Tuesday, August 31, 2010

This also applies to ministry...

Callings and callings

I was reading from Samuel Rima's Living from the Inside Out and trying to map my sense of calling and vocation together with a spiritual formation class today. I know various professors at IWU have some differing ideas about these sorts of things. I had never really taken the time to sort them all out.

Today, I think I've mapped them for myself, but you can help me see if I've missed something.

1. Calling
All Christians are the "elect," the called, as Rima says. We are called to be conformed to the image of Christ, both in this life and at the resurrection. Christians of course have differing understandings of what is behind this calling--does God choose entirely who the "called" are or is divinely empowered human response part of the equation. But all Christians would accept that we are all "the called."

3. avocations
Christians have differing senses of how much of a micro-manager God is with the nitty gritty of our lives. Does God have "the right one" picked out for you since before the foundation of the world? Does God have a plan for whether you become a plumber or someone who pours concrete, a doctor or a lawyer? Rick Warren thinks so...

... and I think he's loony. I believe God mostly lets us decide whether we have vanilla or strawberry ice cream. I believe most of the time God lets the so called laws of physics operate as they do, which unfortunately means occasionally a mass of metal moving on an x axis intersects with a mass of metal on a y axis and someone ends up in the hospital.

In situations like this one, the decision--at least as I conceptualize it--is whether God intervenes or not. I do not believe He directs everything that happens of this sort. He allows it. On most things, I do not believe God has a specific will but we have to buck up our lazy "plan it all out for me will you Daddy" attitudes and take responsibility for our lives.

2. callings
However, sometimes God does intervene and sometimes God does call on every level. I believe sometimes God does have one person picked out for you--although not most of the time. I believe sometimes God does want you to be a plumber and nothing else--although not most of the time. I believe that God does call people into ministry and "woe is me if I preach not the gospel."

I am not willing to say that such callings are for life, necessarily. Amos was called to be a prophet one afternoon in the northern kingdom. I wonder if he spent most of the rest of his life back with sycamore trees.

The way I've skinned the cat in my mind today...

Three Languages before Dying

I'm learning Spanish--estoy tratando de apprender Espaniol. Maybe. Now that we plan on launching our MDIV in Spanish this year, I have reason to. Not to teach, mind you. We want first language speakers to do that. So there's an above average I'll learn it.

I like languages. I've dabbled in my share of dead ones and a couple living. I'd love to have reason to learn more but alas. The two I'd love to have a reason to learn beyond Spanish are Arabic and Chinese, and I wish I could interest my youngest two children in them. Believe it or not, all they're interested in is German.

It struck me today that Arabic is the lingua franca of the Middle East because of its connection to the Quran. I know this is obvious but for some reason the unifying force of the language just struck me today. Maybe it's because I was reading about William Harvey, who was English but studying in Italy around 1600 (the guy who really unfolded the circulatory system). How did he know Italian, I first asked myself. Then, stupid, thought I--Latin was the common language of academia then.

Arabic does the same thing for the whole swath of countries from Africa to Pakistan and beyond. That's the ticket to influence the entire region, thinks me.

Who knows... but the three I'd most value learning right now...

Educational Non-Profit for 2/3 World?

I was thinking about Sierra Leone this week. I spent two months there in the winter of 1997, just before all hell broke loose there in the civil war. My stay there was very meaningful to me, although vastly insignificant. What followed for them was another instance of the evil in the world, another glimpse of the face of holocausts and Evil written large. "There is none righteous, no not one" is a verse inspired by such moments in history.

In my own mind, the disparity between my uncomfortable two months as an American Westerner and the scourge that followed is sobering. I cannot quite fathom the depth of the contrast. When I picture the gaze of the current national leader, Usman Forna, I picture a man who understands the evil in the world and who surely cannot look at individuals like me without a temptation to disdain at the inequity of it all. I have the time to quibble over the interpretation of arcane passages in the Bible. He has tried to negotiate the peaceful reintegration of child murders into villages where they chopped off limbs and disemboweled pregnant women.

The consequences of the civil war there linger on and now threaten more long term issues. Think of the children who lost 10 years of education who are now in their twenties. Think of the structures of education that still do not function as they once did.

I'm sure there are organizations that are already doing education as a form of foreign aid. I am vastly ignorant of the development field. But my strong suspicion is that the vast majority of aid that is in action with regard to the two-thirds world targets the lowest levels of Maslow's hierarchy--food, clothing, and health. These are Quadrant I concerns--the immediate and the significant.

Are there non-profits whose primary targets are more Quadrant II--the very significant but not as urgent? I count on you all to tell me. Of course the usual pattern is to send individuals overseas to do this sort of thing, "missionaries" and such. I strongly believe that those who go to aid with food, clothing, and medicine usually do some double duty here.

But I am an educator. Education is my greater field of expertise. Are there organizations that focus especially on long term education of those who do not have access to learning? Education is potentially something that can fend off future terrorism and build toward a more harmonious world. Certainly its absence helps catalyse them.

I'm thinking about equipping those in these locations, not about sending Westerners there. I've had the usual strange thoughts--could there be a special kind of "bare minimum" desktop designed whose sole purpose is the educational needs of students in a particular region. What distant education is appropriate might then be facilitated by local individuals. These wouldn't be too fancy and would be focused enough to where there would be less temptation to steal them--or such that someone who took them and used them would be benefited.

Idle thoughts on a Tuesday morning...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Sin and the Law 1

Paul has used a question/answer style earlier in Romans to raise possible objections to his way of thinking and then to answer them. [1] He resumes this approach in Romans 6. Romans 6 and 7 deal with one of the main objections to his teaching. He mentioned it back in 3:8. People are parodying him as if he were teaching, "Let us do evil that good may result."

So Paul hits this false accusation head on. "Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?" (6:1). "Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?" (6:15). Paul's answer in both cases is an emphatic "no": "By no means!"

In truth, no mainstream interpreter of Paul has ever accepted the old parady of Luther, "Sin boldly that grace may come." Luther never made this statement, and you will not find support for such an approach to sin from any mainstream Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, Methodist or any other major Reformation tradition. Christian groups may differ in their definitions of sin and they may differ in how much they think a Christian will normally sin, but no tradition worthy of the name Christian will teach that Christians will continue to sin no differently than before they received the Holy Spirit.

What is confusing to so many readers is the role that Romans 7:13-25 plays in Paul's argument. So many us identify with the words in 7:19: "what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing." Perhaps even the majority of Christian readers of Paul today latch on to this sentiment because it fits with their own personal experience and then they ignore completely the context in which Paul makes it. It is perhaps the single greatest misunderstanding of Paul's writings, as common as it is completely wrong.

