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.

Kingdom of Abundance

The feeding narratives were supposed to tell the disciples everything they needed to know about Jesus’ identity–and their participation with him in the coming of the kingdom.

At least, that seems to be what Mark wants us to think.

Jesus feeds 5,000, and then when the disciples freak out at his coming to them on the water, this is ascribed to their “not understanding about the loaves, but their heart was hardened.”

Jesus feeds 4,000, and then in a boat with insufficient food, Jesus warns about the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod. They think he’s talking about bread.

He rebukes them: don’t you remember how much food you gathered? Are your eyes blind, your ears deaf, your hearts hard? Beware of the leaven of the bad guys!

What have we seen in these feeding narratives?

We have seen abundance come from nothing. We have seen banquets set in the wilderness.

More than this, we have seen that the setting of the banquets was not just the work of Jesus–it was the work of Jesus who gave to his disciples who, in turn, gave to the crowds.

The disciples are active agents in the coming of the kingdom of abundance. They take hold of the world’s scarcity and distribute it far beyond its capacity.

The abundance of Herod is different.

In his banquet hall, filled with food, he is shown to be weak and impressionable. Herod’s feast is, finally, a feast of death–John’s head served on a platter.

Where is death? In the wilderness, without adequate food–but a good shepherd? Or in the halls of apparent abundance–with a failure of a would-be king?

Herod has not enacted death alone. The Pharisees have also plotted with the Herodians to kill Jesus.

There is a kingdom economy of the Herod and the Pharisees–where the apparent abundance of power and possession leads to death.

And there is an alternate kingdom economy of Jesus–where apparent nothingness and death and deprivation leads to fulness.

Embracing the kingdom of abundance, however, means seeing abundance, by faith, in the face of nothing.

How is the kingdom of abundance, power, and glory seen? It is like the smallest mustard seed.

Sow it in faith and see what happens.

Women: Directives and Praxis

A few days ago I did my usual falling behind in responding to blog comments, but didn’t want a query about women as deacons, preachers, and apostles in the NT to go unanswered, so here it is.

The claim I made there, and want to rehearse here, is that the practices of women’s participation in the early church demonstrate that the directives against their speaking, teaching, did not regulate women’s actual practice in the first century.

The most important passage to assess is 1 Tim 2:11-12:

A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. (NET)

Notice that the woman is required to be quiet. And she is forbidden from doing two things: teaching and exercising authority over men.

If this is a binding rule for all churches, then there should be no women speaking in public worship (let’s restrict it to worship just to keep the bar moderately high, even though this isn’t explicitly stated in the text); there should be no women teaching men (let’s make it harder on ourselves and say, “no teaching men about the things of God”); and no woman should be in a position of leadership authority (again, we’ll add “in the church” to make it harder on ourselves).

Let’s pile on a bit more. Here’s the other important passage, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35.

As in all the churches of the saints, the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.

Once again, the prohibition is stark: women must be silent in church. Here the context is explicit.

What this means is that any indication that the apostles knew about and promoted or otherwise endorsed either women speaking in church, or women teaching men, or women exercising authority in the church–any one of these will falsify the apparently universal applicability of the prohibitions that have traditionally served to restrict church leadership to men.

1 Corinthians itself undermines the idea that 1 Corinthians 14 is a universally applicable norm.

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul tells women who prophecy in church how to conduct themselves appropriately. In other words, they were not silent in church, and Paul didn’t think they always should be.

This also means that the regulation in 1 Timothy 2 that women keep quiet was not universally practice–not even in the Pauline churches.

Romans 16 becomes significant inasmuch as it demonstrates not only that women were actively involved in Paul’s mission (co-workers and the like), but that, specifically, a woman was a deacon (Phoebe in 16:1) and also an apostle (Junia in 16:7). In other words, whatever “authority” there was in the church, there were women who were holding such positions of leadership.

It is against such stark prohibitions that the role of Priscilla as an instructor of Apollos becomes significant. Here again is a woman doing exactly what she should not do if 1 Tim 2 is normative across the practice of the early church.

