Getting the a priori doctrines right

I’ve been thinking for some time about how that, if you don’t have the a priori doctrines straight, all the doctrines that follow get screwed up. By a priori doctrines, I mean Creation (what the world is, what it is for, what God wants for it), the doctrine of man (what humans are, what we were made for, and what our goal is) and the doctrine of God’s will (what God’s intentions are, and His own desire). When these get off-track, everything after them gets way off course.  Soteriology (what ‘salvation’ even is, and what’s its aim is), Eschatalogy (what the end-goal for Christian living is, based on God’s intent), to name just a couple, but really two of the biggest in the overall scheme of a Christian understanding of, well, everything!

 

Even simple categories of things like what the word ‘good’ means, get twisted bizarrely out of shape in Christian theology, when we get the a priori doctrines wrong. I have heard versions of Protestant theology that actually take a Hebrew word like ‘good’ and, by the time they have wrenched a few verses from St. Paul out of shape, end up boldly stating that ‘good’ really means ‘bad’ in the Bible, especially in regards to soteriology! It’s bizarre. And, unfortunately, common.

 

One of the mechanisms through which this happens, is to play the ‘two covenants’ card at every turn. In doing so, the phrase “well, that was the Old Testament” comes up continually, spiritualizing virtually every concept out of its Hebrew shape, and landing us in a much more gnostic religion than the one Jesus grew up singing, praying and worshipping in. I have even read of one of today’s leading Reformed preachers stating that if you want to understand what Paul means about salvation, you have to go back and read the 16th century Protestant reformers! Lol! How about, if we want to understand Paul, we investigate the worldview he lived in, and what his words meant in the first century and its context, rather than what people 15 centuries and three worldviews later thought!

 

One of the things commonly occurring in this discussion is people believing that they have a ‘biblical’ view of things, when they actually have a 15th century, Western European, Latinized, Christianized, Greek philosophical view. To get the a priori doctrines right, we have to go back to the Jewish beliefs of Jesus’ day, and ancient times before that, to the original (and subsequently developed) meanings of the Old Testament. This solid foundation (which ‘will not pass away’, and which Jesus ‘came to fulfill’) will provide us the ability to get a biblical shape to doctrines of salvation and what God wants us humans to do. The New Testament’s meanings are understood when we aren’t confused about the Old Testament’s meanings. We have to get right the a priori doctrines of the purpose of the Creation, humanity, and God’s will.

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Wealth and Prosperity

Although in our time, with the extreme disparity between ultra-rich and ultra-poor that we are aware of, wealth and prosperity have become words with a negative association in many peoples’ minds, in the ancient Near Eastern biblical texts, wealth and prosperity are seen as blessings, “every man under his own vine,” a security for the survival and safety of your family, a hedge against famine and weather. It is only, as a West Virginia great-grandmother recently put it, “ill-gotten gain” that is critiqued as a sin against the poor and their Creator. That, and fairly acquired wealth, but without a concern for those in need. As I explored briefly in the last post, the ancient scriptures have quite a few examples of men and women of wealth and property who are held up as examples of uprightness in God’s eyes, as they use their means as a way to help those in dire straits; the orphan, widow, poor, and foreigner. A more recent example of this I came across years ago, is this memorial plaque from England describing a man of means who saw his wealth as a tool given by God for the betterment of the world. It reads as follows:

CHRIST IS ALL

In Memory of Robert Holden Esq.

Of Nuthall Temple, born July 24 1805.

A monument of grace.

A noble example to the rich,

And an unfailing friend to the poor.

He lived in holiness before God

And great usefulness to man

And fell asleep in Jesus November 11 1872.

 

 

Wealth, power, and influence in the ancient Hebrew ideal

One of the themes widely recognized and strongly presented across the pages of the Old Testament is God’s anger at how the poor, widowed, and orphaned have been mis-treated, or not looked-after. Not only in the commands of the Mosaic Law Code (in terms of care for the above mentioned and foreigners living among the Israelite tribes; for example: Leviticus 19: 9-10, 13-15, 33-34 or Deuteronomy 15: 7-11), but also long rants in the books of the Prophets that Judah and Israel are under God’s judgment because they had failed to look out for the unempowered (for example: Isaiah 1: 16-17; 2: 14-15; Micah 2: 1-2, 8-9; Amos 5: 7, 11-12; Zechariah 7: 9-10; or Malachi 3: 5).

The flip side of this, but less often noted, are the descriptions of how a morally upright person uses their power, influence, and wealth. The book of Job contains some representative examples of this. I think, in our current cultural context, where the place of wealth and influence are subjects of heightened interest, these ancient words of Job could serve as loci of discussion and consideration.