In context, Paul's argument has pushed him to his single most vulnerable point. What was God doing with the Jewish Law all those years if in fact, as Paul is arguing, it is not an effective path to God? Paul was saying that Gentiles did not have to observe the parts of it that were Jew-specific, things like circumcision. And he was saying that Jews were not able to be right with God on the basis of how well they kept it. But he also says that getting right with God on the basis of his grace administered through Christ is no excuse to sin, to "do wrong," which of course was defined more than anywhere else in the Law.

This line of thinking is confusing to us and it may have also been not a little confusing to the Romans as well (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16). So what is the Law good for, Paul? You say we are not under it but you say we do not violate it. You say it was never effective but then why did God institute it in the first place? It is these sorts of questions that lead to Romans 7, where Paul explains the role of the Law in God's plan and how that applies to believers.

I am convinced that a great deal of our confusion comes from the fact that Paul glides seemlessly between a number of different meanings for the word "law" in these passages...

tomorrow: definition of sin, different uses of the law

[1] Usually called a "diatribe" style.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday Scripture: Colossians

A keen eyed person might notice I'm about 24 hours late on this one. Two weeks ago I started a lectionary reading/preaching series to go through the Bible in three years. No promises how long I'll continue. The text of the first Sunday was Genesis 1. Last week it was John 1. Today, we move to the book of Colossians.

Genesis 1 gives the creation of the world, and John 1 mirrors it in the incarnation. Colossians fits in this sequence because one of its main points is to display Christ as far exalted above all other spiritual powers in the creation. Three points might be:

1. Christ is the firstborn over all creation.
2. Christ has defeated the powers of evil.
3. Live in the name of Jesus.

1. Christ is the firstborn over all creation.
Colossians 1:15-20 is sometimes called the Colossian hymn, although what poetic breakdown it might have is not immediately apparent. We can see clear parallelisms but the second half in particular is very difficult to put into poetic form. Most scholars see Jewish traditions about divine wisdom behind the first part of the hymn, but several (including myself) see the logos in the background here as in John 1.

The "hymn" exalts Christ as higher than anything else in the creation, including all visible and invisible authorities. I wonder if this passage may have played into the part of the Nicene Creed which speaks of God as creator of all things that are "seen and unseen." Colossians is parallel to Hebrews 1 in its clear placement of Christ above the angels. Here, a mystical Judaism is probably a target, which aimed to worship with the angels through mystical experiences and visions (2:18).

The bottom line, though, is that Christ trumps all other powers.

2. Christ has defeated the powers of evil.
Not only is Christ greater and of more authority than all other powers, but he has defeated those opposed to God. He has disarmed the powers and authorities that held sway over us (2:15). Colossians astoundingly seems to line up the power of these forces with various aspects of the Jewish Law like festival celebrations and food laws. Is this a reminder that a slavish, fundamentalist approach to Scripture is just as often likely to take one out of God's will? Is not this the approach that those who favored slavery took in the 1800s and those who oppose women in ministry take yet today?

3. Live in the name of Jesus
My favorite verse in Colossians, indeed, one of my favorite in the whole Bible is Colossians 3:17. It gives us yet another picture of Christian ethics in toto. Do everything in the name of Jesus. Christian action fits with the person and authority of Christ. Just as he is Lord over all creation, both those forces in submission and those that have rebelled in the past, he must be Lord of our lives as individuals and communities of faith, if we are to be worthy of the name Christian.

Adam Conclusion 2

Another area where modern study potentially impacts our discussions is in the area of brain research and psychology. Neuro-scientists still have a long way to go in mapping the brain, but it seems fairly clear that there is least some part of the brain that corresponds to each human experience. Whether it be thinking, memory, anger, personality, or even religious experience, we can say which parts of the brain "light up" when that happens. Change the structure of the brain--whether through Alzheimers, cancer, or physical injury--and you change the person.

These discoveries have led some Christians to explore whether the idea of the soul might itself be an instance of Christian language that points to something real but not exactly in the way we have thought. [1] Such Christians point out that the word soul in the Old Testament never refers to a detachable part of me that survives death. Rather, the Hebrew word soul refers to an entire living thing, whether it be a human or a fish. Even in the New Testament, it is only rarely that the word seems to refer to a part of my human make-up (e.g., Heb. 4:12*). Our common conceptions of the soul have as much to do with later Greek influence on Christianity than on what the Bible actually says.

The point here is not to take a position on this issue. Our point is that if scholars are debating on this level, then we can see how far afield the old arguments about whether our carnal nature can be eradicated or suppressed were. Yet no one who pays much attention to the world around us will doubt that our world is thoroughly "enslaved to sin." Ask the social worker at the local elementary school or the prosecutor who works at the courthouse or the nurse that works the emergency room or the person who helps with foreign aid. They can perhaps identify with the pessimism of Joshua 24:19 as Joshua tells the Israelites, "You cannot serve the LORD."

In other words, you guys can't hack it. Serving God is just too hard. Godliness and righteousness is a miracle in this world. This issue, perhaps more than any other, surfaces especially in Romans 6-7, the subject of our next section.

[1] cf. Joel Green, ***

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Adam Conclusion 1

It is all fine and good to look behind the layers of Christian interpretation of Paul and Paul's interpretation of Genesis, but what do we take for life from all of it today. One benefit of analyzing the layers is the potential clarity it brings on what exactly we are believing. We now have some choices to make and a much more complex landscape to find ourselves in.

Contemporary culture brings other factors to consider in our picture as well. For example, it is virtually the unanimous consensus of scientists across the disciplines that the universe is very, very old and that complex life evolved over time from simpler forms of life. We know the dirty word, "evolution." Could virtually the entire scientific community be wrong? Certainly they seem to have been before--on whether the sun goes round the earth, on whether time was a fixed framework, on whether space was continuous and infinite. But still, when we realize how much more there is to Paul and Genesis than we might have thought, one has to wonder whether we have as firm a biblical basis as we might think to oppose the notion that God might have directed an evolutionary process in some way ("theistic" evolution).

