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The Untorn Net in John 21:11 & Church Unity

"The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," by Konrad Witz. 15th century. Public Domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” by Konrad Witz. 15th century. Public Domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Scripture’s truth comes to us at a variety of levels, as the miraculous catch of fish (part deux) makes clear in John 21:11. In the gospels, fish are a common symbol for humans, as when Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 5:10, “I will make you fish for people.”  The gospels relate two similar miracles about catching fish.  For our purposes here, perhaps the most significant difference in this two stories is what happens with the net.

In Luke 5, we are told that the net begins to break because there are so many fish.  But in John 21, the author is careful to tell us that though there were 153 large fish in the net, it did not break.  It is also significant that the John miracle takes place after Easter. What could this mean?

I was intrigued by A.T. Lincoln’s comments:

The details about the size of the catch and the untorn net not only attest to the miracle but may also at the other level of the narrative suggest the completeness and unity of those drawn in by the disciples’ mission. In fact, the verb ‘to haul’ (ἕλκω) is the same verb translated as ‘to draw’ earlier in the Gospel when Jesus says, ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me’ (6:44) and ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (12:32). Peter’s action, then, can be read as the disciples’ involvement in the mission of God and Jesus in drawing people to Jesus. If the untorn net has symbolic significance, it points to the unity that is effected by Jesus’ mission and should characterize the resultant believing community.[1]

Thus, the untorn net may be a symbol of Jesus’ ability to hold the entire “catch” in his net.  The linguistic links vis-a-vis ” draw”/”haul” are fascinating as well.  In the way of grace, none of us have put ourselves in the net.  All of us have been hauled in by Jesus; we may have come in at different times and in different ways, but the net is one, and all of us owe our place in it to Jesus’ drawing, not our swimming.

The net is one.  We are all caught up in the life of the same God together.

The church should reflect that.

Of course, unity is not the highest good in the Church. “No one is good but God,” as the carpenter said.

But God’s will is certainly for one people united in one Body.  The net does not have to be torn. There is plenty of room for all God’s people, but only if the sharp edges of our disputes and our egos, our power games and our tragically individualistic ethos do not fray the net from within.

How is your corner of the net looking?

 

 

[1] Lincoln, A. T. (2005). The Gospel according to Saint John (pp. 512–513). London: Continuum.

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Jesus: The Way or Just Another Path?

by Drew 8 Comments
Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Is Jesus a unique revelation of God, or one of many sages or prophets who point us to the Transcendent?  Is he God in the flesh, or just another means for my personal growth and self-affirmation?

In John 14:6, Jesus makes a claim that was as startling then as it is today:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In the commentary from his excellent For Everyone series, retired bishop and St. Andrews professor N.T. Wright puts the ensuing controversy thus:

How dare he, people have asked. How dare John, or the church, or anyone else, put such words into anyone’s mouth? Isn’t this the height of arrogance, to imagine that Jesus or anyone else was the only way? Don’t we now know that this attitude has done untold damage around the world, as Jesus’ followers have insisted that everyone else should give up their own ways of life and follow his instead? I know people, professing Christians, for whom it seems that their central article of faith is their rejection of this idea of Jesus’ uniqueness.

I echo Wright’s observation that many Christians seem rather embarrassed by this passage, quick to dismiss it or downplay it.  Such folks are especially found in mainline and progressive evangelical circles.  There is a reason Lesslie Newbigin named this phenomenon “the scandal of particularity.”  It is a scandal that God calls a particular people (Israel).  Likewise it goes against all our enlightened notions of tolerance, of our axiomatic faith in the equal validity of every possible religious expression, to take Jesus at his word when he claims to be the unique path to truth and life.

As Wright notes, however, when we reject this truth, the medicine is worse than the illness:

The trouble with this is that it doesn’t work. If you dethrone Jesus, you enthrone something, or someone, else instead. The belief that ‘all religions are really the same’ sounds nice and democratic—though the study of religions quickly shows that it isn’t true. What you are really saying if you claim that they’re all the same is that none of them are more than distant echoes, distorted images, of reality. You’re saying that ‘reality’, God, ‘the divine’, is remote and unknowable, and that neither Jesus nor Buddha nor Moses nor Krishna gives us direct access to it. They all provide a way towards the foothills of the mountain, not the way to the summit.

This is why the overwrought sermon illustration about the blind Hindustani – in which several blind sages try to describe an elephant by touch and they each declare that their part is the whole beast – is so misleading.  The only way one can argue that every religious truth is equally valid is to claim a fictional place of neutrality to all beliefs AND do violence by leveling every faith tradition.  This is re-heated Enlightenment ideology run amok, and it’s as patronizing as it is false.  We do not have to grind every faith down to some fictional core essence (see picture to the left) and pretend they all have the same conceptions of the divine, of values, of the ends of life in order to get along with others of differing beliefs.  We actually honor our Muslim or Buddhist neighbors more by engaging the fullness of their traditions as they describe them than by pushing every religion through a sieve of modernist bias so that we can compare similar crumbs of truth.

Nothing less than the New Testament witness is at stake here.

