Blasphemy!

Why is Jesus condemned to death by the Sanhedrin in Mark 14? The exchange goes like this:

Then the high priest stood up in the middle of the gathering and examined Jesus. “Aren’t you going to respond to the testimony these people have brought against you?” But Jesus was silent and didn’t answer. Again, the high priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the blessed one?”

Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Human One sitting on the right side of the Almighty and coming on the heavenly clouds.”

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we need any more witnesses? 64 You’ve heard his insult against God. What do you think?”

They all condemned him. “He deserves to die!” (CEB)

What constitutes the “blasphemy” or “insult against God” that leads to Jesus’ condemnation?

First, although Jewish backgrounds are always important, I’m not sure that examining ancient standards for blasphemy is going to be entirely helpful. What I mean is this: the trial is set up in Mark 14 as a kangaroo court–false witnesses sought, conflicting testimony given. Thus, we won’t necessarily find a category of “blasphemy” into which Jesus’ confession fits. They may very well be condemning him without him being technically guilty of anything.

On the other hand, it is interesting that one way someone might incur a blasphemy charge is to speak the name of, or even say, “God.” It is therefore interesting that both Jesus and the High Priest are depicted as avoiding the word “God,” using circumlocutions instead. Maybe the point, in part, is that there is no reason for a blasphemy condemnation?

In the narrative itself, we have met accusations of blasphemy before.

In Jesus’ first conflict with the scribes, he is accused of blasphemy for forgiving the paralytic’s sins. “The fellow blasphemes! Who can forgive sins but God alone?!”

The charge of blasphemy is tied to arrogating to oneself the prerogatives that belong only to God.

But Jesus says that, as the Human One, he has authority on earth to forgive sins. If God has bestowed this authority upon Jesus, it is not blasphemy to perform the actions otherwise suitable to God alone.

I note with interest that both the first conflict and this final trial swirl around issues of blasphemy and Jesus’ identity as the Human One.

The other place where blasphemy comes up is when Jesus is accused of casting out demons by the prince of demons. In that case, he accuses the scribes of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In this case, it is not arrogating the authority to himself, but wrongly ascribing the work of the Spirit to an evil spirit that provokes the charge.

But the commonality is important: blasphemy charges derive from the question of the authority of God being wrongly ascribed (whether that be Jesus ascribing it to himself or the scribes ascribing it to an evil spirit).

Returning to the trial.

Jesus is claiming the position of the one whom God enthrones in the heavens to rule the entire cosmos. The same claim he had made in ch. 2 returns here: the Human One has authority given to him by God to act, to rule, in the name of God. And the same response of unbelief is leveled by the religious leaders: no, such a claim to be installed as the one who acts for God is blasphemy.

The blasphemy charge stands or falls with whether or not Jesus is correct about his identity.

The question is, what is Jesus claiming for himself that the religious leaders do not believe to be true?

It is something more than simply being a messiah as traditionally expected–a geopolitical, militaristic leader who would come to liberate Israel from its bondage. There were plenty of those going around, and such claims did not lead to blasphemy charges.

And yet, the way that Mark, and Jesus, have cultivated Jesus’ messianic identity, he has a power from heaven, an authority to command the entire cosmos, that must be ascribed to some ultimate, spiritual power.

Is the human one enacting the very reign of God Himself over the cosmos? Or is he casting out demons by the prince of demons? That’s the choice.

Reconceiving the Bible (review pt. 4)

“I can just pick up my Bible, read it, and know what God has to say to the church.”

“The Bible speaks to all areas of life. If you want relational, financial, sexual, or political guidance, the Bible is the place to go.”

“The Bible is the owner’s manual.”

“The Bible contains the system of doctrine that God’s people should know and believe.”

“No,” says Christian Smith. “And no. And no. And no.”

The subtitle of The Bible Made Impossible is “Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.” The gospel is the good news, the good news is the word of Jesus Christ. To be an evangelical is to be one who promotes the good news of Jesus Christ.

And, a truly evangelical reading of scripture is one that recognizes that the point of the Bible is the saving word about Jesus Christ.

To read the Bible as an evangelical is not to read it to assemble a whole series of doctrines; it is not to read it as a compendium of life advice. Evangelical reading of the Bible is reading so as to discern in both Testaments the witness to Jesus Christ.