If we want to be able to engage our culture, we had better think long and hard about the options before we simply close down discussion and just say, "No matter what evidence you see, you will lose your faith unless you close your mind to it." For example, I cannot think of anything that would contradict the authority or truthfulness of Genesis 1 if it were a poetic presentation of God as sole creator of an orderly world rather than a straightforward blow-by-blow documentary. [1] Indeed, those who think they take Genesis 1 literally somehow miss that God places the sun and moon on Day 4 in the expanse that has waters above it. In other words, if we had to take Genesis 1 literally, we would have to believe that we go straight up through sun and stars to primordial waters at the top of creation. [2]

If anything, Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 pose the greater challenge, as Paul seems to say that death and the decay of the world entered as a result of Adam's sin. At this point, some Christian scientists, convinced by the evidence of their field as they understand it, will strategize possible reinterpretations of Paul. Perhaps he meant spiritual death entered through Adam, not physical death. Perhaps he actually understood it as Genesis does--that everything would have died anyway and it was only the fact that Adam and Eve did not get to eat from the tree of life that resulted in death.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we as Christians regularly shift over time in what passages we emphasize and do not emphasize, usually without realizing it. For example, at one point in my life, passages in the Bible against women adorning themselves with jewelry caught my attention (e.g., 1 Pet. 3). An earring was such a big deal to me, given where I was raised, it seemed impossible that a woman could wear one without it being a big deal. I now laugh about that, knowing that most women are about as "prideful" to wear an earring as I might be when I try to match my shirt and pants.

Whether we should focus so hard on such a specific reading of this handful of 5-10 verses is a legitimate question, especially since the arguments of the Bible are always made in the categories of their original authors and audiences--otherwise God would not have got his message across. Paul's point, is it not, is that Christ has abolished death for all those who trust in him. To make this point, he draws on one contemporary understanding of Genesis. His point has to do with the Romans more than with history and certainly more than it has to do with science. Here we remember that it was atheistic evolution and its social consequences that got the dander up of fundamentalists in the early twentieth century. [3] Before then, many godly Christians had tried to strategize whether some form of theistic evolution might be compatible with the Bible and Christianity, as many godly Christian scientists do today.

So let those Christian scientists who are competent debate the evidence both for and against theistic evolution. Let us remember that science is often wrong and has been known to change its mind many times on a massive scale. But let us also remember that the biblical texts themselves are not without their own ambiguity, and that the Spirit has often "instructed," "corrected," and "trained in righteousness" through figurative interpretations. [4] What will only hinder faith in the long run is if we pretend we have it all sorted out and that everyone who disagrees with us is an infidel--especially when most of us are neither competent scientists or interpreters of the Bible!

[1] In other words, if it were more in dialog with the other creation stories of its day than with the concerns of the twentieth century.

[2] Not to mention the likelihood that Genesis 1 had a flat earth in mind.

[3] For example, it was ironically social Darwinism that fueled William Jennings Bryan's opposition to evolution. Social Darwinism was an attitude of "survival of the fittest" among the elite and rich entrepeneurs that was used to justify a complete disregard for the people they emploited, especially their helpless workers.

[4] See volume 1.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Other Hermeneutic Than Missional?

In a Missional Church class this week we asked the question, is there another hermeneutic other than a missional one? It seems to be something we would all agree with, namely, that the Bible should be read as the story of God acting toward the redemption of humanity and the world.

We did come up with two other hermeneutics, however. The first I called a "principle-oriented" or "propositional" hermeneutic. It engages individual texts in Scripture looking for a principle in each text that is then reapplied to today.

A second might be a "kingship" or maybe "glory of God" hermeneutic. John Piper, for example, sees God setting up the Fall and the partial election of some humanity. Somehow the word "missional" doesn't seem quite appropriate here either because the goal is not really to save the world but for God to demonstrate his own glory.

Can anyone think of another hermeneutic than these?

Beck and King

I'll admit up front that there is something that grates on me about Glenn Beck, who has been vocal in opposition to social justice as he understands it, speaking from the Mall in Washington tomorrow on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

I do believe Beck will be respectful. I do believe it is Beck's right and the right of any who would attend. I just don't like it. No matter how respectful he is, a very very large portion of America--including probably the majority of African-Americans in this country, will experience it as mimicry, as a mockery. I wonder what his intentions are. He strikes me as a showman through and through, which makes this feel like a stunt.

I'll grin and bear it. Since I don't have anything substantial to say about Beck today, I'll just keep my mouth shut... for now. Smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why a church should have a website...

I know someone who is starting at a secular college this year and was thinking through what a good church might be for them. In other words, I tried to put myself in the mindset of an 18 year old Christian going to college, but as someone who knows a little something about college and about churches.

So I was looking for a church that would be engaging, that would provide a community of Christian peers. I was looking for a church that would be warm-hearted, generous and inviting, one that was engaged with the needs of its community and the world. I knew a "preachy" church would not keep them coming--sorry, that's just the way it is for good or ill. A church with people who looked different from everyone else would not fit the bill. Again, we can say "should, should, should" till we're blue in the face... and you can watch the youth from your church stop going to church when they go off to college.

So, understandably, I did a web search to see if there might be a Wesleyan Church in the area that would fit the bill. I found more than one listed in maps, listed in local church listings, even in district information. I could even see pictures of them in Google maps. What I couldn't find was a webpage.

And so here's reality. I doubt very seriously that my friend will be attending a Wesleyan church there. Shoulds don't hack it. Reality doesn't care. Get a webpage. A church without a webpage in the twenty-first century is a church without a future, I predict, for all the things that lack of a webpage say about it. This of course is to say nothing about the godliness of the church, only about its destiny.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Martin Luther on Copernicus

"There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must . . . invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best!

The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth" (1539).

Adam cont. cont. cont.

Paul himself had expanded on the Genesis text. The Genesis text itself does not use words like condemnation or disobedience. Paul adds this larger perspective to the story. As much as anything, Genesis explains why men have to work so hard tilling the soil, why women have such pain giving birth to children, as well as why humans and snakes do not get along (Gen. 3:15 in its original meaning). [1] Since Adam and Eve would have still had to eat from the tree of life to live forever (3:22), the Genesis story sees human death as a result of their actions but not really the cause of death itself. Death in the story is apparently the default existence of creatures.

A couple other aspects of the story come from later interpretations rather than Genesis itself. So it was not until the first century before Christ that we have any evidence of anyone thinking the serpent was Satan. Indeed, Jewish understanding of the Satan does not seem to appear until well after the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity in 538BC. [2] Further, the specific consequences to the soil and to pregnant women fall well short of Paul's more systemic subjugation of the creation to corruption. Here again, this dimension comes from Paul rather than from the Genesis text...