It isn’t just John’s gospel that you lose if you embrace this idea. The whole New Testament—the whole of early Christianity—insists that the one true and living God, the creator, is the God of Israel; and that the God of Israel has acted decisively, within history, to bring Israel’s story to its proper goal, and through that to address, and rescue, the world. The idea of a vague general truth, to which all ‘religions’ bear some kind of oblique witness, is foreign to Christianity. It is, in fact, in its present form, part of the eighteenth-century protest against Christianity—even though some people produce it like a rabbit out of a hat, as though it was quite a new idea.

Another way this gets argued is by folks who describe themselves as Christians but are clearly uncomfortable with the divinity of Christ.  If Jesus is primarily a sage, a healer, or a prophet declaring the righteous justice of God, then his divinity becomes

incidental.  Allan Bevere notes in an importance piece,

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Much contemporary theology has been quite deficient…by attempting to keep the significance of Jesus, while denying the necessity of his identity as the God-Man.

The way to clicks and headlines in contemporary Christianity is to claim that Jesus was everything BUT God in Jewish flesh: an activist, a Republican, an African-American, transgender, a capitalist, a rabble-rouser, a defender of the status quo, a teacher, a comedian, or the ideal member of the proletariat.  Stanley Hauerwas, in his characteristic wit, likes to argue that Jesus was bald (because of the patristic dictum, “what he has not assumed, he has not healed”).

Of course, the fact that Jesus’ life and teaching relates to us on so many levels is wonderful, a testimony to his ongoing appeal to folks in all walks of life across time space.  But all such reflection should be a celebration of the beauty of the incarnation, the radical affirmation that God has become flesh and never ceased being God.

The moment, however, that it’s more important to make Jesus affirm my identity than it is to affirm his divinity, we’ve dramatically reduced the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.  To make Jesus primarily an agent of personal affirmation or some other selfish purpose is to make incoherent the Jesus of John 14.  Instead of the way, the truth, and the life, we are left with a way, some truth, and my life.

Source: Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (pp. 59–60). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Accessed via Logos 6.

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Top 5 Reasons Why the Rapture is a False Doctrine

by Drew 12 Comments
Top 5 Reasons Why the Rapture is a False Doctrine
From a t-shirt available at www.tshirtvortex.net.

Spoiler alert: there is no rapture.

Hopefully you’ve heard this somewhere before.  Astute readers of Scripture or serious theologians will note it is totally absent from both the canon and leading Christian thinkers of this or any age.

And yet, like a cockroach in a slum, this patently false teaching seems determined to pop up in all kinds of places.  Why should you care? Because this is not just a matter of one interpretation versus another; something serious is at stake in this teaching (more on that at the end).

In the liturgical calendar, followed by all Christian churches, this is the season of Advent (or, for those of the Eastern persuasion, the Nativity Fast).  During Advent, we look back to first coming or “advent” of Christ and also ahead to his glorious return.  But that return has nothing to with a “rapture.”  Everywhere in Scripture God’s people are called to endure suffering and care for all of God’s creation; nowhere are we promised an escape from the travails of this fragile existence while the heathen and all of creation suffer in agony.  It is anti-gospel.  It is a false doctrine.  Here’s why, in 5 easy steps (and a tip of the hat to Talbot Davis for letting me borrow the “Top 5” idea).

  1. Rapture teaching is new.  Rapture teaching mostly originated in the 1800’s with John Nelson Darby, a Plymouth Brethren preacher.  He in turn influenced Cyrus Scofield, who edited an infamous, early study Bible named after himself.  It spread across the Atlantic and through folks like Dwight L. Moody and institutions like Dallas Theological Seminary.  Later popularizations included Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (see both parts of my review of this classic dumpster fire here and here) and the best-selling-novels-ever-written-for-adults-at-a-third-grade-reading-level known as the Left Behind series.  The short version: until the 19th century, there was no mass of Christians anywhere who taught that Jesus was going to return (halfway) and give all the living Christians jetpacks to heaven while the world goes to hell.
  2. The rapture is exclusively Protestant and almost exclusively American.  Catholics and Orthodox don’t remotely take dispensationalism seriously, and certainly not the rapture.  Add to that what NT Wright and others have pointed out – that it is pretty much only Americans who care about rapture teaching – and you have a recipe for a suspect doctrine.
  3. Oddly, the rapture requires a two-stage return of Jesus.  The return of Christ and “day of the Lord” traditions in the Bible are always singular events that comprise a variety of occurrences in close succession.  Passages like, “Watch ye, therefore, for you know not when the master approaches,” never posit a multi-stage return. (Mark 13:35)  The Nicene Creed, the most authoritative of the ancient summaries of Christian doctrine, says simply of Jesus, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” He does not return, take a few with him, and come back later.  He comes in glory to judge all and establish his kingdom.  That’s it.
  4. The rapture is not remotely biblical.  Not even remotely.  The main passages used to defend a teaching of the rapture, Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4, can only do so if taken horrifically out of context and misinterpreted.  In Matthew 24, the language about “one being left behind” is a reference to Noah and the flood, such that any attentive reader can tell the logic of the passage is that one should want to be “left behind” as Noah and his family were.  In 1 Thessalonians 4, the word translated “caught up” (harpazo in Greek) appears elsewhere in the New Testament and means nothing like escaping to heaven.  Moreover, 1 Thessalonians 4 speaks of the dead in Christ rising first, a fact most versions of the rapture overlook completely.  Ben Witherington does an excellent job explaining all this in more detail in a Seedbed video here.
  5. The logic of the rapture is Gnostic, not Christian.  Fleeing a flawed and decaying physical world for the purity and joy of a spiritual realm sounds much like that prolific heresy – perhaps more prominent today than in ancient times – known as Gnosticism.  Gnostics believed that a secret knowledge had been revealed to them (“gnosis” means “knowledge”) and they held a very low view of physicality.  Everything physical was evil and corrupt, while the spiritual was pure and noble.  Gnostics varied greatly, but all versions united in a vision that desired to escape the world of matter to a realm of pure spirit.  Many heretical forms of ancient Christianity were gnostic and gnostic-influenced, and despite the ink spilled by skilled hacks like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, these psuedo-Christianities were quite properly rejected by the church in her wisdom (which is exactly what we should do today with the gnostic eschatology of the rapture).

