Category Archives: History

Newbigin & the Enlightenment

For class last week, we read through the first few chapters of Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. It was pretty hard stuff. I managed to pull enough out of the text to respond to the questions. Your thoughts are welcomed on anything below (or on other tangents as well, hahaha)…

Newbigin on Doubt & Dogma

The Enlightenment use of “dogma” carries a strong negative connotation (postscript 2-25-08: it’s baaaack!), a tie to faith-based ignorance and/or arrogance. In an appeal to New Testament etymology, Newbigin traces “dogma” to dokein, which means “to seem.” In Acts 16, the Jerusalem Council decreed what “seemed good to a competent authority and was promulgated as such.” (Newbigin p.5) Chances are that even a brief history lesson describing our faith reveals dogma’s entanglement “with coercion, with political power, and so with the denial of freedom – freedom of thought and of conscience.” (Newbigin p.10) But our defense of pure and essential dogma can fairly claim that its past abuses do not necessarily make it inherently flawed or evil. Nevertheless, these days, this term carries so much ‘baggage’ – needs so much ‘unpacking’ – that I try to avoid it in describing the essentials of our faith, and instead find it much more productive to attempt to revive the narrative of God’s love for and involvement among us.

Newbigin on Tradition & Authority

A key Enlightenment paradigm was the rejection of authority as implicitly tied to tradition. Everything was to be tested (postscript 2-25-08: it’s baaaack!). Newbigin says that any defense of the Christian faith must address the Enlightenment era’s rejection of giving such weight to tradition. I struggled with this section of the reading. I’m unclear on precisely what Newbigin advocates, but I take a cue for my own response to attacks on authority and tradition from an anatomy illustration he uses. On pages 40 and 41, Newbigin points to John Oman’s reflections on the frailty of the optic nerves in his book Vision and Authority. He comments so powerfully on the writings of his first theology teacher: “It would seem, in other words, that the Creator had intended fallibility to be part of our human nature, and that the appeal to an authority beyond our own fallible vision is an offense against our Creator.” (Newbigin p. 41) So, in response to Enlightenment criticisms of the tacit authority carried by my faith’s tradition, I say, “That’s a good point… maybe those guys didn’t have it all figured out. Let’s explore it some more…” In other words, perhaps the best defense against Enlightenment claims about tradition is a healthy dose of realizing humanity’s fallibility. This selection from Newbigin merits an entire week’s worth of reading. So in the absence of fully grasping his theses on tradition and authority, I’ll just go on trying to be a good Berean.

Newbigin on Reason & Revelation

A solid response to Enlightenment claims about Christianity’s ties to reason and revelation simply rests on the issue of context. Newbigin says it well: “the development of a tradition of rationality is never unrelated to the social, political, economic, military, and cultural changes which the society in question is going through.” (Newbigin p. 54) In my mind, if today’s challengers to faith want to embrace pluralism, they must concede that their own framework (i.e. tradition of rationality) arose from a particular context and is not sufficiently universal to make unreasonable my decision to pursue a life of faith.

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Thesis 9

A long time ago Matt and I started a joint-blogging project (March 31 was the launch… wow). It was a discussion of a 9-part article, “Learning to Read the Bible Again.” We devoted a post to each of the theses in the article, and tried to pull in some outside voices with whom to compare notes. Well I’ve finally reached the end of the project, Matt finished Thesis 9 a while back. Anyway, it’s high time I jot some of my own thoughts down on the last thesis. Without further ado…

9. We live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God; consequently, scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh re-readings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.

Because the narrative of scripture is open to a future that God will give, and because our vision is limited by creaturely finitude and distorted by sinfulness, we lack the perspective of the finished drama as we seek to live faithfully in the present. Yet we trust that the story is moving to a final consummation in which God will overcome death and wipe away every tear from our eyes. Knowing that we do not see ourselves and our world from God’s point of view, we are grateful for the gifts of scripture and community and for the possibilities of mutual correction in love that they offer. We are also grateful for scripture’s promise that the Spirit of God will lead us into truth, which gives us hope that our speech and practice might yet be a faithful witness to the righteous and merciful God who is made known to us in Jesus Christ.

If the story has not yet reached its conclusion, does this have implications for understanding the relationship between scripture’s identification of God and the claims made by other religious traditions? How are our fresh rereadings to be distinguished from interpretations of scripture that purport to separate the “kernel” of the gospel from the “husk” of cultural accretions? To what standards of accountability are we called in order to keep our rereadings faithful to the God of Jesus Christ?

