Category Archives: Bible Thoughts

Manna and Christ

As I mentioned on Monday, I’ve been playing with the imagery of Manna for a bit. Manna–that bread from heaven, given to sustain the people in the wilderness, but only as it was received afresh every day.

Such provision can create problems.

It can create the problem of hoarding–attempting to seize the abundance of the kingdom of God for ourselves because we think that God’s kingdom operates on the same economy of scarcity as our own.

Maggots took care of that problem (Exodus 16:21).

Lambert Lombard, Feeding the Five ThousandAnother problem is that it can become an idol. We create idols when we look to the thing itself rather than to God the giver as the source of life. When we fashion dead idols, the living God is set to the margins and we are poised to reject the new thing that God might do to bring us into God’s life.

This was the problem Jesus encountered.

He could feed people in the wilderness, he could reenact the divine display of abundance in a deserted place. But the problem was that people thought the bread was, itself, the point.

Not so!

The great provision in the wilderness, the great feeding of the people on heavenly bread to sustain them after they had been redeemed, was a bread from heaven that found its counterpart in Jesus who is the Bread of Life.

When we are sure we have our hands around what it looks like for God to act, we are immediately in danger of rejecting the acts of the God who lives and is therefore free to surprise us.

When we are sure of what divine provision looks like, we are in greatest danger of rejecting the provision that is made for us in the crucified and risen Christ.

Before breaking the news that bread in the wilderness was only a shadow of the life he had to offer, Jesus warned his interlocutors:

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have life–yet it is these that testify about me!

When I say that manna, as a picture of divine provision, should stir us up in faith for today rather than creating a disposition to live on yesterday’s grace, I mean this to point us always to Christ.

We, too, have our scripture that we think gives us life–and too often we use it without reference to the life-giving Christ to whom it refers.

Scripture, that great divine provision, can become an idol.

We, too, have faithful articulations of the truth from our rich tradition–and too often we use these as indicators of faith without reference to the life-giving Christ whose fellowship they promise.

Doctrine, that great divine provision, can become an idol.

If the resurrection means anything, it means that the resurrected Christ stands ready to provide for us afresh today–and warns us that holding too tightly to our expectations and knowledge of how God works are likely to make us the last to see when God is, yet again, at work in our world.

Lost Again?

It’s been a year since we parted
Lost
For months, you were lost
I should have looked
But I did not know
I should have asked
You were silent
I misunderstood
I thought you were busy
I thought you were settling
I thought you’d call
But then I asked
And then I found
You were lost
Yes, you were lost

You should not be lost anymore
But it has been a year since we parted
I have missed you
I miss your words
I miss your insight
I miss your potential to change the world
I hope you are thriving
I hope you are bringing life to those you meet
I hope you are not withering under the cruelties of blistering criticism
I hope you are a small beam of light in the darkness you encounter
I hope, most of all, to see you soon.

jrdk, “Ode to the Article I Sent Off For Peer Review”

What, Exactly, Did God Breathe?

My post on Adam and Christ generated the range of predictable responses, from, “Thank God someone is saying what I’ve thought for a long time,” to “How on earth can anyone believe what Paul says about the resurrection of Jesus if he flubbed so badly on the existence of Adam?!”

To the latter question I address this post.

More the point, I address this post to the question of why I acknowledge the errors in the Bible, the ways that ancient cultures influenced the biblical writers to say things that we cannot agree with, and the like.

No, I’ve not quite said it right yet–I want to address how the Bible, precisely as the word of God can be so varied in its witness, and so reflective of both the strengths and shortcomings of its writers.

My confidence in scripture as the word of God, comes from the great source of “there can’t be any errors” itself–2 Tim 3.

The part of 2 Tim 3 that everyone likes to quote and that becomes the bedrock of their doctrines of scripture is, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction…”

Scripture is God-breathed. Yes!

But wait! There’s more!

Or, perhaps better put–wait, you forgot a part!

The verse before this presents a significant qualification: “From childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

Did you see it?

Scripture isn’t just “good.” Full stop. It is good for a particular purpose. That purpose is Christological. Scripture is not rightly read as scripture when it is given its historical, scientific, or critical meaning. It is not rightly read as scripture until it is read as a witness to, or cultivating a wisdom that inclines us toward, the crucified and risen Christ.