upset memeYou may be asking yourself, “so what?”

What’s at stake is nothing less than Christian discipleship and ecclesiology (what you believe about the church).  That’s because what we believe about the last chapter of the story impacts how we live out the preceding chapters.  If God’s grand finale involves removing all the Christians while the world goes to hell (as most versions of premillenial dispensationalism espouse), then it is okay for us to let the world go to hell now.  If the destiny of the world is to burn up while Christians escape, then our only job now is to save (disembodied) souls and ignore the work of justice, reconciliation, community, and creation care.

But if, on the other hand, God has promised to renew the whole earth and all of creation, we are given a vocation of care and concern that invites us to share in and witness to God’s kingdom coming “on earth, as it is in heaven” (as Jesus taught us to pray in the Sermon on the Mount).

The bottom line:

  • The rapture invites Christians to be spectators while the world goes to hell.
  • A classic understanding of the kingdom calls Jesus-followers to live into the new shalom that is breaking in even now.

What are other reasons the rapture is a false doctrine? What ways have you found effective in challenging this teaching? Leave a comment below!

4,887 views

Remembering How to Read the Bible

by Drew 2 Comments
15th century image of St. Benedict of Nursia. Courtesy WIkipedia.

15th century image of St. Benedict of Nursia. Courtesy WIkipedia.

An isolated reader of Scripture is as dangerous as a self-taught surgeon.  One of the presenting conceits of contemporary Christianity is that the isolated interpreter has become normative.  Few things are deadlier to Christian truth than exegesis stifled by personal idolatries and hidden prejudices. Princeton Seminary’s C. Clifton Black suggests, as a cure to such (mis)reading, bringing the saints alongside us as we explore “the strange new world” we call Scripture.  He takes a cue from Benedictine spirituality and encourages reading the Bible with both hospitality (welcoming strangers) and humility.

If you’ve never experienced Benedictine hospitality, you’re missing out.  Following the lead of both the Bible and the Rule of St. Benedict, this vision of hospitality recognizes that in welcoming the stranger, we welcome Christ himself.  This delightfully informs our reading of Scripture, for if we meet angels unawares when welcoming guests, might the Spirit also speak to us about the truth of Scripture from voices we would otherwise ignore or neglect?  Thus, Black concludes:

“If like-mindedness is our overt or tacit criterion for interpreting Scripture in community, then we shouldn’t be surprised to hear only echoes of our own biases while learning little. Does the theologically liberal reader shield herself from scholarship more conservative? Does the neo-orthodox read nothing of the liberationist? For as long as members of the three Abrahamic faiths read their Scriptures only within conventicles, ignorance and mistrust are bound to proliferate. None of us holds  the truth in Scripture by the ears, and none of us ever shall. Hospitable interpreters seek help in understanding Scripture wherever they can find it. ” (58)

An openness to others’ thoughts naturally tends toward taking our own ideas less seriously.  The resulting – or at least correlative – humility is also a great aid to the exegete who desires her reading to be not only accurate or insightful but also an act of worship.  Humility is a monastic virtue that is foreign even to many Christian ears today.  Readers of Scripture, lay or clergy, novice or doctorate-wielding, would do well to remember the distance between our thoughts and God’s thoughts – and treat our interpretation of the text accordingly.  Again, Black is insightful:

“Because we are frail creatures and not our own Creator, we beware of mistaking our own voice for God’s alien word.  We discipline ourselves to listen more keenly, assuming our ignorance and not our knowledge. We resist a constant temptation to control other interpreters and to manipulate other voices – including those within Scripture itself. When the Lord sounds just like us – when Scripture can no longer surprise or disturb or offend us – we should be very, very afraid: it’s likely we’ve locked ourselves in an echo chamber. And if, God help us, we are entrusted with teaching others about Scripture, we should remember that we too much someday give an account of what we have said and done (Jas 3:1).”

The world has seen enough of proud,  isolated, and eccentric readings of the Bible.  What is needed today, for the renewal of the Church and her witness, is followers of Jesus who are able to read the holy writ well.  A humble and hospitable approach to the sacra pagina holds great promise, for personal study and discipleship but especially for community worship, witness, and discernment.  After all, the Bible is the book of the church, and reading it wisely means reading in a way that does not create a scandal  or shipwreck with our neighbors in the Body of Christ.

