Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Last Word 6

Today we visit chapter 5 of N.T. Wright's "The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture". In this chapter, Wright covers the history of biblical interpretation and authority of scripture in the first 1600 years of the church. It is more a cursory look at those 16 centuries as that isn't the entire focus of the book.

Wright describes the early church, the Christians in the second and third centuries, as keeping the scriptures central (along with the tradition of the church) in their defense against the attacks on Christianity that had risen from Marcion and the Gnostics. He views the early church as a 'scripture-reading community' at its heart. The appeal to scripture led to an 'emphasis on the historical nature of the church', which stressed the continuity from the time of Jesus to their own as well as the continuity from the days of Abraham.

The emphasis on the Jewish nature of the Scriptural story was difficult to maintain as the church expanded into the Greek world. As time went on, the idea of scriptural authority became detached from the context of the biblical narrative, which then isolated it from the goal of the kingdom. Scripture instead developed into a court of appeal (the rule-book from which doctrine and ethics were decided) and lectio devina (devotional reading where individuals could hear God personally).

The next major shift in the use of Scripture was the development of allegory as a major technique for understanding the Bible. The church leaders insisted on the importance of keeping the whole Scripture central, yet they developed ways of lessening the tension between the authority of Scripture and the interpretation. The big question that Wright asks here is, "How far can a reinterpretation of the text go before it ceases to carry the authority which was the point of interpreting it in the first place? At what point in this process are we forced to conclude that what is really authoritative within such an operation is the system of theology or devotion already believed or embraced on other grounds, which is then 'discovered' in the text by the interpretive method being used?"

The medieval church developed four different "senses" of Scripture in order to help ascertain meaning: the literal (the original meaning, which may itself include allegory if that allegory was originally intended), the allegorical (the discovery of Christian doctrine in a passage where the original meaning did not have anything to do with it), the anagogical (a way of discovering in the text a picture of the future life - i.e., Psalms that talk about going up to Jerusalem as referring to lifting up the heart and mind to contemplate higher things), and the moral (discovering lessons on how to behave hidden in texts which were not straightforwardly teaching such things). As with the allegorical interpretations, these four senses provided a way to ensure that the church would live under the authority of Scripture, even though at times they failed to pay attention to what Scripture itself was saying. The trouble was that once interpretation becomes this broad, you can make Scripture say anything and it no longer becomes authoritative in that it is no longer 'leading the way, energizing the church with the fresh breath of God himself'.

Along with the development of the 'four senses' came the development of the parallel authority of 'tradition' and the church became the guardian of that tradition. One of the major complaints of the Reformers was that tradition beliefs and practices were nowhere to be found in Scripture. They battled for the recovery of the literal sense of Scripture against the other three senses. Again, the "literal" sense refers to the original meaning of the text. For example, when Psalm 18:8 says that smoke comes out of God's nostrils, the "literal" sense is that this is a metaphor talking about the anger of God against those who oppress his people, not that God actually has giant smoke-filled nostrils.

Unfortunately, in their focus on the details of doctrine and practice, the Reformers missed the sense that Scripture is the narrative of "God, Israel, Jesus and the world, coming forward into our own day and looking ahead to the eventual renewal of all things". Their readings of the gospels focus a great deal on the saving events of Good Friday and Easter but do little to integrate those events into the Kingdom-proclamation that preceded them. While the Reformers recovered many things that had been missing, they left other important issues open for discussion.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Last Word 5

Continuing our journey through N.T. Wright's The Last Word, today we cover the fourth chapter where Wright describes the perspective of the early church on the Word.

Wright begins the chapter by looking at the early apostolic preaching which he describes as "neither a standard Jewish message with Jesus added on at the end, nor a free-standing announcement of a new religion cut off from its Jewish roots, but rather the story of Jesus understood as the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenant narrative, and thus the good news - the creative force which called the church into being and shaped its mission and life." This was the story in which the accomplishment of Jesus made sense.