Or, as I put it so often here: we must imitate the NT writers in their employment of a Christological Hermeneutic.

What the Bible is “about” is not everything, it is about God’s salvation of the world through Christ. We should therefore seek this message, and discover the Bible’s unity, around this saving story.

In other words, there is a unity to scripture. But it is not the unity of a wholesale theological system; it is not the unity of agreement on what every passage means; it is not the unity of a transhistorical law which God reveals piecemeal over time.

The unity is what makes us Christians: the common affirmation that this is the story of God’s reconciling the world to Himself in Christ.

This understanding of what a Christian reading of the Bible looks like is not only as ancient as Jesus’ words in Luke 24 or John 5. It is also what we find advocated by John Stott (“Our savior Jesus Christ… is Scripture’s unifying theme,”) and the Dutch Theologian G. C. Berkouwer (“the significance [of scripture] can never be isolated from the redemptive-historical work of Christ”) (p. 103).

One of the crowning moments of the chapter on Christocentrism was an assessment Smith made of a sermon he heard on James. I’ve dabbled in and wondered about how we should be reading and preaching James–a virtually Christ-less book in the NT. My thought? We need to read it with the same strong Christological hermeneutic we are charged to bring to bear on the OT. Smith said essentially the same thing.

So my love fest with The Bible Made Impossible continues. Smith has rightly focused our attention on what the Bible is, and what it is for–and these mean that other ways of thinking about, reading, and applying scripture are shown up as misguided at best.

As an aside, I should say that the Westminster Seminary that died in the early 2000s had previously taught me just this way of thinking about the unity of scripture. It was the story of the work of God to save a people to God through Jesus Christ. The replacement of that Christological commitment with a version of evangelical biblicism is testament to the counter-intuitive nature of Smith’s proposal for many in the evangelical world.

Also, so you know: all is not pure unadulterated love. Smith keeps saying that a Christological reading is according to the rule of faith and Trinitarian, to which I of course say “No and no.” However, the overall import of what he is advancing is so crucial that I overlook this quibble and embrace Smith’s work for the greater good.

Aside 3: this program of Smith’s also finds a strong ally in Karl Barth and resonates strongly with what I’ve been posting in the Barth reading group posts over the past couple of months.

Bill Mallonee & the Skeltons

For all you Bay Area folks, here’s something you don’t want to miss:

On Oct 22, Eucharist SF is hosting a concert featuring Bill Mallonee.

If you don’t know Mallonee, check out his interview on the Homebrewed Christianity Podcast from a couple years back; or, if you’re more the reading type, check out this piece in Christianity Today.

But wait! There’s more!

The opening act will be, correct me if I’ve gotten this wrong, “Flying Childers,” the amazing Hannah Skelton and Kyle Skelton duo. Laura got a chance to hear them on Sunday and I absolutely cannot wait to hear them play.

All this for a mere $10.

8:00-11:00 p.m. Oct 22. Eucharist Commons. A bit more info is available on the Eucharist website (see the calendar under Oct 22).

See you there!

Then & There, Here & Now

A friend recently gave me the heads up on an article in the Harvard Theological Review by Paul E. Capetz entitled, “Theology and the Historical-Critical Study of the Bible” (HTR 104 (2011): 459-88). It is a lengthy engagement with three advocates of Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Brevard Childs, Christopher Seitz, and Dale Martin.

Capetz writes from the standpoint of an avowedly liberal theological tradition, and asks why it is that otherwise critically-engaged scholars insist on setting aside critical scholarship when it comes to moving into theology for the church.

He contends that the move from critical to theological exegesis is arbitrary and muddy–and that it does not in fact honor the tradition of the church which it seeks to uphold. For instance: is it really honoring the “orthodox” forebears of the Christian tradition if we simultaneously say, “Yes, they were right that God is Triune” but then in the next breath say, “But no, Paul isn’t a Trinitarian–in fact, he’s a subordinationist” (478-79)?

Are we really honoring the tradition when we, on historical-critical grounds, affirm the exegesis of the heretics while simultaneously affirming the theological conclusions of the proponents of orthodoxy?

