Community Is Crucial

A few weeks ago I posted about friendship, claiming that “who you are when nobody’s looking” isn’t necessarily the truest testimony to who you are.

I want to riff on that a bit today, in conversation with my Open Letter to New Testament Intro Students. In short, community is crucial for keeping hold of your faith when your faith is challenged.

The context within which a dearly held conviction is challenged, and the way that faith is depicted in relationship to that challenge, can make all the difference in whether that challenge leads to a lost faith or a reconfigured and strengthened faith.

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In response to my open letter, several commenters voiced their concern that critical reconfiguration of what the Bible is and what it says do not happen more in the church. And I think there is something tremendously important about this call. Yes, we have to handle the issues carefully and not unduly disturb the faithful.

But here’s the problem with pretending that the Bible is something it is not: if the context of faith depicts the Bible, or science, or belief in one way, and then a student enters a non-faith environment and discovers that the Bible or science or belief are entirely different it creates an apparently clear choice. Either stay with the faith and reject the learning or hold fast to the learning and reject the faith.

The reason why NT Intro destroys people’s faith in college is because the community of faith has not been forthright about what the Bible actually is, and so the student is confronted with a choice between belief or knowledge.

In general, communities help create and perpetuate systems of plausibility. This can be a bad thing or a good thing, depending on the truth and benefits of how the group is perceiving and articulating reality.

If Christianity is true, then the calling of the church is to articulate, and demonstrate, a coming reality that is often not visible to human eyes: Jesus is the enthroned and coming Lord. We need community to keep making that reality real, to help us be renewed by the transforming of our minds, by the conversion of our imaginations.

This means that when we’re struggling, we need the community. If we leave it, we are placing ourselves on an interpretive grid where this true reality is not accounted for in the interpretation of the world. And its unbelievability can quickly become unplausibility, and the faith withers.

It is precisely because context is crucial for wrestling with faith-challenging issues that I think it is a seminary professor’s duty to deal with all the difficult issues in class. The fact that Christians, in a Christian setting, while confessing Christ as Lord, can acknowledge these things is, itself, tonic against the notion that certain realities about the Bible or history tear apart the very fabric of Christian faith.

In the film Gods and Generals, Stonewall Jackson utters this provocative line to a dying man who confesses to unbelief: “Well then, I will believe for the both of us.”

When we’re struggling, we need people to believe for us. We need people to carry our belief when it cannot carry itself. We need ourselves to be infused with the gift of faith that comes from the participation in the body of Christ. And we need to know that our struggles can be Christian struggles, modes of living and doubting that honor the Christ whose faith saves us.

Does God Really Say?

Some of the most basic ideas are also the most difficult.

Early on, many of us learned that when we hear the words of scripture we are hearing more than the words of people. We are hearing the word of God. Christianity depends on the idea that the God who created the world is also the God who has spoken.

Recently, I was watching a Twitter war of sorts, where Christians on either side of a contentious issue were posting their opinions and their dissatisfaction with the Christians who disagreed with them. At one point, someone wrote, “How can you know what God thinks?!”

I’m not saying that knowing the mind of God is a simple matter, or that scripture requires neither Spirit nor hermeneutic. In fact, it requires both, and is thus no simple matter.

But the “that” is one of the absolute prerequisites for Christian faith. If God has not spoken–if God cannot speak!–then our faith is nothing more than people grasping after transcendence, a chronicle of pitiable human effort.

Do I want my children to grow up in my faith? Yes. Because I believe that something is uniquely true in this Christian sphere. I believe that we have to do, in the Christian story, with revelation–not the revelation of human action, but the revelation of God, and of the God who has acted in the world, and the God who has acted in the world to reconcile the world to himself in the cross of Christ.

Without revelation, the history is no sacred history, and the cross is no saving act of grace.

Does God really speak? If the answer is no, then the gig is up.

Scripture Is What Church Isn’t

I need to come back to Barth §20, to explore a bit more how he works out the relationship of authority in the church to scripture, creed, and church in general.

This authentic copy of revelation and this authentic model of obedience to it is therefore the content of the witness of the prophets and apostles in Holy Scripture. It is therefore true that Holy Scripture is the Word of God for the Church, that it is Jesus Christ for us, as He Himself was for the prophets and apostles during the forty days. (544)

This manner of standing in for Jesus Barth is not willing to share with any.

He acknowledges that as early as Irenaeus there is an appeal to a tradition outside the written text, a supplement to what scripture does not tell us completely–and this tradition is a coequal authority by the fourth and fifth centuries. But there is evidence on the other side as well–and Barth insists that fidelity to Christ who has spoken through the prophets and apostles entails siding with this latter evidence in favor of scriptural primacy.