In Romans, Paul says similar things: the righteousness of God (in the crucified and risen Christ) is borne witness to by the Law and the Prophets; Christ is the end/goal of the Law.

Paul is faithful in what he says about Adam, not because he rightly identifies Adam as the biological precursor of all subsequent humanity, but because he sees in Adam a way to understand how the crucified and risen Christ is the beginning of God’s plan for a new humanity at the acme of new creation.

What did God breathe? Words of wisdom. Words of wisdom that lead to salvation. Words of wisdom that lead to salvation through faith in Christ.

If we read and find only words of science or dogma or ethics or history, the Bible has not yet become for us the living and active and inspired word of God.

New One-Year Theology and Ethics Program at Aberdeen

From Dr. Mike Mawson:

We are pleased to announce a new one-year Master’s in Theological Ethics degree at the University of Aberdeen. Aberdeen’s department of Divinity is currently one of the top-ranked theology programs in the UK, and recent appointments in the areas of Systematic Theology and Theological Ethics have further strengthened the department. The Theological Ethics area emphasizes fundamental texts and thinkers in the Christian tradition for engaging contemporary issues and debates. For more information: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/divinity/pgrad/MThTheologicalEthics.shtml

If you have questions or are interested in applying to the MTh program feel free to contact Professor Bernd Wannenwetsch, Dr Brian Brock or Dr Michael Mawson. We will be happy to meet with prospective students at the American Academy of Religion meeting (in Chicago in November 2012) or the Society of Christian Ethics meeting (in Chicago in January 2013).

In addition, we would be happy to discuss funding options for prospective Master’s and doctoral students. Among other things, there will be doctoral funding in the two following two interdisciplinary collaborations: ‘Normativity – Nature, Narrative and Nihilism’ and ‘Transitional Justice, Peace and Reconciliation.’ We would be interested in supporting Welcome Trust applications for students hoping to work in the area of bioethics. Finally, we are willing to support external funding applications for especially strong proposals. For additional information on funding: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/divinity/pgrad/awards.shtml

The University of Aberdeen is a charity registered in Scotland, No SC013683.

Sex and Hierarchy

I led a seminar on sexuality for a church a couple weeks ago. I’ve also been reading a bit about sexual ethics and polemics in the ancient world. So, yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about sex lately, but strictly for professional purposes.

Here’s something I’m seeing that probably makes sense to folks: the ways we think and talk about sex are tied up with larger ways of thinking and talking about the world.

(Way to go, Mr. Profundity! I can tell this blog post is going to change my life…)

In evangelical circles we have created an elaborate system of morality that only concerns our souls, so when we think about sex we create paradigms in which sexual purity means keeping your heart pure by only having sex with the person of the opposite gender to whom you’re married.

When this gnostic-like separation of body and soul gets carried a bit further, we hear folks saying things like, “God doesn’t care what you do behind the closed door of your bedroom.”

But for most of history, the connection between whom one had sex with and how one had sex with them was much more integrated.

Sex was understood to be a focused expression of what was true in the broader world. Acting in accordance with society’s sexual mores was an expression of wisdom, manliness, and self-control. Acting out of step with them was an expression of folly, womanliness, and enslavement to the passions.

Uh oh. Did I say “manly” versus “womanly”? Well… yes…

You see, part of the story is that hierarchies were developed that were alleged to reflect the order of nature, the order of the cosmos.

Strength, virtue, wisdom, and manliness all coalesce in the elite male. He is naturally more gifted to lead, and thus occupies a higher place on the social ladder, than his wife or the peasants or his slaves.

What does this have to do with sex?

Well, there are manly ways of having sex and not-so-manly ways. Sex is an expression of power and social hierarchy. To play the man’s role in a sex act was to express that power, strength, and dominion that is naturally the man’s. To play the woman’s part in the sex act was to express that weakness, “softness,” etc. was appropriate to a woman.

There are lots of implications for this. But the bottom line point is this: sex was seen as an expression of the inherent hierarchy in the world.

This is not just an ancient idea.

It is alleged that there are (or have been) laws on the books of some states restricting sex to the so-called “missionary position.” Why would such a law exist? Because of the idea that copulation is supposed to be an enactment of the structure of society in which men rule over women, generally, and husbands rule over their wives.