These are the very real questions that beset historical-critical study of the Bible. These are the types of issues that have left many snubbing biblical scholarship as useless for the church’s faith, and has led others to conclude that there is no faith worth finding in the Bible.

To my mind, all of this brings us back around to the question Christian Smith is rightly pressing in his book: what does the reality of the struggles entailed in reading the Bible tell us about what the Bible is and thus what we should be doing with it?

Not so incidentally, this is why I also have chosen a narrative model for making sense of both scripture and Christian theology. We need a model for thinking about who we are, and what our book is, that makes room for development, change, and even contradiction.

I find myself drawn in both directions in this debate that Capetz articulates. On the one hand, I agree that one of the most significant things that historical-critical scholarship helps us to is a better reading of the texts. Unlike Capetz, I agree that these texts are the normative rule of faith and life for the church.

Thus, the historical-critical study provides one piece of evidence, one point on the line of the developing narrative that the church continues to live in today.

But historical criticism will not frame its work within a self-consciously Christian narrative. And that is where we must allow it to claim to be an end in itself. Or, better, we must not allow the constraints of segmented OT and NT disciplines to segment the implications of NT historical-critical work. In the latter we discover a practice of rereading the OT in light of the fulfillment of Israel’s story in Christ–a fulfillment that negates many alternative would-be endings to the story than a first OT audience might have anticipated.

So where does that leave us? I want to keep trying to hold the two together as two different players in the same drama of biblical interpretation: the historical critic tells us what the text might have meant to an early, historically contextualized audience, the Christian commitment summons us to contextualize, realize, and sometimes relativize the on-going significance of that text in light of the later, decisive moment of the story and our own continuing participation in it.

Interpretation and Scripture (review pt. 3)

Here’s where Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible is heading as it rounds off the first part of its discussion (the problems with biblicism): interpretive problems point to the reality that the Bible is not what biblicists think it is.

In other words, we cannot separate interpretive outcomes from our doctrine of scripture. When things that “shouldn’t be there” come up repeatedly in our interpretive endeavors, this points out to us that our doctrine of scripture needs to be reconfigured to match the reality of what the Bible is.

In the theological tradition in which I cut my teeth, this sort of relationship was acknowledged, at least in theory. The Westminster Seminary faculty put together a series of essays entitled Inerrancy and Hermeneutic that sought to articulate inerrancy in a way that did not prejudice interpretive outcomes.

Later, Peter Enns would elaborate on this tradition with his extended suggestion in Inspriation and Incarnation that the Bible we actually have should be shaping our understanding of what the Bible is.

Of course, this was the beginning of the end for Enns at WTS, as the theological and financial pull of biblicism was simply too strong to allow scripture to transform our understanding of what the Bible is. Indeed, it might have been expected: the commitment to inerrancy, for example, in American evangelical circles is often far too strong to allow the errors we discover in the Bible to override it.

This diversion into the world from which I came is to say that Smith is exactly correct in what he perceives to be an irreconcilable tension: there is the Bible that biblicists preach, and then there is the Bible that we hold in our hands. And they are not the same.

The Reformation tradition has nicely placed the Bible in everyone’s hands. This is a good thing. But with it has come the notion that anyone reading the Bible will be able to know what it says.

So why then is there pervasive interpretive pluralism if the Bible is so easy to read?

The point that Smith will come around to is that we need to rethink what the Bible is so that we read it differently, more in keeping with the Bible we actually have and its own stated purposes.

Protestant doctrines of scripture have told us, from way back, that what we need to know can be clearly read in scripture or deduced by good and necessary consequence. They have told us that the meaning of any passage is one. They have told us that there are inerrant autographs somewhere that contain the exact words God wanted us to have.

And each of these is either irrelevant and useless (inerrant docs we don’t have) or proven false (we don’t actually clearly see what must be known–we disagree).

Smith rounds off his discussion with some reflections on how a clearly false and impossible Bible manages to imbed itself in evangelicalism as though it is the Bible we actually have. He rightly points to both historical and sociological factors as creating both the perceived necessity of such a Bible and the plausibility structures within which such a Bible can be believed to exist.