In Romans, Paul described how the retelling of this ancient story which found fulfillment and climax in Jesus somehow carried power to change the hearts, minds, and lives of those who heard it. This power, which is described as God's power at work through the outpouring of the Spirit, called into existence a new covenant people, 'the restored Israel-for-the-world." The 'word' was not just information, not just agreed upon doctrinal truth statements, but was and is "the way God's Kingdom, accomplished in Jesus, was making its way in the world."

The church, known from the beginning as the "transformed people of God, as the community created by God's call and promise," was created and sustained by the powerful, effective and 'authoritative' word of God, written in the Old Testament, embodied in Jesus, announced to the world, and taught in the church." This was the heart of the church's mission, it's common life, the the call to holiness which would reflect both the true Israel and the new identity.

As the apostles began to write, they believed themselves "called to exercise their calling as 'authorized' teachers, by the guidance and power of the Spirit, writing books and letters to sustain, energize, shape, judge and renew the church." Those who read their writings quickly discovered that they carried the same power, the same "authority in cation" that had characterized the earlier oral preaching of the same 'word'.

Throughout the rest of the chapter, Wright wrestles with the early church's reading and application of Old Testament scripture. He argues that from the beginning, the church read the scriptures in a new way. They recognized that parts of the ancient texts were no longer relevant for their lives going forward - not because they weren't good or God-given, but "because they belonged with earlier parts of the story which had now reached its climax."

The early church was forced to quickly discover how to maintain continuity between the fulfillment of the covenant promises while recognizing that the new covenant was, in some senses, new and different. Wright gives a number of examples of continuity, including viewing the world as God's good creation, God's sovereign duty and promise to deal with evil, the covenant with Abraham as God's means for doing so, the call to holiness, and the renewal of genuine 'humanness'. The examples of discontinuity are myriad, including ancient Jewish purity laws (since Gentiles are welcome on equal terms), the temple and its sacrifices are not longer the focal point of God's interaction with his people, the sabbath and other rituals are no longer mandatory, etc.

Wright argues that since the emphasis is on the unique accomplishments of Jesus, the Old Testament could not continue to have the same role that it had before. Christianity doesn't repeat the earlier parts of the story; it celebrates the unique work of Jesus and builds upon it. Wright uses the illustration of travelers taking a voyage across an ocean. When they arrive at the distant shore, they leave the ship behind and continue over land. This isn't because the ship is no good or wasn't useful or that they had been misguided, but rather that the dry land portion of the trip required something different. Yet as they travel over dry land, they are still the same people that previously inhabited the ship.

This has implications for how we understand Scripture to interact with culture. Wright argues that we can never assume that any part of any culture is automatically to be endorsed or rejected. Much of ancient Jewish culture was embraced, as was much of the Greek culture, but much of both was also rejected. Wright summarizes: "The New Testament understands itself as the new covenant charter, the book that forms the basis for the new telling of the story through which Christians are formed, reformed and transformed so as to be God's people for God's world. That is the challenge the early Christians bequeath to us as we reconsider what 'the authority of scripture' might mean in practice today.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

My New Toy

The Last Word 4

The third chapter of N.T. Wright's The Last Word moves from the Old Testament to the New. The particular focus of the chapter is Jesus. Wright begins by looking to Jesus as the accomplishment or fulfillment to which the Old Testament scriptures had pointed. He writes, 'Jesus does, climactically and decisively, what scripture had in a sense been trying to do: bring God's fresh Kingdom-order to God's people and thence to the world...When he spoke of the scripture needing to be fulfilled, he was not simply envisaging himself doing a few scattered and random acts which corresponded to various distant and detached prophetic sayings; he was thinking of the entire storyline at last coming to fruition, and of an entire world of hints and shadows now coming to plain statement and full light.'

Apart from himself being the fulfillment of scripture, Wright also talks about Jesus' insistence upon scripture's authority. While he doesn't make it a major theme in his teaching, it is clear that Jesus' underlying attitude is one of attributing authority to the Old Testament scriptures.

