Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf on public faith

I’ve been reading Yale theologian Miroslav Volf’s  A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. (His former teaching home was Fuller Theological Seminary, among other places, for those of you for whom that means something). It’s a good read, a fairly academic argument about why and what the role of faith in the public square should look like in today’s secular, pluralistic world. One of the things I appreciate about Volf is that one of the themes in his career has been building bridges between communities and worldviews:  Christian and Muslim, Christian and secular, etc. Being from Croatia, I can only imagine Volf has a very agonizing sense of the disaster it is when a society comes apart at the seams due to divisions and factions (if you are too young to remember this well, Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia, a country which devolved into savagery and appalling crimes against humanity in the 1990s. I’m talking The Walking Dead – style violence.)

To give you the flavor a bit, one of his questions is ‘How should we go about realizing a vision for human flourishing in relation to other faiths and under the roof of a single state?’ While it would take more than one post to give a sense of his work in A Public Faith, some of his thoughts include:

‘a faith that does not seek to mend the world is a seriously malfunctioning faith.’

‘when it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others… and work toward their flourishing, so that life would go well for all and so that all would learn how to lead their lives well.’

‘a vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate’.

‘Christ’s command in everything do to others as you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12) entails that Christians grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves. Christians… ought to embrace pluralism as a political project.’

Volf is interested ‘not on attenuating Christian convictions but on affirming them robustly and living them out joyously.’

Written by one of today’s highly respected academics, the book is still accessible and readable by non-specialists, and very much worth your time. I recommend it highly.

 

“Is it Time for Atheists to Hunt Bigger Game?” by Chase Madar

I like this article, not because I agree with every single word, but because it reminds us that there are many “gods” people believe in, including enshrined political or economic theories, that should be questioned. And that, as usually occurs when people go fundamentalist in their beliefs, when you do question some of these assumptions, people begin to freak out. That true-believer mentality is not limited to theological questions; our world at this very moment is being DRIVEN by beliefs like the ones critiqued in this article.

http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/5/is-it-time-for-atheists-to-hunt-bigger-game.html

Postmodern Considerations on Original Sin PART FOUR: non-Western theology

Our discussion of Original Sin, Creationism, and literal interpretations of Adam and Eve’s “Fall” took a turn toward how different theology will look when written outside the cultural matrix of Greco-Roman thought, so common in Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian theology.

My friend:   I’ll give you that doctrine has changed or evolved through time, there are some pretty universally held truths that have been in play since shortly after the canon was established. Namely, trinitarian doctrine, incarnational doctrine and the doctrine of sin and salvation. Btw, I wouldn’t claim that the doctrine of creation, the fall, and original sin is merely a motif. They are doctrines that have historically been taught by the church.

Me:  I want to say that doctrines need to be enunciated/interpreted in ways that mean something understandable here and now. Original Sin and its ramifications look a lot different before – and East of – Augustine than after. And all those doctrines have been shaped primarily in the context of Greco-Roman culture and its fallout. So now, when Asian and African, and Native American cultures start wrestling with Christian theology, I want to be as aware of their right to work through doctrine within the context of their cultures as has already happened in “our” Greco-Roman culture. I don’t expect their theology to look nearly as Greco-Roman as ours. And I don’t think that makes it any less Christian. To do so would be to be stupendously emic and fail to apply any etic sense to our own situation.

My friend: Is that syncretism?

Me:   We’d be less than honest if we didn’t think our baptism in the early centuries with Greek Philosophy wasn’t a kind of syncretism. So, if you interpret the Bible through the matrix of non-Greco-Roman cultures, and you use their matrixes like we used Greco-Roman, some people would certainly yell syncretism, but I don’t think it is. If Christianity had moved predominately East into India instead of West into Greece/Rome in the early centuries, and if the creeds had been formed in India or Vietnam, we’d sure have nothing that sounds like the Nicene!  So, I think it takes some serious calm sitting back and watching and listening and waiting to hear a generation of non-Western scholars argue each other out before people like us start saying “syncretism.” Listen to what Clement of Alexandria (lived c. 150-215 AD) said about Greek philosophy. If a former Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist said this about their former religion, would we accuse them of syncretism?