So what do we do with this ambivalent data–data that one the one hand vehemently objects to women speaking and teaching and leading, and data that on the other hand assumes that these things are happening and that for the good of the church?

Two different things. First, there is a text critical issue in 1 Cor 14. Why does Paul seem to contradict himself between women speaking in ch. 11 and mandating silence in ch. 14? Gordon Fee has argued that the verses in ch. 14 were added by a later scribe, and this has won wide-spread approval.

That leaves us with 1 Tim 2.

There are various ways we might go with this verse. It is part of our canon. But it seems to me that the way that is closed to us is enforcing it universally across our churches. This was not done in the NT, by the apostles and their communities, and it should not be done in ours.

The text might indicate that there was a particular issue that demanded a particular course of action to correct an abuse; it might indicate that there are times or cultural contexts when concessions need to be made rather than clinging to the ideal of equality.

But practice is instructive as we look to apply the imperatives. If we are looking to the NT to set the trajectories for the church into our day, the actual practices of Paul and his churches must not be rendered silent by one post-Pauline imperative.

Bible Without Fundamentalism

Is it possible to be continually seeking scripture as the rule for faith and practice without becoming a “fundamentalist”? (And by fundamentalist, here, I mean what we all usually mean: someone to the right of us theologically whom we don’t particularly like.)

I wrestle with this question a great deal. I believe in the normativity of scripture for governing Christian faith and life, but I also recognize that the church has to continue listening afresh, and not allow itself to think that repeating the words of an earlier generation will maintain its vitality or faithfulness to God.

Here is where Karl Barth’s pervasive insistence on the active grace of God can come into play, driving us back to the text, yes, but doing so to listen afresh for the word of God to become living and active in our sphere.

Barth allows the old music to speak through fresh means

Church Dogmatics §21.1 is devoted to “The Freedom of the Word.” Here, as so often, Barth has his gaze cast in two seemingly opposite directions at once: the Roman Catholic Church and Modern Protestantism.

To those who have a strong sense of both tradition and ecclesial authority as such, Barth has a strong word of caution that we must not think that ossified statements of theology or church law will be for us the voice of God. The word is free within the church to command the church. The word of God cannot be controlled.

And, if the church decides to listen to itself rather than the word, then it has failed to be the true church–the place where God speaks and reveals.

This, then, becomes a word of warning for liberal Protestantism that looks too much to human effort in historical criticism or human activity in the world in general and fails to recognize both that the Word of God comes in the freedom of God, and that God has chosen the sphere of the church as the sphere of revelation.

These words of warning reach out to the would-be evangelical church as well.

We, no less than the Roman Catholic church, think that our tradition of biblical interpretation is, itself, what the Bible says. But we must not allow that to keep us from returning to the Bible as the sphere within which God is free to speak in such a way as to shatter what we thought we knew. We, no less than neo-Protestantism, must not think that our own mastery of the grammar and history and archaeology of scripture will dictate for us what God would say to the church.

So while the complaint of folks to the right has often been that Barth’s doctrine of scripture undermines its objective reality as the word of God, the response of Barth that scripture maintains its role as subject that speaks the word of God is more than compelling. It leaves scripture in the hand of God–never to be mastered by us, but always in a position to master us, and speak to us, and command obedience from us, afresh.

Theological Interpretation Article in Christianity Today

I’ve had a thing or two to say about theological interpretation on ye’ old blog over the past couple of years. I am a theological interpreter of scripture, and strive to be a Christian reader of scripture, at that. So in general I resonate with, and am happy for, a movement that strives to carve out respectable space for so engaging the Bible in both the academy and the church.

This month’s Christianity Today has a cover story on theological interpretation by J. Todd Billings. It is not yet available online, but read it when you can if you would like a nice overview of what theological interpretation is up to.

The article echoes commonly stated needs of the church: to have a Bible that speaks to it as a word for people who are devoted to loving and following the Lord and God about whom the text speaks.