In other words: when you hang around a bunch of people, be it in church or in seminary or in your denomination or at an Evangelical Theological Society meeting who not only believe the Bible is this thing, but who define themselves as holding to such a Bible over against the Bible-denying, God-hating liberals, it becomes quite easy to believe in the glorious garments of this particular, naked emperor.

This brings us to something Smith mentions only briefly but that, to me, is the most important reason we have to get beyond evangelical biblicism: it is pastorally disastrous.

Students who believe in this kind of Bible but then leave the world that makes it plausible by going to, say, a public university or a differently oriented seminary or, worst of all a PhD program and there encounter the real Bible for the first time–well, they lose their faith. Or, they have to go through so much intellectual reconfiguring of their faith that its persistence stands in question.

We have to start reading, thinking about, and talking about the Bible that we actually have. We have to recognize that there is no “one meaning” to be found in each passage, there is not “one theological system” to be gleaned from the whole, there is no “inerrant autograph” that is going to show us the truth that will eventually set us free.

We have to take responsibility for how we read, we must read in the right direction, for scripture to fulfill its purpose–which is a different purpose from that articulated by evangelical biblicism.

That purpose? Stay tuned…

Stop With the Impossible Bible, Already! (pt. 2)

In this, our second installment in review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, I wish to begin by underscoring that he is not dealing with “strawmen,” as has been suggested in the comments to installment one. He does not insist that all 10 of his descriptions of evangelical biblicism are present in any one person’s thinking; he does, however, demonstrate that these are the kinds of assumptions driving not only popular but also scholarly engagements with Christian issues.

On the level of popular slogans, we have everything from “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” to “Vote Responsibly–Vote the Bible!” to “Confused? Read the Directions! [picture of the Bible]” Evangelical biblicism is reflected throughout its kitsch culture (pp. 7-8).

Of course, it is elaborated at greater length in books: Bible Answers for Almost All Your Questions, Biblical Principles for Starting and Operating a Business, How to Make Choices you Won’t Regret, Esther’s Secrets of Womanhood (pp. 8-10). The point: we treat the Bbile like it’s about everything–a handbook that answers all our questions. We treat the Bible like it’s a clear, direct word from God to us about how to live our lives. These assumptions are upheld by others such as, “If we read the Bible aright, it can perform this function for us.”

In the more technical theological realm, the idea of scripture’s unity and internal consistency are the points that come more to the fore, but still in ways that lead one to think that the Bible should be able to be heard with relative clarity on all that it speaks of. In particular, biblical statements about the Bible deny contradiction in scripture (which must all be consistent because it is God’s word, after all), or state that anything we need to know is either laid down in scripture or may be deduced by good and necessary consequence.

In fact, the more theological sophisticated versions make the Bible less a practical handbook for daily living and more a box of puzzle pieces to be rightly ordered into a system of doctrine. Both, however, depend on the same way of understanding the Bible as the word of God.

So what’s the problem with all this?

The single greatest problem Smith sees is proliferating interpretive pluaralism. In other words: people don’t agree with each other on what the Bible says. Not only this, they don’t agree about what the Bible says about significant, defining issues of faith and practice. This is because the Bible is not, in fact, univocal on important issues.

Here again, Smith points to publishing. You know all those awesome and helpful “Four Views” or “Three Views” books? Their very existence is an exhibition of the irreducible interpretive pluralism that will always beset the church so long as it thinks that “just believing the Bible” is what is required for faith and practice.

Note how important the topics covered are: Atonement, Baptism, the Doctrine of God (!), Hell, Divorce and Remarriage, The Lord’s Supper, Historical Jesus, War, Women in Ministry, Predestination, Christ (!).

So besides, Jesus, God, and how the cross works, we agree on all the “important” stuff?!

Smith insists, and he is correct, that at the root of this is a way of seeing and understanding what the Bible is, which is demonstrated to be false because we who read the Bible with honesty and integrity cannot agree on what it says. The theory is rendered false by the results it has produced.

Next time, we’ll look at how a theory that is falsified daily manages to keep such a strong hold on the church and also survey some of the other problems with evangelical biblicism.

You Have to Read the Bible

Yesterday we started a review of Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, today we return to Barth’s exposition of reading and applying the Bible in the church. Whereas Smith’s contention is that certain evangelical ways of thinking about the Bible make such a Bible, literally, impossible, Barth maintains that God himself has made communication with people possible, and that it is through our taking up the task of reading and interpreting the Scriptures that such a possibility becomes actualized.

