Reading Paul differently than the Protestant Reformers

The Protestant Reformers of the 15th and 16th centuries have handed down to us a way of reading Paul which basically boils down to “Romans and Galatians give us the framework for what Paul really wanted to say; the other letters fill in the details here and there.” Said that way, it’s quite an assumption, isn’t it?

The Reformers were hunting for answers to questions which perplexed them in their day. And they found answers. They calibrated those answers according to the thought systems and categories of their own day and age. The question is, were the answers they found actually what Paul was talking about himself, in his own day? Once you assume that what is on your mind is what was on the biblical writer’s mind, you start reading everything through the  lens of those assumptions; you start hearing and seeing things in the text the writer was not actually saying.

The world’s leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright proposes a thought experiment. What if we DIDN’T assume that Romans and Galatians are what REALLY count, and that the other letters are second-place  fillers?  “Suppose we come to Ephesians first… Colossians close behind, and decide we will read Romans, Galatians and the rest in light of them (Ephesians and Colossians), instead of the other way round.  What we will find, straight off, is nothing short of a (very Jewish) cosmic soteriology. God’s plan is ‘to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth’ ….and as the means to that plan God’s rescue both of Jews and Gentiles …now coming together in a single family… the sign to the principalities and powers of the ‘many-splendored wisdom of God’. [1]

If this unity of all mankind, Wright goes on, Jew-and-Gentile as the sign of God’s coming reign over the whole world, had captured the Reformers’ hearts and minds, and they only THEN went and started fitting in Romans and Galatians, what would we have gotten? “…the entire history of the Western church, and with it the world, might have been different. No split between Romans 3:28 and 3:29. No marginalization (in Reformation theology) of Romans 9-11….” Wright goes on to list much more.

In short, we’d end up with a different theology and a different picture of the Gospel. (And, I might add, the Reformers’ teachings would not have been used in anti-Semitic persecution of Jewish people!)

So, should we just assume Romans and Galatians are the real deal and the other letters take second place? Or should we be trying to hear Paul all over again? And if we do, will we find that the Reformers were answering questions in their day, but not necessarily accurately describing what Paul was talking about?  These are the kinds of questions that lead many of us to contend that we continually need new theology, up to date with everything we can learn about the Scriptures, and what the writers were talking about in their own time and situation.

 

 


[1] N.T. Wright Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. IVP 2009.

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An Etic/Emic example in Christian theology

Etic, rather than simply emic views, can help us understand reality.  I wrote about etic and emic perspectives here: https://toddrisser.com/2014/01/22/etic-not-just-emic/

Here’s a simple example concerning etic and emic approaches. Someone approaches a pastor and says “What does the Christian faith believe about ________?” An emic answer would be a pastor who says “Christians believe _______,”  and answers purely and only from his church’s tradition/ his denomination’s theology. He doesn’t act as if this is one faithful Christian answer among many, he simply states his tradition’s stance as if it is the one and only genuine Christian answer. No caveats, no addendums.

An etic response would be for the pastor to say, “That question has been answered several ways by Christians of various branches of the Christian family tree down through the centuries. Our tradition believes the correct answer is _____ and here’s why. Our Catholic friends believe______.  Our Presbyterian friends believe ________. The Mennonites figured ________. So this has been an area with a variety of faithful Christians trying to be faithful to Jesus in understanding what the Scriptures convey. But like I said, here’s our view, and here’s why…”

Answering this way helps avoid turning people into sheeple, is honest, and values the thoughts of Christians throughout history and across the family tree, not just my tribe. I also think it avoids future situations where someone feels like the pastor was less than forthcoming in their answer. It avoids the “If you don’t think what we think, then your answer isn’t even a Christian one” lunacy. It avoids assuming people are not smart enough to sort things out. It helps avoid leader-worship.  Perhaps pastors stick with emic answers because they believe that a person will only get to heaven with perfect theology, or because they are insecure that someone may choose another church? I’ve noticed people like being treated like adults  rather than children. They like full disclosure, even more than “the party line.” I believe people can be respected enough to tell them the big picture, not just our slice. Truth is truth.

Etic not just Emic

Etic and emic are words that come to us from cultural anthropology. Emic views of a situation are from within, from inside the worldview of a particular culture, an intimate view. Etic views are those from outside, attempting to understand through comparison across many cultures. A big picture view.  