Tying these two themes together, Wright responds to the otherwise puzzling passages where Jesus seemingly disregards traditional understanding of scripture. For instance, in the same passage where Jesus insists on the priority of scripture over man-made traditions, he declares foods to be clean that scripture had forbidden (Mark 7:1-23). Another example is that Jesus speaks very strongly in equating lust with adultery and anger with murder, yet is very loose with his interpretation of sabbath rest. A third example is the command to honor your father and mother, yet Jesus ignored his own family and told his followers that they must be prepared to hate their own families.

These, and other examples like them, do not make any sense unless we see Jesus as someone who both honors the authority of scripture as well as being the one who fulfills scripture. However, once we see Jesus in the context of the larger biblical narrative, we begin to get a glimpse of what the new covenant means and how it 'would both fulfill and transform the old one.' Jesus, as the embodiment of the word, has the authority to fulfill the authoritative written word of God in unexpected and surprising ways.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Last Word 3

In the second chapter of The Last Word, N.T. Wright begins discussing what is meant by God's Kingdom, particularly looking at the Old Testament and Israel as God's Kingdom people, then describing the role of scripture within God's Kingdom people.

He begins with a discussion about the presence of 'radical evil within the good creation and within the covenant people themselves' and wonders how God can be king with things as they are. He writes, 'The affirmation of God's present and future Kingdom therefore means the affirmation that God will act to deal with the problem, to rescue his people and complete his purpose for the whole of creation.' He repeatedly comes back to the interesting tension between God's calling of Israel to play an important role in setting the world right while themselves being part of the problem. To speak of God's Kingdom is to talk about God as 'the sovereign one who has the right, the duty, and the power to deal appropriately with evil in the world, in Israel and in human beings, and thereupon to remake the world, Israel and human beings.'

The question of the book then becomes, 'What was, and is, the role of scripture within this divine purpose? If this is what God's authority looks like, what part does an authoritative scripture have within it?' Wright proposes that 'Israel's sacred writings were the place where, and the means by which, Israel discovered again and again who the true God was, and how his Kingdom-purposes were being taken forward...Through scripture, Israel was given order in her national life, a structured worship, wisdom for the conduct of daily life, rebuke and promise through the prophets, and, not least, songs through which to bring every mood, every moment into God's presence as praise, lament, adoration, perplexity, despair, hope and commitment.'

Wright then returns to the idea that 'the word' in the Old Testament is not synonymous with the written scriptures but was 'a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating.' He quotes such verses as Psalm 33:6, Jeremiah 23:29, Isaiah 40:8 and others. He writes, 'The word of YHWH is like an enormous reservoir, full of creative divine wisdom and power, into which the prophets and other writers tap by God's call and grace, so that the word may flow through them to do God's work of flooding or irrigating his people.'

For Wright, Israel was created as 'the people who heard God's word-in call, promise, liberation, guidance, judgment, forgiveness, further judgment, renewed liberation and renewed promise.' The point of telling the story of Israel was not to provide facts about what had happened in the past, but to 'generate once more the sense of Israel as the people called by YHWH for his purposes in the world, so that the writing and the telling of the story formed the further living embodiment of YHWH's call and promise. It was written to shape and direct the life of God's people.'

Wright concludes the chapter by turning briefly to the role of scripture in second temple Judaism, the 400 years before the arrival of Christ. He sees scripture's authority operating in two ways. First, 'it formed the controlling story in which Israel struggled to find its identity and destiny as the covenant people through and for whom God's justice would ultimately break upon the world.' Second, 'It formed the call to a present obedience...through which Israel could respond appropriately to God's call. Israel would thus be modeling the genuinely human existence which God willed for the whole world by living "under" scripture as controlling narrative and guide for daily life.' The different forms of Judaism that are observable in Jesus' day reflect different ways that people attempted to live under scripture as they waited for God to bring the story to its conclusion.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Last Word 2

In the first chapter of The Last Word, N.T. Wright lays out his central claim for the book: "The phrase 'authority of scripture' can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for 'the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.'"

He begins with the declaration that all authority is from God, which Jesus clarifies by claiming that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. The climax for John in his gospel is not the written word but the enfleshed word of Jesus Christ. Essentially, scripture itself authoritatively points away from itself and to the fact that the 'final and true authority belongs to God himself, now delegated to Jesus Christ.'

