt to incorporate some of the concepts of dynamic translational theory, but was (despite its cultured critics) a fairly strong formal translation. The latest publication of the NIV has moved significantly toward the dynamic theory, to the extent that I cannot recommend it with the same confidence that I do the “old” NIV. The NRSV is likewise an update of the “old” RSV, and is an attempt to be gender neutral, but its parentage is clearly in the formal or neo-formal translation theory.
Clearly, an individual will have a personal preference. When I was preaching I used the NIV almost exclusively because it has a very readable format in terms of public reading. Translations that are good for private study often do not come across very well from the pulpit (i.e. the NASB uses archaic grammatical forms, and unless you have an NASB in front of you, it can be difficult to follow). I like the ESV (largely because of it RSV parentage) because it is a little easier to read, but it has strong “formal” roots. Equally, I love reading the NLT in my private, devotional reading, but I would be very hesitant to use the NLT in an in-depth Bible study because it leans heavily toward the “dynamic” translational theory. However, if I was studying with a person who had no knowledge of the Bible and was nervous about KJV “Holy Ghost” language, I would reach for the NLT and tell them the story of God and His Son.
My point in this post is this: if you do not know the original languages, and you cannot afford a library of critical commentaries to explain what is going on, you can achieve much the same results simply by purchasing several different translations of the Bible (or downloading them onto your digital platform). Use an interlinear or the NASB for a strong formal translation. Add the RSV, NRSV or ESV. Add the HCSB or CEB. And, buy the NLT or Peterson’s The Message. Compare verses to verses, paragraphs to paragraphs and chapters to chapters. Pay special attention to the footnotes! You will be able to pick up on translational difficulties, see how the various translation teams make their various choices, and will get a more rounded understanding of the message that God has provided for us.
And the very best part of doing this kind of study is that you do not have to become an eggheaded academic elitist!
Before I get to the theology, permit me a little comic diversion…
A very prim and proper old spinster called the police to report her neighbors involved in lewd and unbecoming behavior. The vice squad arrived at her apartment and began their investigation. The lady pointed out a window and told the officers if they looked toward her neighbor’s house they could see all kinds of activity that she was quite certain violated most of the Levitical code of sexual behavior, if not all of it. The officers looked out the window and saw nothing. “We’re sorry, ma’am, but there is simply nothing that we can see to substantiate your report” they told the lady. “Sure you can!” the lady retorted, “All you have to do is pull the dresser over to the window, climb on top and crane your head out the window and you can see all kinds of sin!”
Please don’t ask me where I get my jokes.
Of all my “15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection” I think I have the most fun with #8. It is certainly one that I feel like deserves a lot more attention from the pulpits and class lecterns in our churches. For those of you who do not have my 15 Truths memorized, here it is –
8. If you have to rely on just one single verse of Scripture, or some obscure variant reading of the original text, or an obscure definition of grammar or of a word or phrase in the original language, then your conclusion regarding that passage of Scripture is in serious trouble.
I am variously amused, stunned and terrified by the bizarre conclusions some “theologians” make concerning certain passages of Scripture. Maybe not so much by the actual conclusion, but by the tortured and strained “logic” that is used to justify and defend the conclusion. I am certainly no stranger to coming up with the wrong understanding of a text. But at least I hope I am using the proper tools in the proper manner. Anyone can make an incorrect mathematical calculation, but it takes a real genius to apply the rules of algebra to the process of theology. That, I fear, is what many preachers and teachers attempt to do.
A large part of this problem, I must admit, is the manner in which we train our pulpit ministers. (And by “we” here I am referring to the only group of which I can speak with first hand knowledge, and that is the Churches of Christ.) For example, we teach the skills of using the Greek and Hebrew languages without really enforcing the why of using those tools. My favorite example of this is the Greek word ekklesia. The common English word used in translation is “church.” So, years ago somebody noticed that the word ekklesia could be made up of two smaller Greek words, ek, meaning “out of” and kaleo meaning “called.” So, ispso facto and abracadabra and rub-a-dub-dub we come up with a fine three-point sermon based on the incontrovertible proof of the Greek language that the “church” is the “called out” people of God.