Most of us automatically think in emic categories – from within the culture or subgroup we belong to. Like all humans, I of course view things emic-ly, but you can also develop the habit of taking the etic view as well. So, for instance, when my college-age son once asked me “What do you think of tongues?”[1] Although I responded with all kinds of emic insider observations, my first reaction was etic: “Well, ecstatic mystical experiences show up in all the world religions. It’s something humans do. A certain portion of people find that to be a central component of their spiritual experience, others don’t seem wired that way.”  Or another, more nerdy, example: when asked recently to list ten things about myself, my first response was as etic as I could draw: “I am a biological creature, created by God, living in the Sol System of the Milky Way galaxy.” I probably should have said something about carbon-based or oxygen.

Viewing things from an etic perspective can help bring a wider perspective and break us out of narrow paradigms which are parochial and don’t take the big picture reality into account. We often emic-ly assume something has a theological raison d’etre when worldwide studies show it to have more of a cultural one. The fact that two of my graduate degrees had healthy doses of cultural anthropology  certainly helps me be aware of etic realities.  Cross-disciplinary reading is also very valuable in this arena. If you only read within one realm (say, Christian theology, or even a substrata of that), you often get caught drawing emic conclusions which are woefully lacking in awareness of etic realities staring you in the face. Some of the completely ignorant, and laughable if it weren’t so egregious, comments made by Christians regarding Islam are a common example these days. Understanding some of the practices in the Old Testament over three thousand years ago are another. Reading across the social sciences, hard sciences, and history, help protect us from embarrassing emic limitations.


[1] “Tongues” is an emic Christian word referring to the experience of glossalia. There are a variety of opinions on the subject from within Christianity.

Speaking Up for Muslims

Most Americans don’t seem to know much about Islam. The pithy T shirt “I learned everything I need  to know about Islam on 9/11” is the same as saying “I learned everything I need to know about Christianity from the Crusades”.

Large numbers of Muslims are ordinary, peace-loving people who simply want their families to have a decent future. Many of these people understand the Qur’an’s declaration that Christians are Peoples of the Book, and spiritual cousins to Muslims. When a Muslim family enrolled their child into our church’s preschool and my wife said “now, we are an explicitly Christian preschool with Christian prayers, bible stories and songs” (which she says to every person enrolling their child),  the Muslim family replied “Of course! That is why we chose you!”  When another Muslim family came to our church’s children’s Easter program, they said to us “We are very excited, this is our child’s first Easter.” An African (Liberian, if I recall) Christian who grew up with a Muslim father  once said to me “My father’s people would never have dreamed of this kind of violence. He married my Christian mother and nobody ever thought twice about it. He sent me to Catholic school because it was the best school around.”

Islam has as many splinter groups as Christianity, and many practices we assume are Islamic are simply cultural practices in a particular area, which have been woven into Islam locally. The fact that there is a tragically violent version of Islam raging in the world right now does not mean that this is how Islam has always been, nor is intrinsically. Many of the most radical versions of Islam today were virtually unheard of forty years ago. In fact, it is the vast amounts of money from the West purchasing oil from the Middle East which has funded the spread of some of the most violent Islam we see today.

Many Muslims have been inspired by their faith to accomplish great good in our world for humanity (say, for example, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank for the destitute poor).

Defending what history actually shows us about Islam down through the centuries is not to say there have never been evils committed by leaders or nations or troops who were Muslim. Of course there have been – all of the world’s religions have done that, including Christian nations. But ignorant, inaccurate portrayals of the past, present, or beliefs, of Muslims is to do what Martin Luther is credited with saying: “to mis-characterize my opponents’ theology is to fail to obey the commandment to love my neighbor.” There are about 5 really common lies about Islam that American Christians ignorantly and absurdly keep repeating publicly. It’s counter to our faith to repeat lies as if they are true. And Christian publishers and broadcasters have a responsibility to check their facts. These distortions have grown to ridiculous proportions. When we repeat these 5, we are simply propagating the violent version of Islam – doing the work of the radical mullahs for them. I discuss those 5 things here:  https://toddrisser.com/2015/03/17/5-things-about-islam/

How “narrow is the door” ?