The notion that sexual is an expression of authority and strength, or lack thereof, is ancient as well as recent. It is pervasive and, in the ancient world, assumed.

So what’s my point?

Today my point is this: that when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but her husband does,” he was saying something that fit perfectly into his first century context. Men rule women. A husband has sexual authority over his body and over the bodies of those under him.

But when Paul says, “The husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does,” he has said something fraught with revolutionary potential.

What kind of world is it where a woman has authority over her husband’s body in the bedroom? Not a world, surely, where God simply doesn’t care and where sex doesn’t matter?

Perhaps, instead, it is the dawning of a new world. A world where authority is not aligned with gender. A world where “inherent” and “obvious” systems of strength and power are upended by the cross of Christ?

I do not think that Paul fully works out an egalitarian vision of men’s relationships with women. But assumptions of power and structure and authority and hierarchy are being undone. And you should be able to see it in the bedroom.

Post script: If anyone who knows the ancient literature better than I do knows of parallels about women exercising authority over husbands’ bodies, I’d be interested to hear of it. I know that there are instances of Jewish women exercising sexual authority and control–but it’s usually to keep some dirty Gentile from laying his hands on her!

Authority Redux

[beginning of throat clearing] The bad thing about leaving no thought unpublished is that sometimes you get one out there that’s just flat or half-baked. The nice thing about thinking out loud in public, however, is that people can show you where you’re being half-baked or ill-reasoned.

Or, sometimes, you have thoughts that are going in the right direction, but you haven’t quite found the right way of laying out what’s going on. The conversation helps there, too.

It’s been that kind of week at Storied Theology. I’ll return to the creed versus narrative thing a bit later, I’m sure. [end of throat clearing]

But for today I want to revisit yesterday’s discussion of authority.

First of all, there’s one thing I said that I meant, and that continues to grow in significance to me as I think about authority in the church:

Because Jesus is risen from the dead, we can relax about authority.

Jesus has all authority, and while he may or may not choose to delegate that to certain persons at certain times or places, denying that any particular earthly manifestation of that authority is not an authority to which we should bow is not going to cause the Christian faith to come unglued.

Second, folks yesterday made an apt appeal to other first-generation Christians, including Paul. Well done.

Here’s the place where I find Paul compelling as a figure with authority: he returned, repeatedly, to a couple of dynamic indications that he was imbued with authority to speak for God:

  1. The experience of the Spirit in the people to whom he preached.
  2. His own embodiment of the suffering of Christ in the course of his ministry.
  3. The experience of the cross in the people to whom he preached.

Authority is important.

And, all authority in heaven and earth belongs to the Resurrected Crucified.

And, the Resurrected Crucified can give his authority to whomever he will.

Or not, as he will.

The problem with enshrining authority in a person or an institution is that it is virtually impossible to institutionalize cruciformity. The legitimation of a Christian’s authority coming from Christ is found in the renarration of the Christ story in the life of the person or community.

In the Gospels we do read of the disciples being charged to continue and extend the ministry of Jesus. Mark envisions that the Jesus community will replace the Temple as the house of prayer and place in which forgiveness is realized on earth. This is a manifestation of the presence and authority of Christ.

Similarly, Matthew’s locating of the authority of keys in (I’d say) the community is inseparable from the promises of Jesus to be present where two or more or gathered, to be “with you, always, until the end of the age.”

But that “with you,” itself, is not something that we can formalize or institutionalize. None of us wants to affirm that everything done in Christ’s name has had the Resurrected One’s authoritative approval.

There is safety and comfort to be found in giving authority to a fixed entity on earth: an office, a confession, a church.

But I question whether this is the safety and comfort that we’ve been promised: the safety of the firm hand of Christ holding us, the comfort of the presence of the Spirit who will, itself, lead us into all truth, comfort us in Jesus’ absence, work in us the work of the cross.

Authority, Easter, Church

I don’t worry about authority in the church so much.

I know that this is a big deal to a lot of people. I know folks who have converted to Roman Catholicism from various Protestant traditions largely because the unseemly mess of Protestant opinion seems to spring directly from the lack of authority.