Believe me, I’ve preached the sermon. And it is just wrong. It is not right. It is using algebra to prove a linguistic point. It sounds so right, and it looks so good on paper, but you just cannot get there from here. The more I replay the sermons (note the plural) that I have preached using this methodology the more my head hurts. I do pray that God is lenient with his young preachers.
The fact is that the word ekklesia is one of two primary words that the Greeks used to translate the Hebrew word qahal, meaning assembly, or congregation. The other significant word was “synagogue.” When the Jews translated their Hebrew Scriptures into Greek they chose the word “synagogue” as the primary word to equal qahal. So, in the early church the writers were faced with a choice – they could use the word synagogue and attempt to explain the wide difference between a Christian synagogue and a Jewish synagogue, or they could appropriate another word that did not have the attached religious meaning that came with “synagogue.” They chose ekklesia and for good reason. But not for the reason that it is made up of the words “out of” and “called.”
How could I dare make such a hideous accusation? Well, because the text of the New Testament bears the weight of cross-examination, for one reason. Turn to Acts 19 beginning with v. 23. Paul has angered one Demetrius, a silversmith whose livelihood is endangered by Paul’s preaching. So, Demetrius whips up the emotions of his fellow silversmiths and artisans and they get the whole city into an uproar and everybody heads down to the theatre to figure this whole thing out. For at least two hours there is a great cry and hullabaloo and Luke tells us that Paul wanted to enter into the theatre to speak to the “crowd” that was assembled (the Greek word in v. 30 is demos, meaning crowd or assembly). Eventually a cool-headed town clerk arrives and lets everyone know that the whole group is in grave danger of violating the rules of proper conduct and they should all go home. Three times in this passage the word ekklesia is used as a synonym for demos - in v. 32, 39, and 41. Now, it is never translated “church” in any translation that I know of, and for good reason. The mob in the theatre was not a church, but it was an assembly. They were not the “called out” of God. There was no super spiritual meaning attached to the ekklesia that wanted to remove Paul’s head from his shoulders. It was a mob of angry and confused people. But our inspired writer Luke properly identified it as an ekklesia because it was that. It was an assembly, synonymous with a demos.
Would we attempt to divine the meaning of the word “butterfly” from the cognate words “butter” and “fly”? That is, would we identify a butterfly as a disgusting little winged vermin that somehow is connected to processed milk? The thought is ludicrous. Let us not even consider what would happen if we tried to do the same thing with “babysitter.” But we routinely do the very same thing with Greek words and the results are just as mystifying. Entertaining, perhaps, but mystifying none-the-less.*
I could go on at some length, but I hope my point has been made. If we build our theological mansion on one single verse, or if we have to refer to some obscure, or fanciful, or strained definition of some Greek or Hebrew word to justify our theological position we are standing on quicksand. The manner in which we do this is legion. Just because we do so frequently does not make the process right.
I hope I have made it clear that I am not guiltless in making these mistakes. I do hope that I am a little more aware of the pitfalls and so I am a little more guarded in the words I use. I may still believe that the church is the “called out” of God, but I will never use the Greek morphology of the word ekklesia to prove my point. I may or may not believe that God created the world in six 24 hour periods, but I cannot use the Hebrew word yom as my proof. I may or may not believe Jesus could create intoxicating wine, but I cannot base my conclusions on the Greek word oinos. And I certainly cannot build an entire theological enterprise upon a word that does not appear in the text.
Let’s don’t be guilty of pulling the dresser over to the window to see something that we should never be interested in seeing in the first place.
*I am indebted to the book Exegetical Fallacies 2nd Ed. (Baker Academic: 2008) by D.A. Carson for helping me see the errors of my youth, and for these examples. I highly recommend anyone who is interested in this subject to acquire this book and study it. You may not agree with every conclusion that Carson makes, but the book will certainly make you a more careful exegete.
For the most part I would assume that most of my 15 Undeniable Truths do not cause much controversy. A few arched eye brows maybe, but I have not had any real disagreement. If there is one that would cause someone to disagree with me it would be #7.
7. While some passages of the Bible may be open to more than one application, very few have more than one interpretation. Otherwise, Scripture would be meaningless.
There is actually quite a bit at stake here. In effect what I am saying is that, yes, Virginia, there is a correct interpretation of a passage of Scripture, and there are many incorrect interpretations. The Postmodernists are totally wrong, we can trust that there is one intended meaning for a text, and this “can’t we just all get along, I have my interpretation and you have yours” is just so much hot air.