Wright then turns to the phrase 'the authority of scripture' and describes it as a phrase which acts as a 'portable story', a suitcase that is packed full of 'longer narratives about God, Jesus, the church and the world.' He uses the phrase 'the atonement' as another example. The phrase itself is very rare in the Bible, but we find statements like 'the Messiah died for our sins according to the scriptures'; 'God so loved the world that he gave his only son', etc. When we discuss the atonement, it is easier to use the phrase 'the atonement', assuming that it somehow encapsulates all that the Bible teaches about the atonement. It is useful and helpful to carry around these 'suitcases'. But Wright warns that the point of carrying them around is that they need at some point to be 'unpacked and put to use in the new location. Too much debate about scriptural authority has had the form of people hitting one another with locked suitcases.'

When we 'unpack the suitcase' of the authority of scripture, we recognize that it must mean something related to the authority of God exercised through scripture. Wright asks a number of questions that relate to this perspective: What might we mean by the authority of God or of Jesus? What role does scripture have within that? Where does the Spirit come into the picture? And, not least, how does this 'authority' actually work? How does it relate, if at all, to the 'authority' of leaders or office-bearers within the church?

Wright next looks at the fact that much of the Bible is a story and wonders how a story can be authoritative. His first example is a commanding officer briefing soldiers about what has been going on so that they will understand the mission they are about to undertake. His second example is a secretary of a club who has unsuccessfully warned the members of certain safety procedures and decides instead to put up a notice which contains a tragic story of a person who ignored the procedures and was harmed because of it. A third example is in the telling of a familiar story with a new twist or a surprising ending that causes the hearer to rethink their orientation to one another and to the world. In all of these cases, there is authority wielded, but it is not the kind of authority that we normally think about. His point in this section is that for the Bible to have the effect it is designed for, it can't be chopped up into little pieces (which he comes back to later).

Wright then asks what the Bible itself says about the authority of God. He writes, 'The biblical writers live with the tension of believing both that in one sense God has always been sovereign over the world and that in another sense this sovereignty, this saving rule, is something which must break afresh into the world of corruption, decay and death, and the human rebellion, idolatry and sin which are so closely linked with it...God's authority, if we are to locate it at this point, is his sovereign power accomplishing this renewal of all creation...In scripture itself God's purpose is not just to save human beings, but to renew the whole world. This is the unfinished story in which readers of scripture are invited to become actors in their own right." He thus ties in the authority of scripture with the mission of the church, the work of the spirit, the ultimate future hope, and the nature of the church and moves away from thinking of scripture as simply a rulebook or a suppository of correct doctrine. The question then becomes, "What role does scripture play within God's accomplishment of this goal?"

Wright concludes the chapter with a section about the devotional reading of scripture. He says that it is wrong to confuse devotion and authority. He gives examples of those who have 'heard God speaking' through scripture and have acted accordingly to great peril for everyone involved. Wright then offers three central tenets to the role of the Bible within the church and the individual believer. First, it reminds us that the God Christians worship is a God who speaks. Second, it is central that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, which means that as we read, our way of thinking is aligned to God's. Third, it reminds us that reading this book energizes us for the task of mission as we 'live out our calling to reflect the creator into his world.'

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Last Word 1

As I wrote earlier, I am beginning my post-seminary theological journey to begin to sort out what I really believe (for now) about a wide variety of theological issues. I am starting with my view of Scripture and I purchased three books to begin with. I have begun reading the first, N.T. Wright's 'The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture.' I decided to blog chapter by chapter through the book. In this post, I'm going to work through the prologue.

Wright begins with a brief history of the place of Scripture within the church. He describes the first 1500 years of the church as according Scriptures a major role in 'pursuing the mission of the church and strengthening it against persecution without and controversy within.' From the Reformation to the present, Scripture has been set against tradition as the possessing the 'central place in their faith, life and theology.

Additionally, Scripture has never been seen as only a reference book that Christians check in with when theological and practical questions are raised. There is a devotional and discipleship component that informs and transforms the believer.