Barth’s theology of inscripturation is that those who were witnesses to the Word who is the revelation of God mediated the word which is the witness of that revelation. That witness is in the church as scripture, and thus holds primacy of place as the mediator of the Christ to whom it witnesses. Since Christ has ascended, we might summarize, there is no more direct revelation and therefore the church cannot claim for itself the same authoritative role as scripture holds for itself (552-53).

Digging back into Irenaeus, Barth maintains that setting up tradition alongside scripture as an authority would lead inevitably to the Catholic position of setting up the church itself as a third pillar (564-5). Those who know my strong reservations about the Rule of Faith as a controlling authority can imagine my delight at finding such an ally.

But this does not lead Barth either away from the church or to a reckless abandonment to the church’s witness to biblical revelation!

With both canon itself and the church’s Creeds, Barth asks us to take seriously that we would not have a canon to fight over, and wouldn’t have a faith to hear, were it not for the church speaking to us, fulfilling its commission to speak the word of God.

What is tremendous about how Barth holds things together in §20 is this: he demands respect for the church’s decisions, that we humbly acknowledge that without these we would not have heard the word, and at the same time will not allow them to attain to the same permanence that scripture as the word of God has as the continuing voice of God upon the earth.

The canon can, at least in theory, be changed. We receive it as an on-going act of faith in response to the voice of God we hear in it. And we do not abandon it based on our own, or our group’s own, dissatisfaction with one part.

The creeds can, at least in theory, be challenged. They never stand as the norm by which scripture is judged, or even, ultimately, the norm by which our faith is judged. They stand as summary interpretations of scripture and therefore always under scripture and subject to critique by what is heard from the Bible.

A couple of weeks ago someone asked me if I objected to the creeds being recited in worship. I have a concern about it, to be sure–that we will wrongly think of ourselves as the people who fall within the creed rather than thinking of ourselves as the people who fall within the story of Christ. And these are different!

And yet, these statements have been spoken with the voice of the church throughout the ages as a testimony to our solidarity as one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. They remind us that our God’s story wraps up the story of Jesus. They remind us that the hope of humanity is the resurrection of the dead.

So while I do not want them as rules of our faith, I find them valuable as testimonies to what the church needed to say then and there–and, if appropriately historicized, guides to how we might think about what it means to say what we must say here and now.

Barth manages to demand that scripture be what the church should never be: our canon. And he does so without retreating into historically problematic ideas about the relationship between scripture and canon that sometimes plagues Protestant attempts to delineate their relationship to the church.

King Jesus Gospel

Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel is the most recent in a stream of books designed to get evangelicals to recognize that the Christian faith is an inherently active affair. It is not merely a personal message of salvation to be believed in my heart, it is about a grand story that we must continue to tell, and live out, if we are to be the faithful people of God.

I have much affinity with Scot’s overall project. Like my own work in Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?, The King Jesus Gospel is concerned to articulate a gospel that both Jesus and Paul proclaimed, to articulate this gospel as deeply enmeshed in the story of Israel, and to insist that the gospel is not merely about personal salvation but about a more pervasive, cosmic transformation.

More than this, Scot is working with a similar paradigm to the one I’ve been developing here and elsewhere over the past several years: there is an inherent connection between the gospel message, what defines us as Christians, our identity, and our ethics.

The sharp end of his argument is this: the way that we have “shared the gospel” has been so much about personal salvation that it fails to carry with it an inherent call to a particular way of living. And, when the message of salvation is so truncated, it begins to close its claim to bear the label “gospel” at all: it is “soterian” (about salvation) without being entirely “evangelical” (about the gospel).

McKnight spends the first couple chapters laying out the need to move from a “salvation culture” to a “gospel culture.”

The book then turns to develop an articulation of what the gospel is. It moves from Paul’s summary statement in 1 Cor 15 through the Creeds before returning to Jesus in the Gospels and Acts.

The focus of these chapters is this: the death and resurrection of Jesus are the consummation of the story of Israel.

One the most important contributions of this, the meat of the book, is that Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated himself to be the king of the kingdom, the special agent in whom the story of Israel is coming to its consummation. Far too much credence has been given to the notion that Jesus proclaimed God rather than himself. Jesus places himself right in the middle of God’s plans for the cosmos.