In other words, this is Barth’s “The Bible Made Possible” chapter. I have a hunch that it will be more than a little related to Smith’s proposed solution to evangelical biblicism, but only time will tell.

As usual, Barth sets his sights in two different directions and asks his readers to follow him in insisting that the way forward is not a “happy medium,” but instead a robust affirmation of both. Thus, there is a freedom in God’s grace of revelation that must meet with a freedom in human response.

Moreover, this whole bit about our freedom to respond gets worked from both angles. Keeping our engagement with scripture always within the framework of salvation by grace, Barth demands that we neither over-estimate the natural quality of the person who hears and receives the word of God nor underestimate the reality of this experience.

We don’t receive because we are better, nor because we are worse; we are not to take pride in the reception, nor to grow cynical at someone else’s story.

Throughout, the freedom for the word calls us to take seriously that freedom for the word is freedom for the Word who is Jesus Christ, the revelation of God.

At one point I was wondering if Barth was buying into some of the evangelical biblicism that Smith confronts in his book. But after speaking of the clarity and perspicuity of the word of God, Barth then goes on to say, Of course, this perfectly clear word of God is communicated by means of the words of men.

There is always mediation. There is always, therefore, the need to try to understand what was said, and how that saying of then and there must be said now and here if it is to be understood, and if the word of God to which it bears witness can be made known.

We have a job to do: we must participate in the interpretation of the word which is scripture in order that the word which is Jesus might be made known and obeyed. And we must exercise our freedom, under the word of God, to respond in faithful obedience. This response of faithfulness is inseparable from the practice of exegesis.

And, perhaps most importantly, it is not simply that we are free and that we believe. It is faith in Christ that drives and makes possible all appropriation of the biblical text. I might say here that the faith of Christ makes all this possible. Barth draws us back to Golgotha as the place where each of us comes to our own experience of God’s salvation.

As an aside, I’m pretty sure that everyone wrestling with critical scholarship, theological appropriation of the text, and related issues as a Christian should read both volumes of CD 1.

Stop with Your Impossible Bible, Already (pt. 1)

A devoted Presbyterian (I think taht was me, once upon a time) moves from his confession of faith to the Bible. He had read about “the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one),” and embraced the parenthetical warning against multiple meanings. Then he looked up the OT passage from which a NT citation was drawn. One meaning? Uh oh…

Rachel Held Evans attempts a year of living biblically. As her year winds down, what does she have to say? That adjective “biblical” is really hard to pin down. Does biblical womanhood mean camping out in the back yard during your period?

We all think we know what biblical means. In our North American Christian context the word is thrown around as a way of demanding that all of life be lived in accordance with the Bible as the Word of God.

And Christian Smith is here to tell us that the two experiences summarized above are exactly what we should expect when we come to the Bible with the impossible demands of the biblicism of current evangelicalism.

His book is, The Bible Made Impossible, a book for which I shelled out my own money, so I am under no obligation by the Fed to make any disclosures to you about having my eyes blinded through having received it for free.

Smith affirms that the Bible is inspired by God. He recognizes its importance in the continuing story of the church.

But he also calls us to recognize that a “biblicist” view of scripture creates expectations that cannot be met, and that in the end it is an impossible theory to maintain in practice. And, in fact, nobody does.

So what is this impossible biblicism? Smith sees it delineated by these 10 claims / assumptions (pp. 4-5):

  1. scripture contains the very words of God (divine writing)
  2. the Bible is God’s exclusive means of communication with people
  3. everything God needs to tell us about belief and life is in the Bible
  4. anyone can read, understand and thus rightly interpret the Bible
  5. the Bible can be understood in its plain, literal sense
  6. we can build theology from scratch without creeds or confessions
  7. all the passages touching on the same topic can be brought together into a harmonious whole
  8. the Bible is universally applicable to people in all times and places
  9. inductive method leads to right hearing of the text
  10. the Bible, read this way, provides a handbook for living

Of course, no one person or group will necessarily hold to, or put on display, all ten.

