Tag Archives: Ethics

From Faith to Faith

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics and identity are inseparable.

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

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

This phrase can be read one of two ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Law, the OT, and Christians

Over the past couple of weeks we have been poking around various issues of the relationship of Christians with the scriptures of Israel.

It all started with some musings on why Christians don’t keep Sabbath, and that expanded into the question of Law more generally: [in what sense] do Christians keep the Law? But each of these is, in turn, a smaller portion of the larger question of the Christian’s relationship to the Old Testament.

In all of its profundity, here is the thesis I have been implicitly arguing over the past couple of weeks (stolen, no doubt, from Steve Taylor):

Cross Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This image means a few things:

  1. Everything that comes to us, on this side of the cross, from the OT comes to us only and always through Christ.
  2. This means we do not do anything or adopt anything simply because it is in the Bible, but always as the people whose OT Bible story has found a surprising climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
  3. We depend on the NT to set the trajectories for understanding where this unexpected, “apocalyptic” action of Christ cements OT ideas, where it transforms them, and where it insists that we leave them behind.

The question for us is never simply, “What does the OT say?” But always, “How must we read the OT in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ?”

For the Law this means a few things.

First, the Decalogue is insufficient to guide us in the way of godliness.

We have already been talking about the implications connected with Sabbath keeping. Paul repeatedly avers that keeping a day holy is not required now that Christ has come. In Colossians this is put in terms of “shadow” versus the “body” that casts the shadow. No longer must we submit to commandments about festivals (annual holy days), new moons (monthly holy days), or sabbaths (weekly holy days) (Col 2:16).

Similar specifications are drawn out in Galatians–Paul fears for the churches because they are observing days, months, seasons, and years (Gal 4:10).

Christ transforms the idea of “holy time.” We are no longer bound by calendars of holy days. That includes weekly Sabbath observance.

But what about the “second table” of the Law, the commandments concerning loving neighbor?

These, too, have not been untouched by the advent of Christ, but there is more continuity here than in the commandments concerning God.

In Matthew, the commandments are transformed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. No, keeping them is not bad or left behind in the same way that the Sabbath commandment is elsewhere. However, they are shown to be insufficient. From “you shall not commit adultery” to “you shall not look at a woman lustfully.”

This is not “what the commandment intended all along,” it is what Jesus says (“But I say to you”) that stands in deepening contrast to what was already there.

Of course, then there’s “eye for an eye,” which Jesus overturns. No, eye for an eye was not cruel, but a reining in of revenge. But Jesus says even this is insufficient.

Greater righteousness is now required–a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees: because the righteousness they had on offer is merely the righteousness of the Law.

The stuff Paul had (Phil 3) but realized, in the face of the crucified Christ, to be insufficient.

Similarly, in Mark 10, there is the rich man. He asks about which commandments he must keep to inherit eternal life. The second table of the Decalogue is rattled off to him. He does these. What more is needed?

“Follow me.”

Jesus places himself–as, in fact, he is en route to Jerusalem to die–in the middle of the equation about eternal life in the Kingdom of God. There is a way to love God, and neighbor, that cannot be known our lived into by keeping the Ten Words. This episode shows they are requisite, but insufficient.

If we want to know what we should do, we can do no better than the rich man and ask Jesus what we must do. Jesus, specifically the Jesus stories in the NT, tell us: we must heed the commands of Jesus, follow Jesus along the way of the cross, and accept this transformed vision of what it means to love our neighbor as ourself.

The Second Table will not be broken or violated, but it will be kept in a manner befitting a specifically Christian story.

The Command of the Foot Washer

The debate about the place of the Law (or not) rages on in the comments of yesterday’s post, whilst my life is flooded with non-cyber-life that has me engaged elsewhere.

But perhaps we might allow Maundy Thursday to direct a contribution to the discussion.

Depending on whom you ask, “maundy” may be derivative of the Latin form of Jesus’ statement, “A new command I give to you…” (mandatum novum do vobis). And that brings us to the heart of things–and the possible meanings we might affix to the later Johannine literature as well. What is the command of Jesus?

Full understanding of the command is unfolded over the course of the narrative.