How will we know what it is to speak for God if we do not have an authority on earth to make that known? Should we not look to those who have gathered and said, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us?” Should we not look to the vice-regent that Jesus has installed on Rome, his holy hill?

Protestantism is, surely, a mess.

And evangelical Protestantism is a magnification of this messiness, manifested in the proliferation of churches and denominations and non-denominations.

Or, if it’s not a mess, it’ll do till the mess gets here.

Without centralized authority, it seems that we are reliving the ignoble era of the judges: there was no king, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

But I don’t think that the answer is the establishment of an authority here on earth. I don’t worry about the lack of an earthly authority for one reason: Jesus was raised from the dead.

If there is one confession that truly unites all Christians in all times and places it is this: “Jesus is Lord.”

Or, as Jesus indicates in Matthew 28, something changed with the resurrection. The authority that Jesus had begun to exercise while on earth has now been fully given to him:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

There it is.

The authority is Christ’s, and we shouldn’t attempt to take it for ourselves. Nor should we seek to give it to another person on earth.

I know, I know. Practically, this doesn’t help. We are, in fact, called to speak “authoritatively,” to speak for Christ, to exercise an ambassadorial function of those sent from the King to the distant kingdom in order to make our sovereign’s wishes known.

But that task is always one fraught with uncertainty. Locating Jesus’ voice in a person or a council only focuses the inevitable mistakes in the work a few rather than diffusing the mistakes more broadly.

And I suppose, that’s the point. By giving control to a group or a person we can eliminate diversity, but we cannot ensure even then that what we are doing is right.

We cannot turn our groping along toward the light into a full-fledged walking in the day simply by taking hold of the shoulders of the person who is groping along ahead of us.

Leadership is still important, but it will have to be much different leadership than the authority of a Tradition or Council if it is to function well in the story of the crucified and risen Christ.

If Jesus is risen from the dead, then “Jesus is Lord” must, in the end, be enough for us.

From Faith to Faith

What makes us Christians? What defines us as a people?

“I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only begotten son, our Lord…”

That’s one way of doing it. We are articulate what we believe. In an upward gesture, we define ourselves by a common set of postures toward God, Jesus, and Spirit.

What makes us who we are, what saves us, is our faith.

But, as I’ve argued here before, we need to be careful how we identify ourselves. We need to exercise care because how we define who we are will determine what we think faithful action looks like.

Ethics and identity are inseparable.

I’ve been arguing for some time that we need to reconstrue our identity and our ethics in narrative terms. We need to loosen our grip on statements of faith, and move toward more fully living into the story of the narrative of the faithful Christ.

It strikes me that what I’m arguing for is a wholesale transformation of our way of understanding Christian faith that corresponds to a shift in the way many Paul scholars are reading the phrase, “the faith of Christ” (πίστις χριστοῦ).

This phrase can be read one of two ways.

  1. Christ can be seen as the object of faith (thus the phrase “objective genitive” as the Greek construction). This would mean, “[our] faith in Christ.”
  2. Christ can be seen as the subject of faith (thus the phrase “subjective genitive” as the Greek construction). This would mean, “Christ’s faithfulness.”

At bottom, what is Paul after? By what are we justified in the sight of God? Is it our faith in Jesus? Or is it Jesus’ faithfulness in going to death on the cross?

The idea that we’re justified by our own faith in Christ is part of a larger way of construing Christian identity in terms of believing the right things about God.

When Richard Hays renewed the argument for the subjective genitive (“Christ’s faithfulness”) reading of Paul, the subtitle of his work was this: “The narrative substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11.”

The point is not simply that we translate a phrase in one particular way. The larger point is that this translation reflects a deeper structure in Pauline theology.

Paul is a narrative theologian. He tells the saving story of Jesus. And he invites his congregations into it.

It might be that Hays was onto something even larger than his own initial project caught sight of (or, at least, articulated): by decentering our faithful response, the faithfulness of God in Christ can return to center stage. We can being to creatively reimagine what it means to be the faithful people of God, not as those who believe a certain list in a shared statement of belief, but those who are active participants in the saving story of the crucified Christ.

Not only might we make room for a storied theology, we might make room for a storied identity that gives rise to a faithful, storied ethic.