Wright then describes five ways that contemporary culture 'impinges on the questions that are being asked about the Bible'.

First, the shift from modern to post-modern culture 'creates a mood of uncertainty' within western society. This happens because the old metanarratives have been deconstructed, the idea of truth has been attacked, and the question of personal identity has been understood differently. This uncertainty then gives birth to an anxious desire for something certain which causes some to return to various forms of fundamentalism and others to a form of premodernism.

Second, culture impinges on the questions being asked about the Bible in the area of politics. In reflecting on a post-Holocaust world, Wright reflects that 'virtually all Western moral and political debate has taken place in a world where we know certain things are wrong but aren't sure how to put them right.' Within this context, the Bible's 'narratives of exodus and conquest, of liberation and monarchy, of exile and return, and of the universal claims of Jesus' cannot be ignored.

Third, philosophy causes us to ask different questions of the Bible. Wright claims that existentialism and analytic philosophy have been found to be 'dead-end streets', yet these and other ways of thinking about the world have heavily influenced Biblical studies. The fact that these philosophical approaches have been discredited in the world means that new philosophical approaches are beginning to speak into the way we read the Bible.

The fourth area where culture changes the questions being asked of the Bible is theology. Wright describes how systematic theologians have tended to ignore the place of the Bible in theology. Often, the Bible has been simply a resource to refer to rather than something that contains authority that theology ought to, in some way, submit to.

The fifth area Wright describes is ethics. Just war theory and pacifism, gender and sexuality, and other issues force us to ask the question of how these issues relate to the Bible.

Wright then suggests that we need a fresh word from God. He writes, 'Jesus' parables broke into the world of first-century Judaism, cracking open ways of understanding God's Kingdom and creating hermeneutical space for fresh insight in which people could imagine different ways of thinking, praying and living. In the same way, scripture itself holds out the continuing promise that God's word will remain living, active, powerful and fruitful.' He claims that it is not acceptable to simply quote a passage of Scripture and assume that a reference settles the question. Wright offers the following questions which will be the scope of the rest of the book:

1. In what sense is the Bible authoritative in the first place?
2. How can the Bible be appropriately understood and interpreted?
3. How can its authority, assuming such appropriate interpretation, be brought to bear on the church itself, let alone the world?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Select A Candidate

This week I tried out a few of the "select a candidate" questionnaires that you can find all over the internet. I was hoping a nameless, faceless quiz would tell me who to vote for so I wouldn't have to face the pressure of deciding. I don't want to spend the next four years feeling guilty about the person I help put in the White House. If I let the quiz decide for me, all guilt is removed...

Unfortunately, the three questionnaires did not arrive at a consensus for me. This one gave me Barack Obama. This one gave me John Edwards. This one gave me Hilary Clinton. Out of sheer frustration, I tried a fourth. Somehow, this one resulted in a tie between John Edwards and Mike Huckabee (I'm not quite sure how that's possible...).

I think what this means is one or more of the following:
a. The quizzes are hopelessly flawed
b. The quizzes are all operated by leftist groups who are trying to convince America to vote Democratic
c. I'm a liberal
d. None of the Democratic candidates are very different from each other
e. I am deeply dissatisfied with all of the potential candidates and only agree with about 10% of any of their platforms

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Lost Teachings Of Jesus 2

Read my post at the Jesus Manifesto web-zine here. Those of you who attend The River might be interested in interacting as this is the passage we'll be talking about this Sunday...

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


There has been quite a dust-up in the youth ministry world as the organization Young Life has fired a number of staffers due to a change in policy regarding the way the gospel is to be presented. Several bloggers have picked up on the controversy: Mark van Steenwyk, Tony Jones, and Rick Lawrence.

Apparently the problem is that Young Life has required that the gospel presentation must begin with people gaining recognition of their sinful state before they hear about the mercy, grace and love of God. This perspective has gained popularity thanks to Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron's Way of the Master training.