Benedictine vespers, from a monastery in New Jersey. Photo Credit: John Stephen Dwyer.

Benedictine vespers, from a monastery in New Jersey. Photo Credit: John Stephen Dwyer.

Humility and hospitality don’t cover everything, but I believe they would certainly go a long way towards renewing our encounter with the God’s word, which is, “living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.” (Hebrews 4:12, CEB)  Such a gift from the Triune God’s treasury will not be opened to hearts ill-disposed to the humility and hospitality which mark a disciple of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word from all virtue and wisdom flows.

What do you think? What other virtues are needed to read the Bible well? Are there downsides to these?

 

Source: Black, C. Clifton, Reading Scripture With the Saints (Eugene: Cascade Books 2014).

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Kicking Left Behind…in the Behind

by Drew 8 Comments
I miss the Con Air and Face/Off Nic Cage.  Courtesy wikipedia and fundamentalism.

I miss the Con Air and Face/Off Nic Cage. Courtesy wikipedia and fundamentalism.

Rapture fever is back, as a new iteration of the Left Behind film franchise prepares to slither onto screens, this time sans Kirk Cameron. (How desperate is Nic Cage getting, anyway?)  Now is as good a time as any to kick Left Behind in the behind and reiterate that the rapture, quite simply, is a lie.

Leave aside the fact that the word “rapture” never once occurs in Scripture. Forget that the concept is part of a system not invented until the 19th century.  Don’t even mention the observation that the rapture would mean a kind of two-stage return of Christ, which the Biblical text does not support.  Focus, instead, on this: the one text that rapture preachers can (kind of) point to has nothing to do with a rapture.  As Mickey Efird writes,

“Since Jesus has conquered death, so those who are united to God share in this great victory. Therefore, those who have already died, rather than being in a secondary position with regard to the final victory of God, are in a primary position.  The reason for this is that they are already with the Lord. They are in a real sense already experiencing the joys of the final consummation.  This seems to be what Paul means by the expression ‘The dead in Christ will rise first.'” (Mickey Efird, Left Behind? [Macon: Smith & Helwys 2005], 40.)

If that doesn’t suit you, NT Wright has another reading of this infamous passage, stressing Roman imperial imagery in Paul’s language.  The point is simple enough: the Darbyist rendering of this pericope is only one of many which are plausible, and is far from the dominant reading throughout the history of the church and among top contemporary scholars of the Bible.  At minimum, the dispensational rendering is hardly enough of a home-run around which to build an entire eschatology.

Of course, dispensationalists will point to other passages to prove the rapture, including Jesus’ fuzzy parables (“one will be left in the field!”) and arguments from silence (after chapter 3 in Revelation, the word church is not found again until the end!).  All of these are specious, though, and nothing carries the weight of the aforementioned Thessalonians passage.

I have referred to rapture theology in the pulpit as, “escape hatch religion.”  This is why it matters that Christians do not buy into this popular but horrific doctrine: it turns the ministry of the church into gnostic bunker-huddling.  The rapture reverses the logic of the incarnation, actually.  On the Darbyist scheme, Christ was incarnate of the Spirit and the Virgin Mary so that he could one day rescue the church out of a world going to hell.  So much for, “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  Abraham’s mission, fulfilled and intensified by the faithfulness of the Messiah, has been mutated from blessing the world through the elect into saving the elect and letting the world go to pot.

So give the rapture a good swift kick in behind.  It’s not just un-biblical, it’s not just bad theology, it is a pernicious lie.  The good news is that God loves His creation and His creatures.  Jesus came to renew both, not save one at the expense of the other.  Thanks be to God.

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Animate: Bible (Resource Review)

by Drew 1 Comment

animate-bible

 

Introduction

What if I told you there was a resource out there that could help your church or your small group engage the Bible faithfully, critically, deeply – and have fun doing it?  Animate: Bible from Sparkhouse (a Fortress affiliate) is just such a study. I recently completed this curriculum at my church and wanted to offer you a few thoughts, since several colleagues asked for my feedback.

Who are the experts? The leaders for Animate: Bible include a who’s who of evangelical and/or progressive church leaders, pastors, and and thinkers: Nadia-Bolz Weber, Will Willimon, Rachel Held Evans, Phyllis Tickle, and others.

Who can lead it? The scope and sequence gives you a good idea of what to expect in leading or participating in Animate: Bible.  The material is arranged so that someone with little to no knowledge of the subject can facilitate sessions effectively.

Who should participate? I have a feeling that Animate: Bible was especially designed with younger Christians and seekers in mind, but I believe it would be a worthwhile study for Christians of any age and experience.  I had a mix of long-term and newer students of the Bible in my class, and everyone seemed to find the contents interesting and helpful.

What? Animate: Bible is composed of a series of 7 short, engaging videos with a journal for each participant and a leader guide for the facilitator.  The videos (remember the title) are not just “talking heads,” but effectively communicate the points being made by the speaker though drawings and animation that are both informative and whimsical.  The journals include a variety of questions that are very adaptable for the size of your group and the time frame allotted, as well as interesting illustrations and space for notes.