Here are a few places I’d want to push back on the book and maybe generate a bit more conversation:

  • Is the Creed really a faithful summary of the Paul’s 1 Cor 15 gospel? The most important reason I say no is that it removes all of the important interpretive glosses that enable us to say that why the death and resurrection are “gospel”: “according to the scriptures” and “for our sins.” McKnight is insisting that the gospel is the consummation of the story of Israel–yes! But if there is one area where the creed is deficient it is precisely here. There is no “according to the scriptures,” there is no OT, there is no Israel. The creator God has a son whom he sent.
  • Is the creed a faithful summary of Paul’s gospel? No, for reason number two: Paul’s declaration is that Jesus is “the” Lord, the Creed says “our” Lord. In other words, the Creed is the beginning of the soterian gospel that McKnight has written the book to counter. There are other reasons why the Creed is quite different from 1 Cor 15 as well, but hey–this is my hobby horse. You know that I am wary of the creeds as lenses for reading scripture, or as the most accurate summaries of the Story.
  • I’m concerned that using 1 Cor 15 has curtailed the power of the Gospels to contribute to McKnight’s argument. I agree that there is much to the idea that the gospels are passion narratives with lengthy introductions. However, there is a Mark 1-8 in addition to a Mark 8-16. I think that it is precisely in figuring out how Mark 1-8 are gospel, not in hurrying to the crucifixion, that the “gospel culture” McKnight hopes to propagate is going to be established. It might be that our evangelical obsession with the cross is, itself, a significant part of the paradigm that needs to be broken up. I thought that Embracing Grace pushed some of these issues a bit better.

The book is replete with powerful, important statements such as these:

“The question is not about whether Jesus preached justification; the question is about whether he preached the Story of Israel coming to its completion in the story of himself as a saving story.” (106)

“From this point on, Jesus claims, everyone’s moral life is to be measured by whether they live according to his moral vision.” (107)

“… the book of Acts reveals that gospeling was not driven by the salvation story or the atonement story. It was driven by the Story of Israel, and in fact makes most sense in that story.” (134, emphasis original)

The book is sure to generate significant conversations, especially in the more traditional, conservative evangelical world toward which the argument is largely directed. It is written so as to be accessible to everyone, and would be a great conversation starter for many small groups and pastoral staffs.

Authority, Scripture, Creed

Blogsphere confessional: I realize that I am often not at my best when I am trying to work out the relationships among bible, theology, and church authority. I do too much “not this but that” rather than “this and also that.” The whole project of reading through the Church Dogmatics was meant, in part, to keep me wrestling with and appreciating good theology.

In §20, Barth is wrestling with the very issues that have been driving me insane for the past decade or so: where does church authority come from? What does it mean and look like to have scripture as ultimate authority? What does this mean for our confessions about the canon as it stands? And what does it mean for the creeds that speak to us of what the church has said defines it and its beliefs?

This section is beautiful, because Barth the dogmatician (i.e., the one who seeks to say within the church what the church is truly saying about God) demands that we not surrender for one minute the Reformation principle that the Bible as the word of God is the church’s authority. This means that the authority will not be shared or usurped by church or creed.

And, it is only within the church that we meet this Bible as a Bible, as holy scripture; and before we could even say anything good or ill about a creed it must come to us as the church’s proclamation that this is what it believes.

Barth manages to advocate a hermeneutical spiral that deals with the reality of the church as the primary locus of God’s speech and as the primary mediators of the word, that deals with the reality of the Bible as something that is only the book it is because of the church, while demanding that we never lose our evangelical and Protestant moorings by allowing the church to have either a final word over the scriptures, or even a co-equal word alongside it.

Let me try that again: the canon (!), church, and creeds are important, but are always subject to correction and stand under the authority of scripture as the word of God.

But this authority of scripture is a derivative authority. It is only because Jesus is Lord that the Christian Bible has authority (§20.1). For there even to be a church is not to have a bunch of people sitting around reading the Bible. The Society of Biblical Literature is not the church. Where the church really is the church it is a people living in obedient relationship to Jesus Christ.

One reason I trust Barth is that he keeps demanding that people be actively responding to the story of Jesus if they are going to claim for themselves the prerogative of bearing the name of the church. Where the more recent conservative move has been to say that we have the word in the Bible itself, and therefore as the possessors and readers and expositors of the word we are the emissaries of God, Barth suggests the reverse.

To be the people of God is not to posses and master the Word, but to be possessed and mastered by it.

To be in the presence of scripture is not to have laid hold of what is pristine and to derive one’s validity from that possession. It is to be in the presence of something human in every sense that the word “human” conveys in a fallen world: limited, fragile, sinful. And yet, it is also be in the presence of something that, though very human, is the instrument that God in God’s grace chooses in order to speak and draw and otherwise mediate the authority of the resurrected Lord Jesus.

Christ sits enthroned above all, and God speaks this Word through the word that is scripture. The word has authority because of this dynamic use to which God puts it, to which we believe he puts it, as God calls us to obey. And the church’s own authority rests under both of these: the written word which mediates and the God who speaks through it.

More needs to be said about how this relates to church authority and creeds in particular. But the focus on word, and obeying the word, rather than believing a creed or submitting to a church, enables Barth to cultivate a vision for what the church is, what Christianity is, that has an inherent ethic.

This has the power to overcome the failure that has beset the church in general and Protestantism in particular for most of its history.