[1] Later Christians would hear overtones of Christ's defeat of Satan in Genesis 3:15, although certainly the original Israelite audience would not have understood the verse this way.

[2] Satan is not mentioned in any of the books from Genesis to 2 Kings, only in the very late book of 1 Chronicles and the post-exilic Zechariah. Job's subject matter may seem patriarchal, but the first two chapters likely come from well into the period after the exile.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Adam cont. cont.

Christian interpretations of Genesis 2 and 3 today are an interesting mixture of reinterpretation piled on reinterpretation, like a wall that has been painted over several times without completely removing the previous paint. For example, we do not find the idea that the "image of God" mentioned in Genesis 1:27 has been either marred or destroyed anywhere in the biblical texts. [1] Nowhere in the entire Bible do we find any idea of this sort. The story of Adam and Eve’s sin in Genesis 3 never mentions the image of God being damaged or destroyed, and Paul himself never thinks of it as damaged in any way. It is an idea that comes entirely from later Christian tradition. It may point to a truth, but it is not a truth that does not come strictly from the Bible.

Language of Adam’s sin being the “Fall” or the “original sin” also comes from Augustine rather than the Bible. The Fall is a shorthand term for the event of Adam’s sin that resulted in humanity and the creation being under the power of Sin and subject to decay. Adam’s sin is thus the first or “original” sin. But Augustine and later Christian tradition in the West meant much more by these terms than Paul himself, and we can probably call a great deal of it into question.

So for Augustine the original sin was sexual in nature, something that neither Genesis nor Paul taught. Augustine’s negative view of human sexuality cast an unhealthy shadow over Roman Catholicism for a thousand years. [2] Augustine and perhaps even the majority of later Christians in the West also believed that Christians continue to have the guilt of Adam’s sin hanging over their head, often believing that infant baptism is important to cleanse a child of Adam’s sin. While we have no problem with infant baptism, this particular view of it has nothing to do with anything the Bible teaches about Adam’s sin. [3] Romans 5:12 only says that death has passed on us because we all sin like Adam, not that we die as part of the penalty for Adam’s sin. We die because we all sin, Paul said. [4]

Similarly, the NIV and other versions introduce later interpretations into Paul when they translate Paul’s word flesh with the phrase “sinful nature” or, as some refer to it, our “carnal nature.” The skew here is to introduce the word “nature” into the discussion, which Paul never uses in this context. The “flesh” for Paul clearly related to my skin, since that is the starting point for understanding the word. But Paul could also say that, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:8, NRSV). Paul could use the word flesh in a morally neutral way (e.g., of Jesus in Rom. 1:3). But he could also use it of that part of me that makes me lose in my struggle against Sin (e.g., Rom. 7:5).

In short, flesh for Paul was the material part of me, the part of me that belongs to this creation, my body. As such it is the part of me that is particularly susceptible to the power of Sin in this world. [5] But as we will see in the next section, the Spirit of God inside of a person meant for Paul that that person was no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit.

Particularly in holiness circles, language of a sinful or carnal (fleshly) nature led to all sorts of rabbit trails. What was already partially a metaphor in Paul was taken so literally as to lead to debates over the absurd. Thinking of the sinful nature as a thing inside of me, thinkers debated whether the thing might be eradicated or only suppressed. So if it could be eradicated, how might it ever come back? But if only suppressed, then what did that say about the power of God over Sin. In the end, Paul thought about it in terms of powers over my body. Either I was under the power of Sin, the default state of my flesh given the current age. Or I could become a slave to righteousness under the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Let alone the later Christian delineation of the image of God in us to aspects like the "natural," "moral," and "political" image

[2] Not that Augustine was solely responsible for these views, which were not uncommon in his day. No doubt such views were part of the reason celibacy became a requirement of priests around the year AD1000.

[3] Augustine wrongly translated Romans 5:12 in reference to Adam, “in whom” all sinned. Augustine believed that we were all present in Adam when he sinned and thus that we all carried the guilt of Adam’s sin. But the NIV and other translations are almost certainly correct to translate the verse to say, “in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.”

[4] Notice that Paul himself interprets Genesis differently than the impression we would get from Genesis 3 on its own. There it seems that the default for Adam and Eve was to die from the beginning and that it was only by eating from the tree of life that they might live forever.

[5] Interestingly, Paul talks in Romans 7 as if my mind (and presumably spirit) was not included in this part of me (e.g., Rom. 7:25).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Monday Wesleyan: Critical Realism

We've now broadened the Dean's blog of the seminary to become the Seminary blog and as such we will be having a regular cycle of seminary professors and leaders posting on it. Lenny Luchetti has made the inaugural post of the new cycle today. I believe Wayne Schmidt, the seminary head, may post next Monday.

So I'll continue my series, A Great Time for the Wesleyan Tradition here on Monday's, Lord willing.

Heart 8: The Bible and Critical Realism (this is a cross over from Heart 7)
Critical realism no doubt comes in more than one form, but the form that I advocate is one that affirms by faith that there is actually a world out there and that some interpretations of that world are better than others. If you would, we could consider it a subcategory of what is sometimes called "pragmatic realism." Pragmatic realism claims that while the actual existence of the world and knowledge is a matter of significant doubt, our affirmations of reality and of understanding are useful. That is to say, "reality works," and we get through life best if we act as if the world is real.

Critical realism then goes one step further and affirms not only that the idea of reality and truth is useful but that, by faith, it actually exists beyond ourselves. Where it differs from "naive realism" is that, at least as I mean it, it fully recognizes the level of faith such affirmations actually require. It recognizes how much of my view of the world is colored by cultural categories I have inherited and beyond which it is difficult for me to see. It recognizes that I am "stuck in my head" and cannot get a bird's eye view of things the way God can. It recognizes that my apprehension of reality, especially when I express it in words anc categories is finite and therefore almost certainly flawed from the very beginning in respects I will never be able to see or understand.

As it relates to the Bible, then, our ability to determine the original meaning of the Bible will always be flawed. The truth of the Bible does not stand outside my normal process of knowing. The Bible is an object of my understanding the same as the rest of the world. John Calvin and others spoke of the Spirit illuminating the meaning of the Bible, and such illumination might potentially solve our conundrum. But the tens of thousands of differing interpretations imply either that the Spirit often lets us continue on in our skew or perhaps that He only illuminates some very small group of elect.

Here we run into the same fundamental problem of full blown Calvinism in general. If God fully determines who will be saved and Christ has paid the price for sin, then presumably a God of love would save everyone. Presuming, then, that God does not save everyone, the god of this system seems to undermine the fundamental definition of what it means to say that God is love. In the end, we must surely conclude that God mostly allows the fallen processes of human understanding to stand even when it comes to the interpretation of the Bible...