Why? What I appreciated most about Animate: Bible is the chance to discuss questions and topics not covered in the usual Sunday School curriculum or Bible study: How did the canon form? How should we read different kinds of scripture? How do the Old and New Testaments fit together?  Much of this material – the 10,000 foot view questions of Scripture – was new to my participants (as it would have been for me had I not been to seminary).

What worked especially well? The topics are arranged in such a way that they build upon each other quite effectively.  The materials themselves – the journal, video clips, etc. – have a quality look and feel to them that give you a sense this was put together with care.   More to the point, Animate: Bible helps your group approach difficult questions about Scripture (such as: maybe we should read Jonah as allegory more so than history?) in a way that is sensitive to where people come from, but inviting to a new manner of reading. Finally, the leaders were especially engaging; they possessed a variety of backgrounds and approaches to their topics, but on the whole the video components were quite well done.  My favorites were probably Willimon (I know, I am a company man!) and Bolz-Weber.  I even enjoyed the sessions with Rachel Held Evans and Phyllis Tickle, neither of whom I am especially fond of.  (For more on the latter, see here.)

What could have been better?  I’m a preacher, so I am critical by nature about other preachers.  I had some minor quibbles with some of the points made in the curriculum.  The session on canon ends by asking what might be added to the canon, a question which, though sensible in the context of the conversation, I find risible.  The session on grace discusses looking at Scripture with twin lenses: the “love” of Jesus and the “grace” of Paul.  I found that distinction difficult to maintain, however.  Minor points, to be sure.

Concluding Thoughts & Recommendations

Animate: Bible would be especially effective in certain contexts.  For instance, a college or young adult group, a city or suburban church, or a college town.  I believe it would be less effective in a setting where the the majority of participants would be serious inerrantists or otherwise not interested in questioning their understandings of the Bible.  I would also suggest taking the “For Further Study” recommendations seriously, as they are quite good.  I read Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book and Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible is it? in the course of leading and preaching this study. I would also suggest Hays and Davis’ The Art of Reading Scripture, a precis of which you can find here.

Oh yeah, preaching.  I preached this as a series as I led the study.  That is, I took the topics of the study and preached through them as a small group I  led worked through the sessions.  This allowed me to “double down” on learning and teaching the topics, and also allowed me reach more people with material that I believe could transform their reading of Scripture and their walk with God.  If you are the adventurous kind of preacher – and not too tied to the lectionary – I would suggest giving this a shot.  (Side note: the sample clips work great for sermon videos.)

So, if you think your church or small group could benefit from this material, run out and get yourself a copy.  I highly recommend this excellent resource and I am looking forward to checking out other offerings in the Animate series.

Since I am a company man, here’s the sample from Bishop Willimon’s session “Interpretation: Scripture Reads Us.”

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What does it really mean to be prophetic?

by Drew 10 Comments

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, by Rembrandt. Courtesy Wikimedia commons.

There are few roles in Scripture as misunderstood as that of the prophet.  In conservative circles, “prophecy” is shrunken down to telling the future, usually by studying arcane tables and charts relating Daniel and Revelation to try and figure out when “the end” is coming.  These people are usually tying to sell you something.  In progressive Christian circles, being “prophetic” is essentially a baptized form of activism.  Both of these miss the mark substantially.

First, a Definition

Michael Coogan notes,

“The English word ‘prophet’ comes from Greek and literally means ‘spokesperson.’  It expresses the understanding that the prophets were delivering divinely sent messages. The primary content of these messages…was interpretation of phenomena and events from a divine perspective.” (300)

As we will see, this definition precludes both of the popular distortions of the prophetic vocation in the church today.

Prophecy is Not About the Future

Note the definition above.  The primary content of prophetic utterance was interpretation of the here and now.  The future may be involved, but it is to render change in the present.  As Abraham Heschel puts it, “The prominent theme is exhortation, not mere prediction…his essential task is to declare the word of God to the here and now.” (14-15)  Thus, fundamentalist and/or dispensationalist obsessions with prophecy as Biblical keys to the future or present are sorely missing the mark, no matter how many Mayan calendars or blood moons are there for the taking.

Prophecy is Not About Activism

One of the most inane tropes in Mainline Protestantism is the ease with which every Tom, Dick, or Harriet with an M.Div. will claim the prophetic mantle for themselves.  Far too often we see well-meaning progressives high-five each other ad nauseam as if they were the new incarnation of Jeremiah himself.  But the prophets rarely smiled  (look at the Rembrandt above), and they certainly weren’t excited about  being prophetic.  “None of the prophets seems enamored with being a prophet,” says Heschel, “nor proud of his attainment.” (20)

This is quite contrary to how many would-be prophets actually comport themselves.  In North Carolina, I recently watched the spectacle of colleagues gleefully taking selfies at the State House every Monday for weeks on end, part of the “Moral Monday” protests that dominated the headlines for quite some time.  (I am no fan of the Republican-ruled state legislature at present, but it’s preposterous to assume that there was not immorality going on before the GOP took over.)  That is, we don’t see many joyful prophets lighting up Instagram in the Bible.  Thus Heschel gravely concludes, “To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction.” (21)

Moreover, the problem with identifying prophetic work with any kind of activism or truth-telling (whether in church or society) is that it cuts both ways on the ideological spectrum. If one talks to enough folks on the left and the right – and this is especially true the UMC at present – you learn that both sides feel like besieged, risk-taking prophets standing up to a stiff-necked church. Both sides, to use a hackneyed phrase, believe they are “speaking truth the power.”  Heschel was certainly right when he notes, “God is raging in the prophet’s voice.” (6)  But what if the prophets are self-selected?  Therein lies the perennial danger: we too quickly assume our own fury for that of the Divine.