“The existence of the church of Jesus Christ stands or falls with the fact that it obeys as the apostles and prophets obeyed their Lord. It stands or falls with the known and actual antithesis of man and revelation, which cannot be reversed, in which man receives, learns, submits, and is controlled, in which he has a Lord and belongs to Him wholly and utterly.”

Yes. That.

Now, how do we define Church and Christian such that this kind of obedience lies at the core of its identity?

Love and Faithfulness

Today I’m at the Fuller Faculty retreat. During our time of worship this morning, a couple of things grabbed me.

First, we sang “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” Well, we sang, “Crown him the Lord of love, behold his hands and side.” I never stop wondering how different Christianity would be if we could remember that this is love. The cross is love. The self-giving of Jesus, the son-giving of God.

If we loved the world like Jesus loved us, how would we be different? How would we be differently seen?

My second moment came while singing, “Great is thy faithfulness.”

While my mouth was singing the words, “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,” my eyes were looking at this:

And my mind was thinking, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Christianity lives in that dialectic. The faithful God is the God hidden in the cross. Great is thy faithfulness is the song we sing to the same God we confess as ours while we join our voices with Jesus’ Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.

Leadership for the Church in Mission

If you live in the San Francisco Bay area, or are coming to town for SBL, you need to be aware of a fantastic opportunity on Nov 17-18.

The Newbigin House of Studies is hosting a conference entitled, “Leadership for the Church in Mission,” with N. T. Wright as the keynote speaker.

But the slate of speakers and participants extends beyond Wright to encompass pastors and church planters as well as theologians of various flavors.

Check out the website, register, and I’ll see you there!

Not the Rule of Faith: Why I Care

On this blog I am frequently doing my best to drive a wedge between the Bible (and good biblical interpretation) and systematic theology, the rule of faith, and the like. Several times I have revisited the question of why the story of Jesus, rather than the church’s doctrine of the Trinity, should be our interpretive grid–and what defines our identity as Christians.

Why do I care?

There are a number of ways to approach that question, but part of it has to do with a combination of personality and past experience.

Personality

Do you know the Enneagram?

I regret to inform you that I am an Eight. In brief, this means that I’m a controlling jerk. Well, that’s the worst of it.

Eights tend to be passionate about truth and justice. Of course, we’re always right, so this can be self-serving, but the redemptive edge of this passion is that we care about those who don’t have power. We care about the injustice and control that can dominate people’s lives when the wrong people use their power in the wrong ways.

The redemptive moves for 8 include becoming agents of mercy and justice, and inspiring others to follow along this path.

Experience

I have experienced that the theology of the church is a way to control people, and that this control often comes at the expense of honest readings of the Bible and honest articulations of what people actually believe.

I was in a denomination that had an 85+ page Confession of Faith, and any ordination candidate had to delineate every place he disagreed with it. And the list of disagreements had better be close to zero.

I discovered that this sort of Confessional magisterium (ask me to sing my “paperback pope” song for you sometime): (1) created disingenuous theologians, who affirmed things they disagreed with; (2) controlled biblical interpretation in ways that were distracting and just plain bad; and (3) served as a strong means for controlling the “insiders club” for the good ol’ boys (and they were all boys, no girls allowed) who had the power and only wanted to share it with those who were happy to help them build what was theirs.

Theology as the defining marker of the church creates systems of control that look nothing like the Jesus who said, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”

The Rule of Faith, while quantitatively shorter, is qualitatively the same if it is functioning as rule. Trinitarian theology, similarly, can play this role of church control. It requires us to frame our reading, our gospel, our understanding of Jesus, in a way that binds us to the church rather than freeing us to follow Jesus–though going through that guarded church door might lead us into the company of Jesus as well.

But I rebel against the Creedal control because I don’t want you to think you have to experience what I did: that the only way into the fullness of participation in the body of Christ is through strange and foreign structures that often have little to do with the Bible through which God has chosen to make the Word of life known to the world.

But does it have the power, the authority to demand that we read in accordance with its traditions, its creeds? No, I’m too Reformed to say yes. And, I believe enough in the fidelity of what the creeds say that is true to demand that they control our reading of scripture: if they are right, then a good reading of scripture will generate these affirmations without those affirmations being the prerequisite assumption for reading the Bible rightly.

I want you to be free to discover that the Creeds are right. And, perhaps once every few hundred years, where they aren’t. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

ed note: I realize after posting this that it leaves unanswered about half a million questions about the place of the church in our christian practice. Please stay tuned for my next Church Dogmatics post for more theologically and ecclesially developed musings

ed. note 2: I think this post is a dud. I need to work on how I actually want to delineate the tensions I feel in different hermeneutics and their relationships to power, freedom, and the Christian story. I might have inadvertently gone Quito (Mtn Goats reference) in true 8 fashion

Telling the story of the story-bound God