Mosque Debate

Noticed this Op-Ed in the New York Times today. I'll admit to some mixed feelings on the issue. Here are my ground rules and I'll let you all add or subtract as you wish:

1. If I knew that this mosque would become a symbol of American forgiveness and freedom of religion, I would support it.

2. If I knew that individuals in this mosque would gloat about how they managed to be based so close to 9-11, Ha, stupid Americans, I would oppose it.

3. If I knew that this mosque would inevitably wound the New York psyche, that it couldn't possibly be viewed by them as in #1, ever, then I would regretably want the mosque to be built elsewhere.

So in my view, #1 would be the ideal, especially if Americans could make that its meaning so strongly, even anticipating that there might be some who would opt for #2, that we proudly and defiantly made it be about #1. #1 could also overlay #3.

The problem is that people are people and the primal reaction is extremely strong: "kill anyone with any association whatsoever with my offender, even if it is only in my mind." It is the drive that inevitably justifies genocide. So some natives are nice to me, but then one of my kind slaughters some natives. So some natives slaughter some of my kind so then I feel justified to kill all the natives.

And given how people are--God doesn't make them change so we sure as heck can't--I find myself uncertain about whether the mosque should be built.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sunday Scripture: John 1

Last week I toyed with starting a three year series reading the Bible through as Christian Scripture. Genesis 1 seemed a good place to start. John 1 is the NT parallel to Genesis 1, so I go here for Week 2, with a sprinkle of John 14-16.

Three points someone might preach for the second week of this supposed three year (we'll see) cycle are:

1. God has always had a word for the world.
2. Christ is the embodiment of God's word to humanity.
3. The Spirit continues the work of Christ in the world.

1. God has always had a word for the world.

The main character of the first 13 verses of John is the logos, a concept that certain Jews took from the Stoics and developed. For the Stoics, the logos was the divine mind that governed all things. We all had that "implanted word" inside us as well. So God had a word, a will for the creation, from the very beginning. This divine word was the mechanism of God's creation. God spoke and the world existed.

Note: John is not thinking of the Old Testament here, although no doubt he did understand the "Jewish Scriptures" to be another example of God's word in action. But the Jewish understanding of logos was much bigger than the Old Testament and of course the New Testament wasn't even a collection at the time yet.

2. Christ is that word made flesh

Christ came to earth as the embodiment of that word of God. It is possible from John 1 to distinguish the word and Jesus, but the rest of John leads in a different direction. John, in a way none of the rest of the NT does very explicitly at all, presents Jesus not only as pre-existing his coming to earth but as being conscious prior to his existence on earth. "Glorify me now with the glory we had before the world began," John 17:5 says. This implies a level of pre-existence we do not find explicitly anywhere else in the NT.

But the key is that God's presence and glory were on earth in the person of Jesus Christ. He walked around on earth like the wilderness tabernacle was the wandering presence of God on earth in the days of Moses. Most rejected him. But as many as received him received the power to become the children of God.

3. The Spirit continues the work of Christ in the world.

The Spirit authenticates the teaching of the disciples as the teaching of Christ (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit leads Jesus-followers into all truth, into the very word of God for the world (15:26; 16:13). He will convince the world of its sin, of what righteousness is, and of the coming judgment (16:8-11).

Next week, Colossians.

Adam cont.

... Later Christians would take these brief comments of Paul and develop them according to their own understandings of psychology and the world. Augustine in particular (354-430) developed Paul's thoughts into a highly developed system. For example, Augustine read Paul to teach the total depravity of humanity, the idea that human beings cannot do anything good at all in their own power. Paul never makes such an absolute statement, so if Augustine was right, it would be a God-inspired development of Christian understanding. The Western church would follow Augustine's lead, but the Eastern church to this day comes closer to Paul's understanding.

Paul told the Romans that all had sinned, by which he meant both Jew and Gentile, and he also seems to imply that every individual has sinned as well (e.g., Rom. 3:19). He also told the Romans that the world was under the power of Sin, a power that made it impossible for us mortals in our default condition not to sin (e.g., 7:19). But Augustine lifted statements like these out of a specific argument Paul was making with a specific audience and even then made them to say more than they actually said.

When Paul said that no good dwelt in his flesh (8:18), he also spoke of having a will to do good (8:19), which means he believed there could be good in your spirit. [1] He said that the power of Sin in us made us "utterly sinful" (7:13), but Paul was talking about how many sin acts the power of Sin causes in a person, not about whether any good is left in you at all. Even Paul's pastiche of quotes in Romans 3:10-18 is poetic, meant to paint a picture of the sinfulness of humanity. None of these verses from the Old Testament originally meant even that every person had sinned, let alone that no good at all existed in humanity.

In short, you will not find in Paul any statement to the effect that God has left no good in humanity at all. It was Augustine who took Paul's teaching just one step further, with Calvin and Wesley following. Perhaps they were inspired to read Paul this way. But the Eastern church is a little closer to Paul in its sense of the thoroughness of human sinfulness, stopping short of absolute statements about whether there might be any goodness in humanity at all.

[1] Paul's thinking here is thus quite different from Augustine, Calvin, and Wesley, who understood depravity precisely to mean that no one was able to want to do good in their own power...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

An Insightful Minority's History of the U.S.

I was in Barnes and Noble last week looking for a nice American history book that a fifth grader could follow, but I just didn't find one. As some readers of my earlier post on Columbus figured out, I ended up buying Zinn's People's History of the United States. I know his angle, so I'm reading him with a "hermeneutics of suspicion."

On the one hand, I agree that the powerful will almost always abuse the powerless unless there is some significant check and balance on them (which I suppose by definition implies that they are less powerful). "Absolute power corrupteth absolutely." The Aztec leaders were no more saints than Cortez was.

But it occurred to me that there have always been an insightful minority among the privileged class. Has anyone ever written a history of them? I know more about the Christian thread than the others, but it seems an intriguing proposition.

What of the priest who journaled the genocide of the Arawack on Hispaniola rather than Columbus? And I couldn't care less about Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans. Why not talk about colonial New England through the eyes of Roger Williams, who would seem more insightful than the lot of the Mathers and their dither.

And why not tell about the pre-Civil War era through the eyes of the Quakers, whose spiritual insight put blithering Presbyterians like Charles Hodge to shame. And what of those revivalists who supported women's suffrage and women in ministry in the late 1800s. What of those Christians who admitted African-Americans into college while many pastors wore the gown of the Klan after dark?