John has made the footwashing itself an anticipation of Jesus’ coming death on the cross. It is the time when he “lays aside” his mastery and girds himself as a servant, the time when he “takes up again” his garments, laying his self-humility aside. In this, he illustrates the part of the Good Shepherd who lays aside his life for the sheep and then takes it up again.

The footwashing is a cleansing that enables the disciples to have a share in himself–and it is an illustration of the full extent of Jesus’ love.

The footwashing is what Jesus does when he knows that his time has come to depart from the world and return to the Father.

The footwashing opens up the Book of Glory with an enactment of the coming crucifixion.

Returning to his place, Jesus says, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me master and teacher–and you’re right! For I am! So… If I, the master and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example, so that you would do as I have done.”

Footwashing. Or, perhaps, laying down our lives for one another?

Keep reading in the passage, and Jesus predicts his departure, after which he gives his new command:

“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35, CEB)

John had told us that the footwashing was picturing the full extent of Jesus’ love. Might this, “love one another as I have loved you” be a command to love each other with the self-giving love of Christ?

Jesus closes the loop in John 15:

This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14, CEB)

There is, of course, continuity with what came before: love of neighbor is nothing new.

But what is love? What does love look like? How do we know love when we see it?

On Maundy Thursday Jesus enacts the love that should define his people: a self-giving love, a laying down one’s life so that others might live.

The defining story of our salvation (Jesus died for us) becomes the defining story of Christian community (so ought we to die for one another).

This is why Christian love can be a testimony to all that we are Jesus’ disciples–not because only Christians can love, but because Christian love has a particular definition. And that definition is the cross.

Law, Gentiles, and Decalogue in the NT

I’ve been arguing over the past week that followers of Jesus don’t go to the Decalogue as the starting point for our ethics. We begin with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In particular, we have kept coming back to the Sabbath as a command that is no longer binding on God’s people.

I want to focus on Paul, but before I get there I want a brief pit stop in Acts.

In Acts 15, the “Jerusalem Council” decides what the Gentile believers must (or must not) do as they come into the family of Israel’s God:

“Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God. Instead, we should write a letter, telling them to avoid the pollution associated with idols, sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, and consuming blood. After all, Moses has been proclaimed in every city for a long time, and is read aloud every Sabbath in every synagogue. ” (Acts 15:19-21, CEB)

The Decalogue as such is notably absent, as is the Sabbath command in particular. It seems that if there were some requirement that the Gentiles adopt this distinctive Jewish practice this would be the place to tell us.

But to Paul.

In particular, to Paul and the Decaglogue and the Law of Sinai more generally.

When Paul wants to contrast the present epoch of salvation with what came before, it is the Law given at Sinai that serves as his point of differentiation.

In 2 Cor 3:7ff., here’s how it goes, where Paul is contrasting the Law carved in stone with his ministry of the gospel:

  • The Law brings death, though with glory–Paul’s ministry brings the Spirit, with greater glory.
  • The Law brings condemnation; Paul’s ministry brings righteousness

It’s not simply that Paul’s ministry is more glorious than Moses'; it’s that the law on stone–i.e., the Decalogue itself–is the point of contrast between Paul’s ministry of the Spirit and Moses’ ministry of Torah.

Then there’s Galatians. The whole point of Galatians 3 is that the Abrahamic covenant is the point of continuity between God’s people old and new–and therefore the Law is the point of discontinuity. Law is not about the promise or the people of promise–it participates in curse and enslavement that must be overcome (Gal 3:10-18).

Then what’s the Law’s purpose? Funny we should ask…

So why was the Law given? It was added because of offenses, until the descendant would come to whom the promise had been made. It was put in place through angels by the hand of a mediator.

It’s a placeholder. It’s a custodian or guardian, a temporary stand-in from the time between Abraham and Christ. This is specifically the Laws that God gave on Sinai to Moses.

Image: FreeFoto.com

The tradition of angels mediating the Law was common in early Judaism (see also Heb 2:2). That’s what Paul is alluding to here.

None of this is to say that the Law was bad, or that it was experienced as a burden, or any of those stereotyped denigrations of the Law that people have fallen into.

It is to say, however, that what defines us as a people is tied to a different covenant, and therefore what it looks like to be the people of God is fidelity to a different sent of covenant norms.

