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

Christ or Trinity?

Since the Colloquium on Theological Interpretation last month (see here, and here) I have been mulling the question of Christian hermeneutics. In particular: is there a difference between a Christological hermeneutic and a Trinitarian hermeneutic? And if so, why do I advocate Christological readings rather than Trinitarian?

The answer to the first question is decidedly yes: there is a difference between Christological and Trinitarian hermeneutics. The former, readings that explore the ramifications of scripture for the story of the crucified and risen Christ, points us to the ministry of Jesus, in particular his death, resurrection, and exalted Lordship. The latter points us to the divinity of Christ.

The clearest example I have seen of the important difference between these is the reading of Lukan intertextuality provided by Richard Hays at SBL last year. He cited Jesus’ words at the end of Luke, that Jesus opened the minds of the travelers to hear all the things written about him in the scriptures.

Hays then proceeded to engage with a far-reaching reading of how Luke was applying the OT texts that referred to YHWH to Jesus instead. The upshot of Hays’ reading was that Luke is showing us that the OT’s YHWH is none other than the Jesus of the Gospel.

Even though this reading focuses on Jesus, it is a Trinitarian reading inasmuch as the working assumption that makes the reading possible is the idea of an eternal Son coequal with and in some way identical to the God of the OT.

Luke, however, intends a very different interpretation of the OT as a witness to Jesus.

Luke does not simply say, the OT is about Jesus no go find out how I’ve shown this. He tells us precisely how the OT speaks of Jesus the Messiah. First, in Luke 24:26-27 he says, “‘Wasn’t it necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures.”

The thing written about Jesus in the scriptures are not that Jesus is YHWH, but that Jesus, as Messiah, had to suffer and enter his glory.

This is even more clearly stated later in the same chapter:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures,and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.(NET Bible)

To read scripture aright is not to read it as a witness to the eternal Trinity, but to read it as witness to the suffering and glory of the Messiah.

The presupposition needed for the Christological reading that Luke directs us to is not that Christ is preexistent or in any sort of ontological way identifiable with YHWH of the OT.

The presupposition required for a Christological, narratival hermeneutics is that Jesus who died was, in fact, the Messiah, that that God raise this Jesus from the dead and enthroned him over all things.

There is a difference, and Luke invites us to Christological narrative rather than divine onotology as the way to correctly read scripture in light of the Christ event.

The narrative of Jesus, not divine identity as it is often construed today, is the way to correctly read the whole Bible in light of Jesus as Messiah, according to Luke (and Paul and John and Matthew and Mark and Peter and Hebrews and Revelation). This means that our hermeneutics will be driven by the story of Jesus rather than the Trinity. It also means that when we chose to use the Rule of Faith as our hermeneutical grid, we have taken a significant step away from the Christian reading of scripture that is commended to us in the NT.

Calamity, Guilt, and Justification

As cyber space has opened up the world to the voice of anyone with a keyboard, the Christian sub-culture has created what is now almost a scripted response.

Immediately after the tragedy, the conservative Christians will point fingers at their favorite sin du jour, saying that the tragedy was brought by the hand of God in punishment for said transgressions.

With a lag time of perhaps 8 nanoseconds, liberal Christians will descry their country bumpkin counterparts, asking how they could know about the mind of God on such matters, highlighting other, worse places that did not get hit, and creating mock interpretations of other tragedies.

While the conservative response seeks an acknowledgement of guilt leading to repentance, the liberal response enables another sort of self-justifying. The former perhaps operates as a self-justification of the “in group,” the latter operates as self-justification of humanity as such.

And each, in their own ways, seek to justify God: the conservatives assuming that the sovereign God allowed or brought about the tragedy for a holy purpose, the liberals assuming God has had no part in it (science people, science!).

I feel sympathy with both views. I appreciate the conservative insistence that God is involved in the world. I also appreciate the liberal insistence that the world does not unfold in a direct set of responses of a holy God to people’s holiness or sin.

If the world operated like that, there would be no Job, no Ecclesiastes, and, ultimately, no cross.

So how might we respond faithfully when tragedies strike–be they natural disasters such as tsunamis or man-made disasters such as planes crashing into buildings or collapsing economies?

While agreeing with the liberal response that God might not be directly punishing or rewarding, disasters have the power to unmask the idols in which we have been putting our hope without knowing it.

I don’t worship money. I give a good deal of money away. I don’t make major life decisions based on what will have the best financial ramifications for me (I live in San Francisco, for crying out loud).

And yet, when the stock market tanks or the housing market plummets, I discover that I have a sense of anxiety. When man-made disasters remove what I assume is a firm foundation for my future, it discloses to me that I have an idol I was unaware of.

Thus, while agreeing with the conservatives that disasters should prompt heart-searching, we should not assume that we know in advance what sorts of sins we will discover in the process. How many folks on the right, when hearing of natural or man-made disasters, point the finger at the unbridled greed, usurious interest, and unbridled expenditure of military power as the points at which we should repent?