These sorts of claims ring true to many of us: the big idea behind much of it is that if we sit down and read the text we can actually know what it says. God speaks in the Bible and we need simply to listen.

But there is one major problem: “pervasive interpretive pluralism.”

If the Bible is so easy to read and understand, why is it that Christians who hold to similar convictions about what scripture is nonetheless cannot agree on what scripture actually says.

This, claims Smith, is more than simply a phenomenon of people’s practice not reflecting the theory as well as it should. It is a determinative indication that the theory itself is flawed.

We do not simply read “what is there.” People interpret differently. People read preexisting theologies into and out of texts. Pluralism will not go away. And it does not simply touch on incidental matters such as whether or not we pass a holy smooch, this plurality extends even to such central ideas as what happens for our good on the cross.

And so, Smith will contend, the Bible is not what is so often claimed.

What is Sin?

“What is sin?”

When this question was put to our church last Sunday night, I was bemused to discover that my mouth went into auto-pilot with the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Sin is any want of conformity to, or transgression of, the law of God.”

In the brief compass of the conversation I had with the person sitting next to me, I spoke those words but then retracted them based on my no longer believing that some trans-historical Law governs the entire universe.

In the teaching time itself, it was suggested that sin can be thought of as anything that fails to be conducive to the shalom of God.

I think there’s something to that.

Sin is not just about breaking rules, it is also about failing to live up to obligations to love. And the idea of shalom holistic order in life, not merely absence of conflict, helps send our vision beyond simply our posture toward God and encompasses our posture toward the entirety of God’s world.

We can even begin to talk about sin as a power that wages war against the shalom of God, and the shalom of humanity, in innumerable ways.

And all this is important.

When sin is simply law-breaking, then a sin-solution will focus simply on judicial restoration.

But when sin is a holistic failure of life in this world to thrive as God intends, then the sin-solution will have to be an all-encompassing act that not only forgives sin but also restores our lives, and the world itself, to newness, making us not only participants in, but also agents of, the new creation.

Having our minds around the idea of sin is important–not for the purpose of making ourselves sin-obsessed, introspective Puritan types. Knowing the pervasiveness of sin (of the lack of God-intended order upon the earth) is important so that we don’t under-sell the work that God has done in the death and resurrection of Christ.

The Lord Becomes the Lord (Again)

Luke loves to refer to Jesus as the Lord.

Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord,” when baby Jesus is in utero. Those petitioning Jesus for help will defer to him as “Lord.” It is “the Lord” who appoints seventy-two and sends them out on their mission.

And it is “the Lord” who turns to look at Peter after Peter has denied him for the third time (22:61).

And then… nothing.

Throughout the trial before the elders, Jesus is not referred to as “the Lord.”

Throughout the trial before Pilate, Jesus is not referred to as “Lord.”

Standing before Herod, he is simply “Jesus.”

Before the crowd, he is simply “this man.”

Led to the cross, he is Jesus. Crucified, he is mocked as the would-be Christ or would-be King of the Jews. But he is not called the Lord.

Through the taunting of the one bandit and the petition of remembrance from the other, he is derided as “the Christ” or simply called Jesus.

It is “Jesus,” not “the Lord” who gives up his spirit, and “Jesus” whom the women watch from afar.

“Jesus’” body is buried.

But on the first day of the week, when the women come to anoint the body with their aromatic spices they discover less than they came to find. And also find out that they should have been looking for more.

They find that the body of “the Lord Jesus” is missing.

The risen one is the Lord once again. And so the two who come running back from Emmaus say to the rest, “The Lord has really risen!”

And so Peter can say on the Day of Pentecost, in reference to the resurrected Jesus, “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

The resurrection is an enthronement. It is the heavenly reinstatement of what Jesus showed forth and then set aside while on the earth.

Peter says in that same sermon in Acts 2: “Jesus was a man testified to by God through signs and wonders.” The Lord Jesus was acting on the power and authority of the Lord God. And was rejected: finally rejected by even his closest followers, he walks through the passion narrative as simply “Jesus,” as the messianic pretender.

But God witnesses to him again by the resurrection, enthroning him as the Lord once more. The missing body is not simply the body of Jesus. It is, once again, the body of the Lord.

Telling the story of the story-bound God