The Decalogue was Israel’s covenant, and this is why Israel was known for keeping Sabbath among the nations.

The death of Jesus is ours, and this is why we are to be known as those who lay down our lives so that others might live. Our summons is to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Deriving our ethics from the Decalogue is binding ourselves to the shadow rather than Christ who is our life-giving substance. Our ethics begin with the self-giving Christ, not the Exodus; with the new covenant rather than the old.

Faithfulness Beyond Instruction

Yesterday’s post contrasted narrative theology with the “owners manual” view of the Bible. I know that once this conversation wanders too far people will lose patience. But here’s why I think it’s important to have at least a basic idea of what the Bible is:

What we think the Bible is will deeply impact how we read it and what we try to do with it.

To be clear: even if you don’t have a clear answer to the question, “What is the Bible?” there are Christian-cultural markers that have created assumptions for you (either by acceptance of them or rejection of them) concerning what the Bible is and, therefore, what we should do with it.

What I want to make clear today, if it wasn’t clear yesterday, is that narrative theology can carry a strong imperatival force–it can issue a summons to act in certain ways. But it does so by a different route than the instruction manual approach.

Narrative theology takes the overarching story as the key to what the Bible is. Not key in the sense that it opens some other door, but key in the sense that even the parts of scripture that are not, themselves, stories nonetheless find their coherence and interpretive framework from the larger story in which they are embedded.

More than that, narrative theology recognizes the inherently storied nature of all human life.

“Story is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories… narrative imagining is our fundamental form of predicting [and our] fundamental cognitive instrument for explanation.” (Mark Turner, The Literary Mind [v, 20])

So here’s where narrative theology strikes pay dirt: it provides a way of thinking and talking about the Bible and the Christian story using the category by which we are making sense of all reality.

We tell stories about our Christian communities: where we came from, what we believe, what we do. Narrative theology says: the Story of your community is the story of the crucified and risen Christ–how does your story retell the Story that defines it?

Narrative theology draws in our sacramental practices. What are we doing when we take the bread and cup? We are enacting the story that not only founds us, but that we are called to be living illustrations of in our life together. It is not some “other” thing we tack on, the sacrament is the thing that we are, in a different mode.

As individuals we have stories, too. Often these are stories shaped by loss, by shame, by guilt, by pain. And I wonder if having those stories both embraced within and at the same time relativized by a greater defining story of a crucified and risen Christ isn’t part of the narrative reframing that God intends for God’s people when we are joined to the story of Israel that has its climax in the story of the crucified and risen Christ.

Narrative theology is about (to borrow a phrase from Richard Hays) “conversion of the imagination,” or, to take the language of Rom 12, being transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is a much harder business than turning to the Bible as a reference manual for correct behavior. It involves a lifetime’s depth of familiarity with the story and a commitment to make that story not only our own as persons but also our own as a people.

The story defines who we are. And as we learn that identity, we acquire the wisdom of knowing what we should do so as to be living enactments of that story in the corners of the world to which God has called us.

Narrative Theology and Instruction Manuals

Did you ever have one of those experiences in youth group?

You go to camp. It’s awesome. The speaker brings serious A game. He stands in front, holds open the Bible, and proclaims the importance of reading this book:

This is the maker’s instruction manual for your life! If you want to know how your life is supposed to work, what you’re supposed to be doing with yourself to make things work correctly, read this!

Think about your car. You don’t put antifreeze in the gas tank or gas in the radiator. The owner’s manual tells you what to put where so that the vehicle will run appropriately.

That’s what God has given us in the Bible!

How many of us have celebrated that Bible? I know I did. And, I went home and did as I was told. I began to read.

It’s an old joke that many a well-intentioned reader of the Bible has run aground on the rocks of Leviticus. Indeed, before that there is quite a stack of tabernacle-building instruction that is not for the faint of heart.

And, frankly, there’s very little to that point that has anything to do with how I’m supposed to live my life.

Does the Bible show us God’s intentions for humanity? Undoubtedly. Is it the maker’s owner manual for living life on earth? The metaphor is hard to sustain (to say the least).