Rarely, if ever, do the stereotyped sins articulated by the “pious” come in for God’s heaviest judgment. This is the point of the transition from Romans 1-2. You can say all the right things, condemn everything that’s condemnable–and still come in for equal judgment at the hand of God.

We might say similar things about natural disasters–we have created a world that isolates most of us from daily dependence on the functioning of the natural order. We have water piped into desert areas; we have food shipped in from Mexico. We are more vulnerable than we realize, and depend on the works of our hands for our life and health. This is good, but may also become an idol, removing us from our dependence on God.

But perhaps above all, disasters and death are calls to get outside of ourselves. When people die or are left destitute or homeless, this is the time when we are called to be instruments of comfort of new life. We are children of the Father who puts the fatherless in houses–and thus should enact the home-giving love of the Father. We are children of the father who gives seed to the sower and bread for food–and so we should pour ourselves out to ensure that those left without sustenance by such disasters are fed.

The God we worship is the God who has promised to be God for a world that is imperfect in its “natural order” as well as the “world of humanity.” The Son sent by this God has come to make his blessings known far as the curse is found.

And so, if we will be the faithful people of God, we will respond to disasters, whether natural or man-made, by entering into this God’s project of restoration through self-giving love. We respond by love, by presence, by consolation. We respond by tending, caring, building.

And we trust that these acts of love are, themselves, the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Friendship

Once upon a time, I took a lot of stock in the notion that what mattered most was “who you are when no one’s looking.”

Ok, there’s some value in such a self-assessment. We do need to have a level of integrity in what we do on our own and what we profess in public. We mustn’t be hypocrites.

But…

At some point I decided that what is most important is who we are when we are part of the communities in which we find ourselves; or, perhaps more telling–who we are when we are among the people with whom we have chosen to surround ourselves.

Who are your people, and what does your life look like when you are together with them? What do you do together? Who are you for one another?

From a Christian perspective, one might say that who you are as a functioning member of the body of Christ is more important than how much you look like an ear when you’re hanging out alone in the ear storage facility.

This week we have friends in town. Good friends. Life friends. Friends who love my children even when they’re going ape-poop. Friends who can say, “No, I’m sorry, that’s a really bad idea.”

With good friends, we come together and rediscover not only who they are, but also who we are. We remember that the guy who spends all day long in his study or his cube, the woman who spends all day long moving in and out of examining rooms and filling out charts and dictating patient visits–these people aren’t the full embodiment of who we are.

What really matters is more than this–although these alone dynamics play their part. What really matters is who we are when everyone’s looking, when everyone’s gathered, when everyone’s loving.

The One Gospel?

I’ve recently been reading Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, a book that has me digging around in some familiar territory of where the Rule of Faith fits into the Christian narrative, how well it represents the biblical story, etc.

In dealing with “gospel,” McKnight starts with 1 Cor 15: “Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures, was buried, was raised on the third day according to the scriptures; then he appeared…”

Paul claims that this is the one gospel that everyone proclaims.

I very much like this as a summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But at the risk of embracing a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” I also want to suggest that every time someone claims, “This is what everyone has always said,” they are engaging in a polemical framing of their own claims that probably deserves at least a little bit of nuance, and perhaps considerable qualification.

This is not to deny that 1 Cor 15 is a great summary of the gospel, but it is to suggest that there is no single telling of the gospel that is always proclaimed every time.

We could attack this from a couple of different angles.

First, within Paul himself there is some variation. In Gal 3 Paul writes, “Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham saying, ‘All the nations will be blessed in you.’”

The blessing of Abraham for the gentiles is the gospel. The nations being wrapped up in the faith of Abraham and promise of God is the gospel. Interestingly, there is almost no resurrection in Galatians.

Then, we might go to Acts. Acts does not offer us a theology of Jesus “dying for our sins” in its sermons. In fact, Acts contains a sermon in which the crucifixion isn’t mentioned at all (Acts 17). These sermons see the crucifixion bringing such guilt upon Israel as to demonstrate that Israel is as much in need of forgiveness as the nations.

Or, we might go to Jesus. And here’s where I wish McKnight had gone a different direction. To take Mark as an example, Jesus goes out proclaiming the gospel: “Repent, for the reign of God has drawn near!” The advent of the kingdom of God is itself the good news.

Not merely the death of Jesus (Mark 8-16) but the life as well (Mark 1-8) is good news. When Jesus casts out demons–this is enacting the gospel. When Jesus feeds the 5,000–this is enacting the gospel.

There are ways to connect this life of Jesus in the Gospels with the continuing life of the resurrected Jesus in Paul’s letters, but even at the basic level of “gospel,” we have a broad, rich picture in the NT.

So what do we have to say if we are to claim that we proclaim the good news? And should we be suspicious whenever someone tells us that this is what people have always confessed as Christians?

Telling the story of the story-bound God