It also indicates that one of the more important ways forward is to read using the rule of faith.

As usual, I find the former element more important and compelling than the latter, as I continue to find myself scratching my head about what someone committed to the Rule of Faith is supposed to “do,” what kind of identity it forms, and why Christological readings should be transformed into Trinitarian readings. But then again, you’ve heard all that from me before!

This article really is a judicious piece, a welcome and accessible introduction to what is happening in the world of theological interpretation of scripture and provides some sense of why it is important.

Suffering Servant?

The idea of a suffering servant may very well have come from Isa 53. But the idea that the Messiah had to suffer doesn’t come from there.

Well, it doesn’t come from there in Mark’s gospel, anyway.

For Mark, the invitation to discover that Jesus must suffer is tied to his self-designation as the son of man.

Now, I know that there are hundreds of theories and myriad details about what this term meant in Aramaic, how the historical Jesus is likely to have used the phrase, and the like. But that is, for the most part, irrelevant for interpreting Mark.

In Mark’s gospel, the phrase “son of Man” is clearly linked to the vision of Daniel 7 (Mark 13:26; 14:62). At least in these latter parts of Mark, the connotations of “the Human One” entail Jesus playing the role of Daniel’s enthroned Son of Man.

Earlier uses of the phrase also find explanation here: the Son of Man has unique authority–authority on earth to forgive sins; authority even over the sabbath.

The son of man in Daniel is enthroned and given an eternal kingdom. The power of that rule is at work, already, in Jesus’ earthly ministry, even though he has not yet come on the clouds to the right hand of God.

But can Daniel 7 also open up the door to understanding the third type of “son of man” saying, the passion predictions?

  • The human one must suffer many things and be rejected… (Mark 8:31)
  • Why was it written that the Human One must suffer many things and be rejected…(Mark 9:12)
  • The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him…(Mark 14:21)

Perhaps it is not coincidental that the first time we hear a passion prediction, “The human one must suffer many things and be rejected” (Mark 8:31), the passage goes on to echo Daniel 7 in its promise that anyone ashamed of this suffering Human One will find that the Human One is ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of the father with the angels.

In other words, in the story of Mark’s gospel, Jesus as the enthroned and returning Human One is inseparable from Jesus as the suffering Human One.

So what does Daniel 7, the coming of the great and glorious Human One to be enthroned at God’s right hand, have to do with suffering?

In the final interpreting of Daniel’s dream, we discover that the last beast, and the last horn of the beast, that is finally put down and destroyed at the advent of the Son of Man, had oppressed the holy ones whom the Human One represents.

As I watched, this same horn waged war against the holy ones and defeated them, until the Ancient One came… The set time arrived, and the holy ones held the kingship securely. (Daniel 7:22, CEB)

25 He will say things against the Most High
and will exhaust the holy ones
of the Most High.
He will try to change times set by law.
And for a period of time,
periods of time,
and half a period of time,
they will be delivered into his power.
26 Then the court will sit in session.
His rule will be taken away—
ruined and wiped out for all time.
27 The kingship, authority, and power
of all kingdoms under heaven
will be given to the people,
the holy ones of the Most High. (Daniel 7:25-27, CEB)

The Son of Man who is enthroned is none other than the holy ones who suffered under the oppressive hand of the final king who would be destroyed. They were, first, delivered to suffering and death, and then afterward ushered into eternal kingship and power.

Interestingly, Daniel 12 contains the only widely recognized reference to resurrection in the OT. And that passage tells the same story as Daniel 7, only using different imagery. And there, with the defeat of the great enemy comes not only the exaltation of God’s people to rule, but even the resurrection of the righteous who have been put to death.

How is it written that the Human One must suffer at the hands of people and then rise again? It is written in the visions of the Human One beheld by the prophet Daniel. To be the Human One enthroned at the right hand of God means that one has, first, suffered and died at the hands of the unjust rulers who war against the people of God.

Telling the story of the story-bound God