A Solution: From Power to Reflection

In his wonderful little book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen names temptations common to leadership and offers particular disciplines as solutions.  He concludes this brief treatise by discussing the temptation “to be powerful.”  In different ways, both the right-wing and left-wing perversions of the prophetic are temptations to power.  Fundamentalists manipulate Scripture to show forth their own insight and giftedness, unlocking “secrets” of the end times heretofore unknown.  In so doing they often amass large followings (and bank accounts).  Progressives too quickly make use of the prophetic role to mask their own ideological agendas with a veneer of Biblical authority, and claim God’s voice for whatever the cause happens to be that week.

For Nouwen, the solution is “theological reflection.”  He concludes,

“Few ministers and priests think theologically. most of them have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms.  Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice of ministry.  Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, psuedo-social workers.” (65-66)

Theological reflection is critical because without it, we will too quickly mistake our words for God’s, and so make fools of ourselves when speaking on His behalf (as a pastor, I’ve done this more than once).  This discipline is sorely lacking in every corner of the church, Mainline or Evangelical, Catholic or Charismatic.  Such a poverty of theological insight is all the more problematic because we (all of us, including the author) are quick to forget that we are not brilliant by virtue of living in the 21st century or having masses of education.  The great missionary and ecumenist Lesslie Newbigin points out that we may come to different conclusions than Paul, but that doesn’t  make us Paul’s moral superiors; we are apt to be as blind to some things in our day as Paul may have been to certain obvious evils in his.  Instead, says Newbigin,

“The true reading of history seems to be this, that every new increase of man’s mastery over earth and sea and sky opens up possibilities not only of nobler good, but also of baser and more horrible evil, and that even those movements of social progress which can point to real achievement in the bettering of society have to be put side by side with these equally real movements of degeneration which have sometimes actually arisen out of the same social improvements.” (17)

In other words, what we consider “prophetic” may in reality unleash something more horrific than that which we speak out against.  Or, on the other hand, our obsession with seeing the future may blind us to the needs of the present.  We are all still afflicted by the fall, and this side of the eschaton we must be wary of confusing our mouth with the mouth of God, or to conflating our will with the will of Christ. A steady discipline of theological reflection, done with and through the church and her teachers – and including those with whom we disagree – is the only way that the prophetic task can escape the hubris of either future-casting or banal activism.  The prophetic task (as noted at the top) of interpreting events and phenomena from a Divine perspective is an awesome and humbling vocation, and one that none of us should assume too quickly nor hold lightly.

I’ll let Nouwen have the last word:

“I think we are only half aware of how secular even theological schools have become. Formation in the mind of Christ, who did not cling to power but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, is not what most seminaries are about. Everything in our competitive and ambitious world militates against it. But to the degree that such formation is being sought and realized, there is hope for the Church of the next century.” (69-70)

 

P.S. My apologies to those who had trouble viewing this before. I had severe problems with WordPress continuing to revert it to a draft after publishing. I think I have fixed it now. Thanks for your patience.

Sources:

Coogan, Michael D. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (New York: Oxford University Press 2006).

Newbigin, Lesslie. Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003).

Nouwen, Henri. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroads 1989).

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St. Paul and John Wesley as Theologians

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Part of N.T. Wright’s project in Paul and the Faithfulness of God is to show how and why St. Paul invented the discipline of Christian theology through the course of his pastoral ministry. To sum up a complex argument, Wright suggests that Paul had to practice what we now call Christian theology because neither the central worldview symbols of Judaism nor those of the pagan world could bear the intellectual freight needed to sustain his new faith communities. Wright is, of course, no suppercessionist, but he argues that the creative reworking Paul does in light of the Messiah’s revelation means that something new – this thing called theology – was needed (necessity being, of course, the mother of invention). Against many who have attempted to see Paul as primarily an “occasional” or “contingent” writer with no discernible core, Wright suggests there is a recoverable worldview and theology at work in all of his letters. Near the conclusion of Volume 1, he reflects:

So when people say, as they often do, that Paul ‘was not a systematic theologian’, meaning that ‘Paul didn’t write a medieval Summa Theoligica or a book that corresponds to Calvin’s Institutes,’ we want to say: Fair enough. So far as we know, he didn’t. But the statement is often taken to mean that Paul was therefore just a jumbled, rambling sort of thinker, who would grab odd ideas out of the assortment of junk in his mental cupboard and throw them roughly in the direction of the problems presented to him by his beloved and frustrating ekklesiai. And that is simply nonsense. The more time we spend in the careful reading of Paul, and in the study of his worldview, his theology and his aims and intentions, the more he emerges as a coherent thinker. His main themes may well not fit the boxes constructed by later Christian dogmatics of whatever type. They generate their own categories, precisely as they are transforming the ancient Jewish ones, which are often sadly neglected in later Christian dogmatics. They emerge, whole and entire, thought through with a rigour which those who criticize Paul today (and those who claim to follow him, too!) would do well to match. (Paul and the Faithfulness of God [Minneapolis: Fortress 2013], 568.)