Please note what I am NOT saying: I am NOT saying that I have a corner on the market and that I have figured out the correct interpretation for every verse in the Bible. I am not even going to say that every interpretation that I now hold about the texts that I have studied is ultimately correct. What I am saying is that I am either right or wrong, and I am willing to correct my wrong interpretations when I am confronted with new and compelling evidence.
Just as a little bit of evidence of the last point: I was recently introduced to an interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount that was very new to me. I am still analyzing it and seeing how it fits into the larger context of the gospel of Matthew, but let me say that right now it is a very compelling argument. It answers a lot of questions – although raising a few others – and I am impressed that it is based on a contextual study of the gospel of Matthew. If the authors who introduced this interpretation to me are correct it means that my prior views on the Sermon on the Mount are incorrect. Not totally without value, but incorrect none-the-less.
This is a hard pill for many disciples to swallow, whether they are just “lay members” of a congregation or ministers or teachers. Once we study a passage we tend to cling to our conclusions as if they are a life preserver and we are drowning. Much of this comes from our (unstated) belief that if we are wrong about the interpretation of any one single passage our salvation is somehow in danger. I have read the Bible through many, many times and I have not come across a verse yet that tells me that I have to be 100% correct about 100% of the texts of the Bible before I can be considered “worthy” to enter heaven. But this is a deeply held conviction never-the-less and it is one that we need to break.
Now, on to the second part of my “undeniable” truth: while a text only has one interpretation, it may have multiple applications. I see this primarily in the prophetic literature. Matthew certainly saw a “full” fillment of many prophetic texts in the life of Jesus. If you removed the passages from Ezekiel and Daniel out of the book of Revelation there would not be anything left of significance. The Holy Spirit, as he inspired the writers of our holy Scripture, certainly allowed for future generations to read the text in light of their own circumstances and make spiritual decisions accordingly. Notice how the apostles in the book of Acts read and applied various passages from the Old Testament to help them make critical decisions. That does not change the fact that the original meaning of the passage was for a people long dead and situations long resolved.
As a good example for us to consider in this post look at Mark 13, the “little apocalypse.” My current belief is that the entire chapter (and parallel passages in the other gospels) is focused completely on the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in AD 70. Whereas at one point I believed that Jesus was alternating between “end of Jerusalem” and “end of time” situations, I no longer believe that to be the case. I believe he was focused on what was going to happen when the Romans finally had enough of the Jewish insurrection and decided to put an end to it. However, can the message in Mark 13 be instructive about the “ultimate” end of time? Absolutely! It can be instructive but we should not depend upon it as determinative. That is what I mean that the text (Mk. 13) only has one interpretation but it can have several applications for subsequent generations.
Another key benefit we can derive from this truth. It keeps us from taking a term or an idea from one writing or from one time period and super-imposing it upon another writing or time period. This should be most obvious when we take a thought from the New Testament and make it fit in the Old Testament. But for my example here consider the term “anti-Christ” that John uses (1, 2 John) and the term “man of lawlessness” that Paul uses (2 Thessalonians). For countless people these terms are synonymous and refer to the same individual, but the texts in which they are found makes this association impossible. For John, the “antichrist” is simply the one who denied that Jesus came in the flesh. There is no mystical supernaturalism about him (or her) at all. Now, the “man of lawlessness” of Paul is slightly more mystical, as he must be “revealed,” but it is clear that Paul is not talking about an individual or a group of individuals who simply deny the divinity of Jesus the Christ. And, I might add here, neither is he the Pope, Adolf Hitler or Ronald Reagan.
Taken along with Undeniable Truths 4-6, Undeniable Truth #7 is significant. We must search for the correct interpretation of a given text, but we must do so humbly. We do so not to win debates or to beat up on our religious neighbors. We do so to feed our spirit, to teach us about our God and about his relationship with us, and about how we might better live our lives of discipleship with him. It is not about “getting it right,” but we want to get it right because God invested so much time, love and effort in getting the message to us. We dare not treat the Bible flippantly, or as a book of history or poetry that we can somehow master and control. We are to stand under the text, it is to control us, and we seek its truths not in order to defeat others, but that our own ego might be defeated by the loving discipline of our God.