‘For I assisted the poor in their need

And the orphans who required help.

I helped those without hope…

I caused the widows’ hearts to sing for joy.

Everything I did was honest… I wore justice like a turban.

I served as eyes for the blind and feet for the lame.

I was a father to the poor and assisted strangers who needed help.

I broke the jaws of godless oppressors and plucked their victims from their teeth.

They drank my words like a refreshing spring…. I comforted those who mourned.

Let God weigh me on the scales of justice, for He knows my integrity.

If I have been unfair to my male or female servants when they brought their complaints to me, how could I face God?

For He created both me and my servants. He created us both in the womb.

Have I refused to help the poor or crushed the hopes of widows?

No, from childhood I have cared for orphans like a father…

whenever I saw the homeless without clothes and the needy with nothing to wear,

did they not praise me for providing wool clothing to keep them warm?’ (Job 29, 31)

It seems to me that in today’s public conversation, power, wealth, or influence, in and of themselves, are often labeled as wrong or bad. But in the Hebrew Scriptures these things are not seen as bad or evil or unjust (neither is strength, nor ancient ideals of courage). Power, wealth, influence, strength, and courage, in the OT scriptures, are seen as good, effective, redemptive tools of fairness and justice that a godly person uses to increase the well-being of the common good, and especially of the weak, suffering, and unempowered. See too the picture of the empowered, well-to-do woman in Proverbs 31, and what she does with her wealth, strength, courage and influence. I have only brushed the surface of the images the Hebrews scriptures provide us on this subject, and I suspect that, in our current time and place in Western civilization, most of these images of personal and civic ideals are no longer commonly known. That leaves us with Hollywood personalities, professional athletes, and a handful of billionaires as societal role models regarding the use of wealth. Perhaps a rediscovery of some ancient biblical images could serve as fruitful templates in our conversation about society, stratification, influence, and lack.

Can the Creator God really not stand to be around us?

I got a text the other day from a former apprentice asking about God needing to keep separate from sinful humanity. I won’t try to edit it, here’s the exchange:

Them: I’ve always believed that God needed to be separate from sin. We couldn’t enter His presence because our sin. If that is true, how is it that Jesus, fully God, could enter into this sinful world and hang out with blatant sinners? I get the Atonement. But I’m talking about the time before his death.

Me: Just like old times! In a nutshell, we probably mis-stated the way we said that stuff. The tabernacle/temple had lots of that imagery, but God is hanging out in the world and with humans all through the Old Testament. So He isn’t as sensitive or thin-skinned or hardnosed as some of our lingo has made Him sound. Think of how many times He hangs out visiting people in the Bible! Abram under the oaks of Mamre, fiery furnace with the bros, burning bush, Elijah straight to heaven etc etc. If He were as blindly furious as some theology makes Him sound none of us would stand a chance. He’s a lot kinder than we often act “He knows we are but dust.”

Me: “He knows our need, is no stranger to our weakness”. Don’t you love that?

Them: Indeed I do… So the need for separation in the OT is symbolic.

Me: Well that might take longer to unwind. Richard Rohr would say yes. Read Rob Bell’s “What is the Bible?” Have you?

Them: Between the sober bar, the recovery house, and the church I am horrible at getting books in. Should I add it to the top?

Me: Get it on kindle. Read it next. U will thank me big time. Read it in little pieces at night. U will immediately draw from it.

___________________________________________

So, while I have no doubt the extreme ‘God-is-a-raging-fire better grab hold of Jesus’ approach has helped many people take their sin seriously (and they should), there are some pretty serious problems aligning the first line of my friend’s text to the Father Who is the Creator of All Things and notices when a sparrow falls to the earth. If my Fatherhood were modeled on God’s, and He could not bear to be in our presence due to sin (and comparing humanity’s moral failure to the God of the Universe was always a dumb trick theologically anyway – OFCOURSE a human couldn’t match God! stupid!,) I would be a pretty poor father to my kids when they screwed up. That kind of fathering has scarred and damaged many people. We do not need to protect God’s purity by saying He can’t stand to be near us since we aren’t perfect. And, explanations of the Atonement which make it sound like Jesus is our cloaking device diminish any meaningful love God has for us in a weird twist of injustice. Read N.T. Wright’s new book on the Atonement ‘The Day the Revolution Began’ (highlighted here: https://toddrisser.com/2017/06/12/a-fantastic-new-book/ ). Jesus’ incarnation indicates God can indeed stand to be around us, messed up though we be. God wants shalom for us, not just a transaction/punishment to even out the scales of justice.