There have always been those among the privileged who have decried the abuse of power on the powerless. They used to call them prophets.

3.3 Adam's Family

Paul only explicitly discusses Adam for about 10 verses in Romans 5 and a verse or two in 1 Corinthians 15. So the significance Christians find in these verses is disproportionately large to the attention they actually get in Paul's own writings and the Bible as a whole. The reason is that in these few verses Paul points to Adam as the reason why Sin and death are in the world.

As far as death, 1 Corinthians 15:22 puts Paul's thinking succinctly: "as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive." Because of Adam, all human beings die. This astoundingly brief comment, and the more detailed explanation in Romans 5, have had immense influence on key Christian thinkers like Augustine and John Calvin--and through them on the majority of Christians today.

The way Adam introduced death into the world, Paul says, is through the fact that he introduced Sin into the world: "sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin" (Rom. 5:12). Paul's sense of how this happened is vague to us. In fact, it may very well have been vague to the Romans themselves (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16). But perhaps the best explanation is that Paul saw Sin as a power that came over the creation as a result of Adam's disobedient act in the Garden of Eden.

First, it is clear that Paul saw Adam's sinful act as the cause of the rest of humanity becoming sinners, since he says in Romans 5:19, "through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners." In some way that Paul never really explains, Adam introduced into the world something he calls the "law of sin and death" (8:2). The result is that I now find I have a "law at work in the members of my body" (7:23). The result has been that "death came to all men, because all sinned" (5:12).

But Paul indicates that this power has also somehow enslaved the rest of the physical realm as well, in addition to my "flesh," my physical body. Again, Paul is not clear at all on how it all works, but it would seem that God subjected the rest of the material world to corruption and decay at the same time that humanity came under the power of Sin (cf. Rom. 8:20). Similarly, Paul believed that the rest of the creation would be freed from decay at the same time that our physical bodies were transformed whether by resurrection or when Christ returns from heaven...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


I believe my life as a blogger will resume on Saturday. Until then, here's more starter material to help me get stuff going...

1. gospel in Mark/Jesus--good news of the kingdom's arrival, background in Isaiah 52.
2. gospel in Paul--the enthronement of Jesus as cosmic king, background in Roman world (Res gestae divi Augusti)
3. Gospel as genre--begins with Mark, becomes genre in early Christianity, although originally bioi and apologetic history
4. gospel is not "plan of salvation" (cf. Wright)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dark side of Christopher Columbus

This is from a priest on the island of Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic) about when he arrived in 1508:

"there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this..."

"My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write..."

And this from the primary biographer of Columbus: "The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide."

By 1650, there were no Arawaks remaining on the island, having been anywhere from 1-3 million there when Columbus arrived. Suffice it to say, I will not be celebrating Columbus Day for a while.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Writing a brief piece and thought jotting down some notes here would help me spit it out.

1. The place where God dwells. Isaiah 61.
2. The highest sky--no difference between sky and heaven in original languages. Flat earth generally with heaven straight up, sometimes three, sometimes more layers of sky. 3 skies in 2 Corinthians.
3. The place of God's true temple (Isaiah 6, Hebrews)
4. Place to which Christ was exalted
5. Place of intermediate state, perhaps. In some cases, possibly place of eternity
6. Will be restored/renewed, possibly removed

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sunday Scripture: Genesis 1

I'm toying with starting a new Sunday series. No promises, but the idea is that each Sunday for the next three years I would explore a different part of the Bible as Christian Scripture. I would follow some pattern of narrative, instruction, and expression that crossed with the themes of creation, redemption, and Christian living.

Not sure how it would all play out, but I think I know where it might begin. :-) Again, no promises I'll show up next week. Can't justify too much time each week, just some notes.
I jotted down three notes on reading Genesis 1 as Christian Scripture:

1. God was first.
2. God makes order out of chaos.
3. Christ is the agent of creation.

1. God was first.
Christians believe that before there was anything else, there was God. Since about the year AD200, we have firmly believed that God created the world out of nothing. There is nothing in the creation that is not under His control, no working of the creation that He does not understand. Indeed we believe He knows not only all the possibilities of the world but all the actualities before they happen.

2. God makes order out of chaos
The most likely grammatical and historical reading of Genesis 1:1-2, however, is not yet to this understanding in the flow of revelation. Like the world of its day, it sees God creating order out of primordial chaotic waters whose existence was a given. And though as Christians we believe we understand the nature of creation a little better in the light of later revelation, we see the truth of God's absolute ability to make order out of chaos at work. If He could do it out of "formless and void" chaos, He can certainly do it out of the chaos of our lives.

It is often said that Genesis 1 served as a kind of introduction to the Pentateuch, one that would have immediately evoked the creation stories of other peoples like the Babylonians. But there are no gods fighting each other here. There is no Tiamat the salt water sea monster goddess. There is only God, whose voice of authority is unopposed and instantaneous in effect.

A truly literal reading recognizes that in Genesis 1, God was speaking to a particular day and age in their categories. Of course! He wants to be understood. To speak in our categories would be absurd, not only because no audience would truly understand Him until the scientific revolution, but because our categories are not the absolute ones either.

3. Christ is the agent of creation.
The New Testament seems to stop just shy of saying that Christ gave the command for the worlds to come into existence, although there are a couple places, in John and Hebrews, where one might make a case. But the language of the NT is much more than God created the worlds through Christ, perhaps pointing to something a little more subtle.

Christ, who is the consummate embodiment of the word of God, is the one through whom God made the worlds. Christ is the embodiment of order out of chaos. That person of God that the world came to know as Jesus Christ is the one through whom God makes things that do not exist to exist. Christ is the great Redeemer, the one through whom the new creation also comes and who makes eternity possible for humanity.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Testimony from a student at Wesley

I posted this testimony from a student on the seminary blog (which now has everyone rather than just me contributing):

“I serve at a very small rural church south of Wichita, Kansas. My church’s budget has suffered greatly over the last two years, forcing us to cut my compensation and benefits to bare minimum levels. Despite these cuts, my wife and I felt led to increase our missions giving to lighten the blow on the missionaries we support. We sold our two cars to buy a single minivan to be used in our ministry at the church until it could afford to buy its own. That little van travelled 30,000 miles since we bought it in June of last year, taking us all over the country on vacations and trips to the seminary, including a jaunt up and – thankfully – down Pike’s Peak in Colorado. I share this to provide the context for what happened this week.