Narrative theology attempts to articulate an ethic that does justice to the diachronic (across time) nature of the biblical texts, the developing nature of theology across time, and the storied nature of our faith.

In other words, it calls us to a way of life that is not an add-on, but integral to the defining Christian story.

One of the perpetual conundrums of the Christian story is the question of (dis)continuity between OT and NT. Across Scripture, however, there is a relatively constant movement: the imperative (what we’re supposed to do) flow from the indicatives (what God has already done for us).

In narrative theology, recognize that the great saving act of God that defines us as a people is now no longer what it once was. No longer do we swear, “As the Lord lives who brought us up out the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” As Jeremiah anticipated, the people of God now look to a greater deliverance as the defining marker of the identity of God (Jer 16:14; 23:7).

The defining moment of our narrative is the climactic story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Our God is now quintessentially the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the God who justifies the ungodly, the King whose kingdom has come near.

To treat the whole Bible as an owner’s manual is sort of like trying to run your 2010 Camry by the Model T owner’s manual. Yes, you’re dealing with cars. Yes, there are some basic similarities across time. But there is a new moment that demands a new set of instructions.

In Christian terms, the Christ story transforms human vocation, or crystalizes human vocation, with Jesus cross-centered call to self-giving love so that the other might live.

While both OT and NT summon us to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” it is only with the cross that we learn what divine love fully looks like, and what the great call of neighbor-love fully entails.

Two Down, or…

Karl Barth, The Man-Crush Resumes.

Dogmatics, Two Down

In the final section of Doctrine of the Word of God, Barth touches on two dynamics of his work that make my heart sing, and clarifies one of the recurring challenges I’ve had (including from part one of this section).

First, Barth here talks about the dogmatic method as deriving from the word of God. In other words, there can be no systematization based on a prior idea of what is most basic or foundational. No “law of God,” no theory of the atonement, no primacy of creation.

Yes, law, atonement, and creation are all important! But they are important as pokes radiating out from the center which is the Word of God itself: Christ the word, witnessed to in scripture.

This means that the “analytic” approach to theology that had its heyday in the 18th century and following, needs to take a back seat to a reconceptualization in which various elements sit alongside one another, informing one another, correcting one another, and all mutually subject to Christ the Word.

Second, and relatedly, I think Barth said in a more respectful and sophisticated way what I was striving to say in my somewhat iconoclastic rant about the Trinity a week or two ago. Yes, he has a Trinitarian statement about God, and even about the various doctrines he will cover. However, this Trinitarian statement is not the source of that structure but coordinately derived from the word of God.

The Trinity is crucial, but it does not displace the word of God as the structuring element in Dogmatics; it does not displace the foundational place of the Word of God. Or, “No foundation can be laid other than the one which has already been laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

Finally, in Barth’s very brief outline of what is to come, he leaves me anticipating that ethics will suffuse his understanding of that the church is supposed to teach.

I have been wary thus far that Barth puts too much on the teaching office itself. I see the entire Evangelical project in danger of becoming the teaching church that never faithfully embodies its calling to be the doing church. I have good hopes that Barth will offer something better. We will have to see how that develops over the remaining 6ish years of our time in the Dogmatics.

This brings Year 1 of the Barth Together reading group to a close! Yay!

If you didn’t keep up this year, you won’t feel any more disoriented than the rest of us should you choose to jump in with volume 2 in January. I hope many of you will pick up again and keep reading in 2012. Stay tuned for a reading schedule to go up in the next couple weeks.

Peace of Christ Be With You

Yesterday I had more opportunity to reflect on “peace” within the context of the Christian story. Where I kept getting pushed was how “Being children of God,” as peacemakers, reflects the breadth of God’s redeeming love.

In short, peacemaking as Christians is our turning toward one another, and the larger world, with what we have received from God.

“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” More directly to the point, “Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

The hope that Christians celebrated on advent week 1, is actually the product of the peace that we celebrated in week 2. It is the reconciling, redeeming, justifying work of God that gives us peace with Him.

Why is it that being “children of God” is tied to being a “peacemaker”? Because to be a child of someone is to bear that person’s image and likeness. God’s children are peacemakers because God is the Peacemaker.