“Narrow is the door.” The way this verse was often used when I was a kid was that you better get serious about church attendance or you’re toast. This makes this verse essentially into an old call for works righteousness –  get better at your discipleship or you’ll get Left Behind! Sort of an unspoken slogan “My yoke is hard and my burden is heavy!” Alternatively, some have used this verse to indicate that if someone is born at the wrong time in the wrong place, (say southern Africa,  2nd century AD), they are on their way to hell, outside the range of God’s grace. They use it as a proof that no Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or animist will ever be saved. The New Calvinists like John MacArthur make it sound like if you don’t get all your doctrines straight (i.e., believe what they believe – their particular version of Calvinism) you’re lost. This of course means it turns out that your ability to get the answers right on a theology test is what saves you, not Jesus.

But look at the context. The chapter begins with Jesus talking about the impending doom of Jerusalem and his generation’s headlong rush into insurrection and war with the Romans.  Next he tells a story about a fig tree. In the OT, these kinds of parables are about Israel, not individuals. The assumption all around him is that as long as my birth certificate says “Jewish” I’m automatically in with God. Jesus, in challenging his generation’s assumptions about civil religion, nationalism, religious violence, and pedigree, is talking about genuine relationship with God rather than religio-ethnic superiority complexes. If N.T. Wright is correct, this whole chapter is about Israel and Jesus’ call for his generation to follow him down a different Way.

To make this into a restrictive idea that God’s grace is only for the super-achievers spiritually or some other narrow slice of humanity is to fly in the face the portrait of God and his Kingdom that Jesus offers us, not least Luke 13: 18-21 – the Kingdom is a mustard seed grown huge and a leaven working through the whole batch of dough –  the words immediately preceding the ‘narrow door’ comment! If God were interested in making it difficult (narrow) to earn your way into heaven, no need to send Jesus. We already had difficult.  

Somewhere in The Shack, Mack asks “does this mean all roads lead to you?” Jesus replies,
“not at all; most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”  In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tale, a man who worshipped a false god Tash kneels before Aslan expecting death. But Aslan says to him “The oaths you kept to Tash I count kept to me…” These modern day parables are images of a God burgeoning with love, seeking people wherever they are. The ways the narrow door comment are often treated picture a God who lays out a tiny escape hatch in a maze for those who can find it. Which picture of God is true?

I’m afraid that the way these words of Jesus are typically used, we get simply one more old picture of a tribal god who only has love for his favorites or the super-accomplishers, not the God who loves all the world and sends His Son to save it. Would you want to love a favorites-only god?  Or would you only serve him out of dire necessity?

5 Things We Can Learn From the Magi

Jan. 6 was Epiphany of course. Here’s a quick thought. Not profound, but sometimes it’s simple things in life that can help us substantially.

5 Things We Can Learn From The Magi

1 -They traveled together and worshipped together

2- They sought answers  from the Scriptures

3- They wanted to be in on what God was up to

4- They weren’t above putting some effort into it

5- They offered their resources to Jesus

Hebrew good vs. Greek perfect

More thoughts about Platonic assumptions and the World to Come. (I started these musings with https://toddrisser.com/2013/12/30/can-lack-exist-in-the-world-to-come-un-doing-platonic-assumptions/

I wonder if, when we think of things the way they ought to be, we tend to think in terms of Greek, Platonic ideas of ‘perfect’, rather than Hebrew concepts of ‘good’. After my last post my friend Butch texted me and said that when God created the world He said it was “good” not “perfect.” He said he always thought of the Genesis garden narratives taking place in a good area, not a perfect one.

When we confuse good with perfect, I wonder if we are importing ideas into our concepts of how God intends the world to be. Do we start labeling things as wrong with Creation when they aren’t? A Lutheran friend of mine this summer said about the goodness of Creation “Ah, but that was before the Fall…” How much of nature’s Created characteristics, which we look at everyday, do we assume are tainted by sin and less-than-they-should-be, because we are thinking with Platonic ideas about perfection rather than Hebraic ideas of Good?  If we do this with Nature, what other areas are we confusing?

When God rolls out his resume in Job and the Psalms – what does he talk about? His creating and sustaining work in Creation. And he talks about providing food to nature’s animals, including the carnivores. Isaiah talks about lions and lambs, but should we really make that literal biology? No hunting in the Age to Come?  What a disappointment to Native Americans hoping for the Happy Hunting Grounds!  Is this an area where we have strayed too far into Greek philosophical ideas, and off the narrative of Scripture…?