This infuriates me. How dare we say that there is only one approach to the gospel when the Bible itself contains a wide variety of approaches? How arrogant to say that this way is somehow "Jesus' Way" and that any other method is "man-centered". In fact, several prominent theologians have described ways of sharing God's message of hope based on the deep longings that are common to all humanity, perhaps rooted in our very creation in the image of God.

N.T. Wright begins his book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense with four "echoes of the voice of God" in today's world: a longing for justice, a quest for spirituality, hunger for relationships, and a delight in beauty. He then describes through the rest of the book how the true and living God made manifest in Jesus Christ speaks into and fulfills those longings. He doesn't ignore sin and repentance, he just doesn't start there.

LeRon Shults approaches things in a similar vein by talking about three universal desires: to love and be loved, to know and be known, and to belong and to be longed for. When we talk about what it means when we say "Jesus Saves", it includes saving us from the destructive and selfish ways we have sought to fulfill those desires and saving us into a new way of living and being.

It seems to me that when we attempt to share the good news of Jesus, we would do well to listen to the other person first. If the gospel is actually GOOD news, then it ought to resonate powerfully with the longings, experiences, and hopes of humanity. Finding those places within conversations and relationships seems to be a far better way than to slap on a "one-size-fits-all" minimization of the gospel.

Keys to the Kingdom Series

If you haven't begun reading Scot McKnight's series of posts about the kingdom and the church on his Jesus Creed blog, you should check them out. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Politics God's Way?

So the results of the Iowa Caucus are in. As an Iowa native, they always intrigue me a little bit. When else is the entire country focused on the corn fields? I would be willing to bet that there won't be as many reporters in Iowa in the next four years combined as there were over the last few weeks.

The results of the caucus led into a discussion with my friend Ben this morning about forms of government. I post regularly on the Jesus Manifesto webzine which is a self-proclaimed hangout for thoughtful Christian anarchists. We talked about anarchism and its approach. I don't necessarily agree with all of it, but I resonate with the sentiments of distrust toward power structures. I certainly don't think that a democratic system is a God-ordained form of government. Neither is communism. Neither is anarchism. Neither is socialism.

In fact, the only God-ordained form of government that I can come up with is Theocracy. Unfortunately, even the theocratic government that God Himself instituted didn't work. My thinking is that if God couldn't set up a good government, we're probably not going to be able to either.

I tend to think of government as a wholly distinct system that God is rather ambivalent toward. The Kingdom of God crosses national and ethnic boundaries. God doesn't bless one form of government over another. He certainly doesn't take the side of America over and against other nations because our government historically has a foundation of faith. Whatever the system, there is injustice and abuse that happens. And wherever abuse and injustice happens, God stands against those who use their power to harm others.

Does that mean that it doesn't matter what forms of government we choose? It matters, but not so much in ordaining a certain form as "the Christian approach to government". I think that whatever forms of government we use, it is the role of Christians to be a prophetic voice to speak against injustice and abuse. In the end, every form is going to fail at some level because the people involved in government are broken vessels. But we ought to make the best of what we have, figure out what works in our context to limit abuse and injustice, and seek to be a nation that brings peace and hope to the world. To the extent that our democratic process is able to do that, it should be praised. To the extent that it fails, it should be spoken against.

I am personally very glad that there is, thus far, no candidate that evangelical Christians have rallied behind as "The Christian Choice" for the next president. It makes us rethink the role of government in our society and the role of the church in relation to that government. That process of continually rethinking and reevaluating can only be helpful as we seek to be faithful and prophetic witnesses within our American context.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Jesus Manifesto Article

Hey everyone. I have an article up at the Jesus Manifesto webzine about forgiveness...particularly focusing on Matthew 6:14-15. Join the discussion here.

The New Year

One of my goals for the new year is to begin to discover some answers (or at least some relief of tension) to some of the troubling theological questions that I've been wrestling with for a while. Though I rarely approach anything systematically, I thought a bit of organizational structure to this journey might be helpful. So I have decided to focus on one area to begin with - my view of Scripture. I ordered the following books as a starting point (thank you Amazon Prime and your free 2 day shipping!!).

Any other recommendations?