The heirs of John Wesley have often faced similar criticism. Sure, he wrote a little commentary and many sermons, and we have some lovely correspondences, but we don’t have the big volumes like those stirring Calvinists do. But, starting with folks like Albert Outler and Thomas Langford, the 20th century saw the rebirth of an attempt to take Wesley seriously as a theologian. Perhaps not a systematic theologian of the academic model, but a practical theologian whose work was indelibly marked by his calling to serve actual Christians on the ground. That kind of work has its own disciplines, unique rigor, and fruitful insights for the renewing of the mind (see Romans 12:2) that Christian theology seeks to make possible.

The best theologians, in my experience, are people who have actually served the Church with all its attendant warts and scars. Bishop Wright is an example of this trend and, if Wright is correct, the first theologian was also a pastor. If his argument holds for Paul, I think there is also something here for heirs of Wesley. He, too, had a coherent theology that emerges as you actually immerse yourself in his work. The Methodist Godfather, also like Paul, has often been dismissed as unsystematic and “occasional.” And finally, Wesley – again like Paul before him – thought through his pastoral-theological work prayerfully,  and with a degree of care that all who seek to do the work of parish ministry (or the work of a theologian) would do well to imitate.

wesley reading

“It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. ”
― John Wesley

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The Blindness of Rejecting Tradition

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Notice the use of a creed here?

Much of modernity (think the post-1700’s world) can be explained as a steady, systematic rejection of tradition. Whether this is in the realm of politics, science, religion, or social norms, the last several hundred years have seen the Western world (and those places influenced by the West like Turkey, for instance) steadily retreat from the moors that had held it in bygone eras. Whether this is a positive or negative development is a separate debate; what interests me is the way in which the rejection of tradition has itself become a tradition in the oh-so-un-self-conscious modern world.   Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian of Christian doctrine at Yale (until his death in 2006), wrote the following reflections about the debate between “Bible” and “tradition” that came to a head during the Reformation:

“But tradition there certainly was, even before and within the Bible and not simply after the Bible: tradition was…the ‘source and environment of Scripture.’ [However,] drawing a sharp distinction between gospel and tradition had been a major plank in the platform of the Protestant Reformers.”

As NT Wright has described elsewhere, the newly invented Reformation divide between Scripture and Tradition is in many ways a false dichotomy.  What were the gospel authors writing out of, if not established (even if early) traditions about Jesus?   Paul uses the language of tradition when he reminds Timothy to keep “what I passed on to you.” (1 Cor. 15:3)  Pelikan argues that studying the historiography of the Reformation leads one to

“…the uncovering of the processes by which the very anti-traditionalism of the Reformation has itself become a tradition.  After four centuries of saying, in the the well known formula of the English divine, William Chillingworth, that ‘the Bible only is the religion of Protestants,’ Protestants have, in this principle, nothing less than a full-blown tradition.” (The Vindication of Tradition, [New Haven: Yale University Press 1984], 9, 11.)

There really is no escaping tradition.  Jeff Stout of Princeton made a similar point in Democracy & Tradition: those who would reject Western-style democracy as antithetical to tradition (particularly, here, Christian tradition) should take note that democracy is itself a tradition and a simplistic rejection for rejection’s sake is ultimately unhelpful.  So too, is the knee-jerk and often over-blown reaction against any kind of tradition.

My own part of the Christian family just argued about the possibility of online communion. As with so many other fronts in the so-called ‘Worship Wars,’ many took sides based solely on a rejection or embracing of tradition itself.  Thus, every attempt to get “beyond” tradition only forms a new one in its place. This is why an increasing number of young adults find ‘contemporary’ worship a vapid experience designed by and for their parents’ generation, and are turning instead to expressions of faith that are more tied to practices and prayers which possess deeper roots.

Simply replicating or rejecting tradition is not the point. The point is healthy development, which neither rejects tradition willy-nilly nor embalms it in order to preserve it.  As Pelikan says elsewhere, “It is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the fossil museum.”  (p. 60)

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Book Review: The Jew Named Jesus

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     I rarely read hot-off-the-presses books (you might say ‘cheap’, but I prefer good old-fashioned stewardship), so getting to read Rebekah Simon-Peter‘s new book The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message was a real treat.*  Equal parts memoir, salvation history, and a challenging call to the church today, Simon-Peter’s highly personal new book addresses some crucial questions in the life of the church.