“On our trip to the August intensives, our wheels began making a sound as if something was caught in them. I didn’t notice anything when we stopped to refuel, so we continued on our journey resolving to get it looked at when we returned home. While at the seminary, I drove missionary Jim Eckhardt to a restaurant we were meeting at after the day’s class. He said the sound was a brake problem that really needed to be looked at before I did any more significant driving. Over dinner, Jim mentioned it to Joshua Bowlin, another missionary in our cohort who had joined us for dinner. Joshua offered to help me replace my brakes at his parents’ garage near the campus. I just needed to pick up the parts on the way over and he would change them for free.

“When Joshua removed my front wheel, he called me over to view the condition of my front passenger brake. It was not only worn, it was destroyed. Half of the rotor was completely missing, the rotor disk was broken off of its own center, the pads were worn to the screws, and the caliper was irreparably frozen. He told me that God must surely have protected my family all this way because it would be impossible for that brake to contribute anything to the vehicle. The severe damage turned a 30 minute project into a 3 hour project on a night in which there were assignments due and studying to be done.

“I can’t help but be thankful for the multi-faceted blessing from the Lord. I’m grateful for God truly providing ‘travelling mercies’ over so many miles and very perilous situations – especially driving on Pike’s Peak! I’m grateful for Joshua Bowlin freely offering his time and labor in the August heat without complaint during a week of intensive course work. And I’m grateful for the bigger picture here. Months ago, when my wife and I obeyed a nudge for sacrificial missions giving, we had no idea that God would use two missionaries to bring such a timely blessing.

“The story has one more twist. During the next week, I came into class and found a handwritten note in an envelope addressed to me with enough money to cover the cost of the brakes! It read:

‘God has touched the hearts of your cohort to share this gift with you. We hope it helps with the extra expenditures you’ve acquired this week. God Bless!’

“Let me just respond by saying ‘Praise God!’ for my cohort. Lifelong relationships continue to be developed and God’s blessing has no difficulty being shared.”

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I'm over the ESV

For some time now, I've been telling my classes that the ESV is possibly the best formal equivalence translation of the New Testament out there right now, but that I refused to buy one because I had it on Logos and didn't like the politics of why it was created. Today, after actually finally breaking down and committing to buying a copy, I suddenly found myself disavowing my confidence in its literality.

I've never claimed it was the most literal OT translation. It often confuses Christian readings with most likely readings, like when it goes with the OT manuscripts from 900AD over the Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint from 100BC: it can bring itself to go with the most likely translation of Deuteronomy 32:8--that the Most High divided up humankind according to the number of the gods, not the Sons of Israel. So I guess I'm sticking with the NRSV as the best formal translation of the OT, although it can also be dynamic at times.

But yesterday we came across this ESV translation of Romans 11:25-26, "a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved." A good formal equivalence translation would read something like, "And so all Israel will be saved." It seems to me that the ESV goes beyond a literal reading and inserts a replacement theology--the fullness of the Gentiles coming in = all Israel being saved.

Throughout the passage I found many points where the ESV was less than helpful in doing detailed observations on this passage. So I'm done with the ESV before I began. I'm back to the drawing board with no favorite formal equivalence translation of the New Testament. Maybe I'll end up with the NASB again.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Inspiration, Authority, Inerrancy, Infallibility...

Today in class we were trying to bring clarity to some of the words that Wesleyan Church Wesleyans use in relation to the Bible. These are words like inspiration, authority, inerrancy, and so forth. The clarity comes, I think, when we are careful about the type of literature we are talking about.

So what authority does a biblical narrative have over us--it's telling a story, not commanding us to do something? Or what does it mean to say that the psalmist is inspired when he exclaims, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Or what does it mean to say that the command to love our neighbor is inerrant? Sure, we can come up with answers to such questions, but they do not fit naturally with the genre in question. It's like asking someone if they believe you can hammer a nail with a pipe wrench. I suppose you would answer, "Yes?" but the question seems a little confused.

So here was my attempt today to line up terms with genre categories:

Infallible is an overarching category that is best defined to say that Scripture never fails to accomplish God's intended purposes, which are various (rather than the strange definition used in the 20th century that used the word to limit the "inerrancy" of the biblical texts).

Some of those purposes include:

1. truth telling passages match with the word inerrant (with caveats about metaphorical language, language of limited scope, and the place of the text in question in the flow of revelation).

2. commands match with the word authority (with caveats about differences between their time and our time, hyperbole, the scope of the command, and the place of the command in the flow of revelation)

3. promises match with the word trustworthy (with caveats about God's freedom to cancel promises on the basis of human repentance or hardheartedness). Proverbs are not promises but statements of general truth which sometimes have exceptions.

4. narratives played various roles in the history of the Bible's composition. Their primary purpose was to express theological truths about God and Israel or about Jesus and his followers. When read as Scripture, they are expressions of our Christian identity and provide the stories of our family.

It makes sense to speak of all of the above purposes as inspired, as God-breathed truths, commands, promises, and narratives, remembering their intended scope and level of literality, and their place in the flow of revelation.

5. Some texts, further, are human expressions, such as psalms of thanksgiving or prayers for God to destroy Israel's enemies, for babies to be bashed against rocks and for troubling individuals to emasculate themselves. Again, although we could no doubt think up a way to use the word "inspired" in relation to them, they seem rather to tell us that it is okay to get angry at God or be puzzled at what He is up to.

Anyway, this is what we came up with today. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Even John Meier can illustrate...

... how hard it is to get into the world of the text, rather than bring the text into your world.

Since I've read Charles Taylor, I have been using this lens to try to help students see the difference between inductive Bible study and theological interpretation as I define it. I consider both approaches valid, with theological interpretation as the default Christian approach (I won't take the time to clarify). The problem I see with evangelical hermeneutics is that it can't tell the difference between the two. It pretends to do the former to get the latter, when in fact the two are logically distinct and both legitimate.

Inductive Bible study aims to read the biblical texts on their own terms in their own categories. Theological interpretation brings the text into the Christian world of the interpreter. IBS is exegetical. Theological interpretation has an element of eisegesis that is not only appropriate but is necessary for biblical theology even to exist. Theological interpretation is the ground floor of the Bible as the living word of God. Inductive Bible study is the basement of the original, ancient meaning.

The distinction I am getting at is very hard to convey by telling, as I continually try. It is much easier to show by example. When talking about outlining biblical texts today, another example popped up, and this by the brilliant and renowned John Meier.