I chuckle when I imagine the disciples eagerly asking, naively and expectantly asking, “So, like, next week… that’s when you’re gonna restore the Kingdom… right, Rabbi?” (Acts 1:6) But we do the same thing, don’t we? We just leave it up to God to bring the Kingdom here, and we’re pretty sure it’ll be any day now. Hope is great, but by no means should it devolve into lazy expectancy. And that’s why it’s so important to begin the discussion of our last thesis with the “tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of the kingdom of God.” Like millions of believers who have preceded us, we still have a lot of work to do. Roll up your sleeves, open your Bible, and share with your brothers and sisters what you find.

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Tag. You’re It.

 

I’ve been tagged by Stewart.

Here are the rules:

  • Grab the book closest to you.
  • Turn to page 161.
  • Copy the 5th complete sentence into your blog.
  • Tag 5 others.

The book closest on my desk was The Kingdom of the Cults, edited by Ravi Zacharias, and originally authored by Walter Martin.

Page 161, 5th complete sentence (you ready for this?):

“The claim by Bill and Dittemore that the directors had usurped the authority of Eddy and acted contrary to her expressed wishes went unchallenged for the most part by the Christian Science board of directors, for Dittemore had strong evidence from The Memoirs of Adam Dickey, which the board suppressed, and excerpts from the unpublished writings of Eddy’s secretary, Calvin A. Frye, that she expected a personal successor within fifty years.”

Well, a little Christian Science political history never hurt anyone, I suppose…

I tag Matt, Nate, Taylor, Travis, and Chris.

Thesis #5

5. The four canonical Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus.The Gospels, read within the matrix of scripture from Genesis to Revelation, convey the truth about the identity of Jesus more faithfully than speculative reconstructions produced by modernist historical methods. The canonical narratives are normative for the church’s proclamation and practice.
How are the four portraits of Jesus related to one another? To what extent are historical investigations necessary or helpful in understanding Jesus? How is the entirety of scripture necessary to an accurate portrayal of Jesus? To what extent is a right understanding of the whole of scripture necessary to an appropriate understanding of the identity of Jesus?

Prima facie, Thesis #5 is a pretty easy one to accept. T5 echoes a foundational orthodox truth that many Christ-followers probably just “grow up with.” Many of us never even thought to question this truth until an author by the name of Brown wrote that little novel about some DaVinci guy and his code. Etymology, though not a be-all-end-all reason, points us to affirming T5 as well. The term gospel comes to us from Old English (that of Beowulf but not quite Chaucer, in use from ca. 450-1100 A.D.). The OE expression god-spell (roughly “good tidings“) became slurred into our current term gospel. And god-spell is a pretty accurate translation of the Greek euangelion (eu, good, -angelion, message). So, Christians calling the first four books of the canonical New Testament the “gospel” isn’t a newly invented conspiracy by the (ir)Religious Right or a bunch of pomo narrativists. The belief in a concise anthology of the stories of Christ traces back fifteen-hundred years, the element of story has been in our term for that anthology forever. I dunno, I guess I’m just an etymology nerd. And there’s beauty in the establishedness and archaity of one damn good story.

Matt’s post.

How are the four portraits of Jesus related to one another? Well, the obvious response is that they each point to Jesus. They each tell his story. They each convict me in areas where I’m failing to love as he did. To try to come up with something really deep isn’t necessary; I’ll do that when I’ve got my adulterous eyes and murderous mind completely held in check. To what extent are historical investigations necessary or helpful in understanding Jesus? Necessary? Not very. Helpful? Definitely, and so interesting! Also, if we want to paint a comprehensive context in which to introduce people to Jesus and his message, these investigations have lots of potential. But, telling the story of Jesus in history and in one’s own life is not something that requires a deep academic knowledge of the context surrounding Jesus. How is the entirety of scripture necessary to an accurate portrayal of Jesus? Since Jesus was such a good guy, we like to picture him always neatly and royally dressed. But a casual reading of a certain prophet whose name begins with “I” debunks this image. Now, Jesus’ appearance is a minor issue. But it’s an example of material outside the Gospels contributing to a more accurate depiction of Christ. To what extent is a right understanding of the whole of scripture necessary to an appropriate understanding of the identity of Jesus? Very. Christ’s work and his identity are still important, and do indeed open the Kingdom to us. But just focusing on Christ’s divinity and saving sacrifice really misses the point. Be a whole, a mature Christ-follower and get to know the big picture of God’s involvement among us.

Thesis #1

It’s Tuesday. So it’s time to share some thoughts and brew on some questions about Thesis 1 of this humble project Matt and I are engaged in (read his post Thesis #1 here). Just to review, we’re discussing an article, “Learning to Read the Bible Again: 9 Theses on Interpreting Scripture.” Here’s today’s thesis:

1. Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging and saving the world.