Simon-Peter’s story is a fascinating one.  Raised a Jew, and spending time in both Orthodox and Reform circles, she experienced a dramatic encounter with Jesus that led her to search.  That quest eventually brought her not just to to the church, but to seminary and ordained ministry as a United Methodist Elder.  In this respect, she has much in common with Lauren Winner, who has also narrated her journey from Judaism to Christianity.  Most interesting here is Simon-Peter’s search for identity: her entrance into the church made her an outlier in many Jewish circles, while the Jewish identity and faith she wished to still claim caused her challenges in reading the New Testament and understanding her identity as a Jesus-follower (marrying a Catholic do doubt made things interesting as well).  On p. 21, she describes herself as a “Reform-Odox-Metho-Juda-Lic.” (!) Most fascinating are the tidbits about her work, as a Jewish-Christian clergywoman, with an African-American UM congregation.  There are serious implications here for Jewish-Christian relations and for how the church relates to Jews who have come to follow Christ.

Furthermore, Simon-Peter does an admirable job dealing with some very heady problems in post-Holocaust New Testament studies.  The horrors of the Shoa loom large across any contemporary discussion of Jewish-Christian relations, and Biblical interpretation is front and center in these debates.  Her chapters address weighty biblical and theological questions: “Was Jesus A Christian?”; “Did the Jews Reject Jesus?”; “Did the Jews Kill Jesus?”; “Has God Rejected the Jews?”  Sadly, these answers are not obvious to many today in both academic and ecclesial circles.  The identity of Jesus as a Jew is still a source of embarrassment both for the Anglo church and for scholars who have preferred to see Jesus as a radical or revolutionary rather than a faithful Jew of the 1st century AD. Likewise, the critical place of Israel in God’s plan (“salvation is from the Jews”), which has not been undone but fulfilled in Christ, is often missing in much Christian thought and speech.  Simon-Peter provides a helpful corrective on these and other points.

While not an in-depth scholarly treatment, she does address these vital topics in ways that would be accessible to anyone.  For clergy and those who have studied either comparative religion or Biblical studies to a significant degree, I would hope that much of this is not new.  For those who have not explored these matters, however, this is an excellent and worthwhile introduction.

A couple of concerns are worth mentioning.  It’s a fairly skinny book, at around 100 pages of text.  I imagine this has to do with the targeted audience; I found myself wanting deeper exploration in several areas, but a shorter work probably prevents many who should read this from being scared off.  About 3/4 of the way through, I was worried Simon-Peter was not going to mention some of the central themes of the so-called New Perspective on Paul, which has been largely shaped by the concerns she raises.  Near the end she gets there, writing:

“The point is that we are so accustomed to seeing Paul refracted by Luther’s fights with the church, that it’s difficult to see and hear Paul on his own terms.” (80)

That said, I would have liked to have seen more engagement with this literature reflected in her endnotes (folks like Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, and Doug Campbell come to mind).  Instead, she relies a bit heavily on Amy-Jill Levine (an excellent source, to be sure), particularly her Jewish Annotated New Testament.  A couple of times Simon-Peter references less than impressive sources such as the notes or introductions from the NIV Study Bible or New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Her argument would be bolstered by reckoning with what Lesslie Newbigin called “the scandal of particularity,” which helps explain why 21st century people find the concept of chosenness so deeply offensive.  Likewise, some engagement with Barth’s concept of election (in which election becomes about Jesus rather than double predestination of the “true church” in today’s aggressive neo-Calvinism) could be fruitful in her attempts to connect Israel’s vocation to the Church’s mission.

Simon-Peter does some of her best reflection when making use of interlocutors such as NT Wright and Diana Butler Bass. Her writing style is easy to read and informal, and she uses enough humor to keep you interested.  Occasionally her language is a bit imprecise or unexplained (for instance, on p. 86 she uses the phrase “universal salvation” in passing with no elaboration). By and large, though, these are minor quibbles with an otherwise well-done book that serves an important role in the current conversations between Christians and Jews.

The Jew Named Jesus addresses questions that are too often ignored and mishandled.  Centuries of getting these things wrong laid the groundwork not only for vicious anti-Semitism in Europe and America, but for the near-extermination of the Jewish people at the hands of baptized Christians.  Much is at stake here.  As a pastor, I still get asked some of these questions regularly.  After a recent trip to Israel, more than one parishioner asked me, “How could someone live over there, see all those places, and still not believe in Jesus?” Early in my ministry, I watched in horror as a pastor performed a clunky Messianic seder** at a youth group meeting complete with an altar call and everything (I later discovered that the UM Book of Worship instructs, rightly so, that such celebrations are disrespectful unless led by a Jew).  Worse still are the blatantly racist comments one still hears on the mouths of too many churchgoers, at least here in the Bible Belt.

But such misunderstanding and ongoing division will not endure into the eschaton.  Simon-Peter’s closing chapter, “A New Heaven and A New Earth,” may be her best.  “Something more powerful than ‘us versus them’ awaits us,” she says hopefully in the concluding pages. (102)  Amen, and come, Lord Jesus. We your people – both the branch and the “wild olive shoots” –  await your Kingdom. (See Rom. 9-11, which Simon-Peter uses several times.)  Help us to anticipate it, celebrate it, and lean into it now.

*A copy of this book was provided to the author for the purposes of review.

**My favorite line from the book confirmed a long-held suspicion of mine about Messianic Judaism: “They seemed to me to be no more than Evangelical Christianity covered with a patina of Hebrew.” (101) She goes on to say that Messianic Judaism has matured greatly in recent years, which I long to see confirmed myself.  Nonetheless, that line caused me to laugh our loud.

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