Meier and others see a chiasm in Hebrews 1:5-14. (It has occurred to me that the tendency to see chiasms is in certain individuals a tell tale symptom of "bringing the text into my world" rather than "getting into the text's world.") A chiasm is an A-B-B-A pattern and I have heard astounding papers that see ingenious ABCDEFGGFEDCBA patterns in a text. Such papers reflect the ingenious active mind of the interpreter--and the interpreter's complete inability to listen to the text on its own terms.

Back to Meier. His chiasm sees something like the following (I'm doing it from memory, so I'm sure I'm messing it up a little, but you'll get the picture)

1:5 exaltation (A)
1:6 pre-existence (B)
1:8 eternal God (C)
1:10 pre-existence (B)
1:13 exaltation (A)

This seems to me a wonderful example of an eisegetical outline. It brings the text into Meier's theological world and connects the words of the text with ideas in Meier's head.

But an outline that is inductively driven looks for literary clues in the text to discern the structure of argument rather than imposing ideological labels on the text. Topical outlines of biblical books are thus always impositions of meaning on the text.

Here is an outline that is based on the text itself and its categories:

1:5a To which did God say... (inclusio with 1:13)
1:5b And...
1:6 And...

1:7 On the one hand (contrasts with)
1:8-12 On the other (quote one and quote two)

1:13 To which did God say (end of inclusio)

Outlines that follow the ideas a reader sees in the text are always eisegetical rather than truly inductive. And I tell my students that once they truly understand what I am saying, they can easily be a better scholar at some points than some of the most recognized scholars out there.

Switch to reading Dunn

Well, with my summer reading projects done, I'm on to reading what I want to read for myself, just a little every day.

Back to James Dunn's, Jesus Remembered.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Bible versus Scripture: What does it mean?

Extraordinarily busy this week and realizing I am not young any more.

I've been teaching "The Bible as Christian Scripture" this week (and will again next week) as the core Bible course in our seminary's MDIV program. You can see a picture of the class.
One of the questions we've been tossing around all week is what the difference is between simply reading the Bible and reading the Bible as Scripture, Christian Scripture no less.
I think for the earlier evangelicals, the answer was fairly straightforward. Perhaps most important, one difference is in the authority you assign to the Bible. When you read the Bible as Scripture, it has authority over you in a way it does not when you are just reading it like you would read Shakespeare. This distinction still works, although speech-act theory and the postmodern critique have sharpened this dimension.
For example, the nature of biblical literature is such that only a small minority of it is in the mode of the imperative. Narrative is the single largest genre. Even the New Testament letters are far more in the form of statements than commands. Rhetoric of the Scripture's authority thus only relates neatly to a small portion of Scripture.
Further, evangelicals fully recognize the distinction between "that time" and "our time," meaning that we do not assume even that the imperatives of Scripture will always apply directly to us today. Older evangelicals usually spoke of principles behind the original imperatives that we then apply in our contexts. In short, authority does not seem the primary category of reading the Bible as Christian Scripture, at least at first glance.
Arguably somewhat of a diversion in twentieth century fundamentalism was to see a particularly narrow understanding of "truthfulness" as the key category of reading the Bible as Christian Scripture--inerrancy debates and such. If narratives dominate the biblical material, then to read it as Scripture meant to take the narratives as minutely historical. The problems here are the vast anachronism of the criteria and the just bad scholarship that often ensued. I am immensely thankful to Asbury Seminary for teaching me the skills of inductive Bible study that create a discipline of listening to the text rather than foisting pre-conceived ideological boundaries on it--a discipline I am now trying to pass on at Wesley Seminary @IWU. Nowhere is the artificiality of much fundamentalist and some evangelical eisegesis more apparent than when applying the skills of inductive Bible study to the biblical text!
At the same time, the postmodern critique has drawn our attention to the fact that the "God-breathed" instruction of Scripture may not always be the "literal sense" of the Bible (I use Paul's use of the ox-muzzling passage in Deuteronomy as an example). We are pushed to the really pressing question, the one twentieth century evangelicalism largely could not see. What meaning of the biblical text is the Scriptural one, the one that is truthful and I must believe, the one that gives me the imperative I must follow, the promise I must anticipate?
Evangelicalism simply adopted the historical method of those who do not read the Bible as Scripture and assumed this was the meaning. Scripture itself does not model this approach when the NT considers the OT to be Scripture. Writers like Richard Longenecker and Fee/Stuart consider the interpretive methods of the NT writers part of the cultural milieu of their day that we cannot adopt. I think this is a major blind spot of twentieth century evangelicalism, one that holiness and Pentecostal traditions have ironically intuited correctly.
The criterion of truthfulness is thus valid, but not primarily in the way twentieth century evangelicalism assumed. And now we also recognize that there are other functions to Scripture other than just to communicate propositions. When we read the Bible as Christian Scripture, for example, the narratives become our identity-forming stories. Truth-communicating speech-acts are not the dominant speech-acts of the text.
I didn't intend to go this long. Here are thus three very important ways in which the text of the Bible becomes Christian Scripture, in my opinion:
1. It becomes our text, not just the text of ancient peoples and audiences. I become part of the same people of God that they were and so their stories become the stories of my progenitors. Their struggles become the struggles of my people. Their issues, my family's issues.
2. I prioritize and organize the biblical texts in a certain way that is not intrinsic to them. Thus we see the limits of inductive Bible study. Inductive Bible study will not tell me that the virgin birth is an essential doctrine. It gets virtually no attention in the biblical texts themselves. No, this is a Christian priority when reading the text and one that does not come from the Bible alone. It is a Christian emphasis and organization of the text's materials that comes from the Spirit in the church catholic throughout the ages. It does not come from the text alone.
The same is of course true of the New Testament as a lens through which I read the Old. And of course many a denominational reading comes into play here as different groups sift through and prioritize the biblical texts. It has to be done. The texts themselves do not do it clearly on their own terms. Luther's "Scripture interprets itself" was vastly unreflective of the organizing principles he brought to the text from inherited Christian traditions, and the fragmentation of Protestantism demonstrates the myriad possible ways the text can be used to interpret the text.
3. Words can take on new meanings. The postmodern critique has shown how this happens and the New Testament use of the Old legitimizes it. Inductive Bible study of Isaiah will not lead me to see Isaiah 7:14 in reference to the virgin birth. But this is a valid Christian reading of the verse that gives it a new meaning.
These are just a few of my thoughts on the difference between simply reading the biblical text and reading it as Christian Scripture.