God is the primary agent revealed in the biblical narrative. The triune God whom Christians worship is the God of Israel who called a people out of bondage, gave them the Torah, and raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. This same God is still at work in the world today. God is not a projection or construct of human religious aspiration. Readers who interpret the biblical story reductively as a symbolic figuration of the human psyche, or merely as a vehicle for codifying social and political power, miss its central message. Scripture discloses the word of God, a word that calls into existence things that do not exist, judges our presuppositions and projects, and pours out grace beyond our imagining.

For ongoing discussion: How is the biblical story of God’s action related to God’s continuing work in the contemporary world? How is the affirmation that God is at work in the world to be related to widespread evil and human suffering?

To start, I see a few things that require affirmation; certain elements of Thesis 1 cannot be overemphasized. First, Scripture is true. We can argue till we’re blue in the face about (in)errancy, but at the end of the day, I have peace knowing that Scripture is true. Unbiased and complementary sources all throughout history tell us the people are real, the places are real, the events are real. (I say “unbiased” with the realization in mind that most historians have to pick and choose what they publish… but it would have to be the biggest conspiracy in history for all these nonreligious writers to collectively reinforce an invented history.) The second big piece: God acts in this world. I have to respectfully disagree with Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Deists when I say God is not the Distant Watchmaker. Woohoo for you, Russell, you might say sarcastically, that sure is a lofty affirmation. But it is! A being acting among us who is characterized by even half of what we know God to be is simply incredible. And I think the theses’ authors are on to something when they mention “the divine imagination.” How crazy that there was a “covenant between the Creator of heaven and earth and an old man named Abraham.” Or one of the ultimate ironies: “the formation of a nation of priests out of a band of runaway slaves.” I mean, left to our own devices, we just don’t come up with stuff like that. As Charlie Murphy said in the “Prince” skit on The Chapelle Show: “I mean, there are some great storytellers in this world, but who the *@&# can make that kind of [stuff] up?” And so God’s design and story being played out (not to mention that it all happens in our midst) is simply amazing! The Bible is not a tool for backing up one’s agenda. Scripture should indeed direct our action, but this whole business of taking the Bible piecemeal, quoting this passage here and that snippet there has just got to stop. I want to note that I know this isn’t always cut-and-dry though. Personally, I do indeed appeal to Scripture when explaining why we should do more to help the impoverished. But isn’t that a broad theme found all across the Bible? It’s in the Torah, it’s in the Minor Prophets, it’s in the Major Prophets, it’s in Jesus’ message, it’s in the Epistles. So just because God once smote some unrepentant practicing homosexuals doesn’t mean you and I are empowered to do so for the rest of time. Basically, the whole of Scripture should be our guide. Can Greenpeacers who destroy private property or extreme right-wingers who act hostilely against the abortion industry honestly tell me that their actions can be found all across the whole themes of Scripture? I personally don’t think so. How can use destruction be a mean to the end of living out our role that comes with being made in the Creator’s image?

Now for the thesis’ accompanying questions… this is where we dialog. So please don’t read my responses assuming I’ve got it all figured out.

  • How is the biblical story of God’s action related to God’s continuing work in the contemporary world? God is steady. He continues to create, judge, and save… just as he has for thousands of years. I think the biblical story is related to God’s presence among us today in that He has given us a pretty good idea of how He operates (don’t misinterpret that as meaning ‘we have God all figured out by now’), and it’s our job to come alongside what He’s up to. We are to take inspiration and direction from the lonnnnng narrative of God’s interaction with our ancestors with the goal of trying to keep up with what He’s doing today.
  • How is the affirmation that God is at work in the world to be related to widespread evil and human suffering? God is indeed at work. Want to know how He’s at work? He’s prodding me. He’s prodding you. “Hey, look at that genocide. Dude, I created those people. That’s not cool. Do something!” I don’t want to appear to take this issue too lightly, but it really doesn’t perplex or confuse me too much. I’ll leave you with a quote from Gary Haugen, former Principal U.N. Investigator in the Rwandan genocide, and now the director of the International Justice Mission: “There’s good news about injustice: God hates it. […] So what’s his plan for action? Surprise: Us!”

Rhythm

Rhythm. I’ve been out of it for a while, as far as blogging goes. I guess the rhythm has actually become silence. But before I wax poetic (<– aren’t non “-ly” adverbs cool?) about how I’ve lapsed into total blogging failure, I’ll just update you on a few things. Continue reading