God has given us life and peace with himself in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So, being agents of peace in the world is a matter of living out in our own lives and in our communities the story of Christ crucified. We embody the peace-making mission of God.

But this peace is made in the cross.

This tells us that the means by which we will make peace will never be the sword.

It also means that we are going to have to step back and reconsider what “peace” means as we search for it in our lives. It will be a peace that is present in the midst of suffering and trial–not necessarily one that delivers us from it here and now.

Yesterday’s service included some reflections on Phil 4: “…make your requests known to God, and the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension will guard your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus.” Paul shortly goes into his means of peace and contentment: being able to get by in plenty and want, in any and every circumstance: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Peace is about living out of, and living into, the reality of the gospel of Christ crucified. It is a self-giving so that others my live. It is a trust in the provision of God, even as we walk the way of the Christ. It is an extension of the peace-making presence of God through the church which is the continuation of Christ’s presence here on earth.

Ethics and Dogmatics

Ok, so I knew this would happen: rag Barth for saying that the church’s highest calling is dogmatics, bemoan how this enables evangelicals’ lack of engagement in substantive issues of praxis and… lo! the next section talks about the inseparability of dogmatics and ethics.

Here, Barth is (perhaps too singularly) focused on the problem of dividing out ethics from theology, folks who strive to construct ethics as a separate enterprise from theology altogether. The idea that makes Barth so uncomfortable is that we might know enough in and of ourselves to construct ideas of ethics on “universal norms” or even natural law rather than the revealed word of God.

So Barth contends that all Dogmatics is received and spoken and enacted, that all church dogmatics is inherently ethical; it is not only a matter of thinking and speaking, but of doing.

Why is Dogmatics inherently ethical?

A reality which is conceived and presented in such a way that it does not affect or claim men or awaken them to responsibility or redeem them, i.e., a theoretical reality, cannot possibly be the reality of the Word of God, no matter how great may be the richness of its content or the profundity of its conception. Dogmatics has no option: it has to be ethics as well.

The refusal to allow us to merely speak is laudable. But I’m not entirely sure I buy the notion that dogmatics is sufficiently broad, that “Word of God” is even sufficiently broad, to encompass practice as well.

Speaking & the Church’s Calling

What is the mission of the church? The church must preach the word of God. It must enact its message in the administration of the sacraments.

It must speak correctly the things of God for its time and place.

Barth--He Can Talk

From this, Karl Barth concludes that the church “cannot, then, escape the conclusion that it must regard and treat the work of dogmatics as its most essential task” (§22.2).

Throughout his discussion of doctrine, dogmatics, and preaching, Barth advances two crucial components to the church’s faithful practice of articulating its doctrine.

First, the calling to speak correctly about God both demands that we labor with all our resources to speak correctly and, in the end, that the grace of God superintend the speech so that it communicates faithfully and truly. There is no pure doctrine without the grace of God, but this is not an excuse for idleness.

Second, the task of speaking correctly will engage the traditions and creeds of the church, but cannot be assured simply by repeating the same words. The church’s task is always to say what needs to be said for its own time and place if it is to speak a truly faithful dogmatics.

But I now wish to circle back around to the claim that dogmatics is the church’s most essential task. And here I have to protest.

For all that Barth’s means and frameworks for doing Dogmatics is important–and an improvement on what often happens in the church–the church misses the heart of its calling if it thinks that its most important task is to speak correctly about God. Full stop.

The speaking correctly about the revelation of God in Christ is important for the purpose of directing the life of the church as a continuing embodiment of that revelation.

Perhaps Barth here falls victim to his own Logo-centrism, where Jesus is revelation of the Father as Word of God, which Word is revealed also in scripture and preaching. But Jesus not only speaks and embodies divine words, Jesus also acts.

The living Word of God feeds hungry people–and thereby reveals God.

The living Word of God embraces the outcasts and the dregs–and thereby reveals God.

The living Word of God heals the sick–and thereby reveals God.

The most important task of the church is to re-present the living Word of God in the deeds of that very Word’s body on earth, the church. If we attend so strictly to the dogmatic task that we fail to act, or so prize it that we fail to equally, let alone more abundantly, prize the self-giving love to which we are called, then we have failed in our Kingdom calling to love our neighbor as ourselves.