Another great read: “What is The Bible?” by Rob Bell

With the longest-ever subtitle! “How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything,” Rob turns his considerable writing talents to recommending the Bible to the world to read. This is a fantastic and engaging intro to the Bible for people who have blown it off, and an invigorating wake-up to people who “know” the Bible but have thought they already have it mastered.

Bell does a lot in this book:

Takes on the scientific worldview that says the Bible is outdated and un-believeable.

Takes on questions about the shocking violence.

Takes on questions about the Bible supporting un-enlightened views about humanity, and does a good job of demonstrating that human rights were advanced in radical egalitarian ways throughout the Bible.

Does a great job explaining that the story of the Bible moves on… that some things later in the story supercede and replace ideas earlier in the story.

Takes on the view that the Bible is boring and unrelated to our lives today, demonstrating handily that the themes of the Bible are exactly the issues we struggle with today!

In short, Rob addresses our modern world and says to them – come read the Bible! You’ll be surprised and glad you did – this is amazing! And, will change the way you think and feel about everything! In the process, Rob talks a lot about the God of the Bible and our ability to have a relationship with Him. And what He wants.

Don’t be put-off that the first chapter about Abraham is a teeny bit “racy,” it’s common editorial work to try to hook uninterested readers. The rest of the book proceeds at an un-controversial, yet fast-moving, humorous, engaging, utterly worthwhile read. Do it.

Agriculture, Christian faith, and the world’s future

This summer my family moved to central rural Ohio to live at the epicenter of our relations while I attempt a PhD. In the transition, I have been working at a biblically Wendell Berry-inspired, organic, chemical-free, local-only, farm-to-table food co-op kind of “thing.” It’s a protest alternative to transnational mega-corporate food supply that harms both the biosphere, human health, and ultimately human community. We get Amish, and back-to-the-land small farmer millennial, and family-owned orchard produce, to people who live in the city and have no access to it. My boss gave me the following book:

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School (2009).

In the forward by Wendell Berry, Berry says this:

“The human situation, as understood by both biblical agrarians and contemporary ones, is about as follows. We are, howbeit only in part, earthly creatures. We have been given the earth to live, not on, but with and from, and only on the condition that we care properly for it. We did not make it, and we know little about it. In fact, we don’t, and will never, know enough about it to make our survival sure or our lives carefree. Our relation to our land will always remain, to a significant extent, mysterious. Therefore, our use of it must be determined more by reverence and humility, by local memory and affection, than by the knowledge we now call “objective” or “scientific.” Above all, we must not damage it permanently or compromise its natural means of sustaining itself. The best farmers have always accepted this situation as a given, and they have honored the issues of propriety and scale that it urgently raises.”

There’s some solid theology in there. If we can divest ourselves of the end-times/Left Behind/escapist nonsense that has infected so much of contemporary Western Christianity, perhaps we can focus better on bearing the image of the Creator to the rest of creation as His stewards, and live on this earth, as intended. To many young Christians, this is one of the top-tier issues of importance if Christianity is going to be a functional, rather than dysfunctional, influence in our world.

A fantastic new book

In our time the doctrine of the atonement/ Jesus crucified has come under attention once again. The way it is usually explained within Western Christianity, it sounds like the all too familiar abusive father who takes his rage out on someone innocent, in this case his own child, and then dresses it up by wrapping his ugly behavior up with the word love. The idea that the Creator God Himself has to kill someone in order to forgive people has understandably caused people to wonder what kind of God we are talking about.

Into the midst of this, world-renowned theologian N.T. Wright has written an absolutely incredible book. He has clearly familiarized himself with both popular and academic treatments of the atonement written recently, and pastorally identified the very real problems our current understanding of the crucifixion brings to people. This is understandable, he says, and it’s fine, because the ways that the crucifixion is understood in Western Christianity have de-railed from the actual story and meanings in the Bible. In fact, he demonstrates, the way in which the prevailing theologies of Western Christianity are explaining the atonement end up de-biblicizing it, de-Judaizing it, and paganizing it.

If we start reading the Bible at the beginning, we find the problem is not that God made the world as a testing ground to see if people would go to heaven or hell, and then makes a way for the first rather than the second. No, that is not the story we find when we read the Bible’s story. And when we make that the story, we start mis-understanding the cross in all sorts of ways that fall far short of what the followers of Jesus meant when they said that he died “for our sins” and “in accordance with the Bible.”the day the rev began pic

Wright’s book is called “The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion.” It is a life-changing, worldview-changing book; one of the best things Wright has written in a while, and that’s saying something. Run, don’t walk, get a copy, and read it.