Clement of Alexandria said this: “Before the Lord’s coming, philosophy was an essential guide to righteousness for the Greeks. At the present time, it is a useful guide toward reverence for God. It is a kind of preliminary education for those who are trying to gather faith through demonstration. ‘Your foot will not stumble,’ says Scripture, if you attribute good things, whether Greek or Christian, to Providence. God is responsible for all good things: of some directly, like the blessings of the Old and New Covenants, of others indirectly, like the riches of philosophy. Perhaps philosophy too was a direct gift of God to the Greeks before the Lord extended his appeal to the Greeks. For philosophy was to the Greek world what the Law was to the Hebrews, a tutor escorting them to Christ. So philosophy is a preparatory process; it opens the road for the person whom Christ brings to his final goal.” (STROMATEIS 1.5.28.I-3)

If Clement can say this about Greek Philosophy (and certainly Christian theology written for centuries bore the express stamp of Greek philosophy in its wording and cultural matrix), then can’t we say the same thing about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and indigenous religions?  Constructing Christian theology within the matrixes of these worldviews is no different than what Western theology in the Christian tradition did with Greco-Roman philosophy. If it is syncretism, then western theology is entirely syncretistic. I won’t call it that. I think the more apt phrase is ‘culturally incarnational.’ And, we shouldn’t expect that all of them will be infatuated with Augustine’s version of ‘original sin.’

Why Nazarene scholars won’t embrace inerrancy

So I received in the mail one of those little books who people with a burning message on their hearts find the resources for which to mail a copy of their book to every pastor in America, or, in this case, every pastor in a particular denomination. This book was mailed to Nazarenes, and addresses Nazarenes specifically and by name throughout, arguing that the C/N has walked away from an inerrancy view of Scripture and that we are in grave danger. Nazarene theology texts, and even letters and emails to and from Nazarene theologians, from both today and several generations ago, are quoted throughout.

I read the whole thing while grilling some fabulous tilapia (give your tastebuds a shot of shalom and baste with McCormick’s Baja Citrus mix). There were no new arguments here, just the same ones we are familiar with: if you can’t trust the bible in every single assertion, no matter how far from the subject of salvation, you can’t trust it for ANYTHING. (Somehow, I have been able to be deeply in love with Jesus, and follow Him intentionally and in every way I can think of, all these years, without believing in the kind of inerrancy the author does… but that’s not good enough). The author does, however, with his selected texts, cause it to appear that Nazarene theologians once, several generations ago, held a strict inerrancy, but then those same theologians moved away from it within their lifetimes.

And that’s the thing. There’s a reason Nazarene scholars won’t embrace a strict inerrancy (we hold that it is inerrant in all things pertaining to salvation). The reason is that we can’t unlearn things we know about the Bible. We can’t unlearn all the places throughout the Scriptures where it is apparent we are not dealing with the words dripping from God’s own mouth, Qur’an-style. Paul can’t remember who all he baptized. People who bash enemy infants’ heads in on stones are blessed. Paul requests his coat be brought, cause its chilly. Paul says “now the following words aren’t from the Lord, they are my opinion…” The Book of Daniel is a hodge-podge cut and paste of languages and first-person, third person, with several dating issues, highly unlikely to have been written by one person named Daniel. It’s clear the Pentateuch really is comprised from multiple sources. Big deal, what’s the problem? I don’t’ have time to list the examples. The author of the mailed-to-you-free! book does the typical inerrant argument: if Jesus referred to Moses as the author of the Torah, then the documentary hypothesis can’t be true! This is such a strange idea, as if Jesus’ goal were to correct any historical or cultural or scientific misunderstandings  his generation entertained! And ignores basic concepts of how language works. (I call my son’s car ‘Tanner’s’ even though it’s legally mine.)

So anyway, here’s my takeaway. Nazarene scholars won’t embrace the fundamentalist inerrancy view, because of the evidence right in front of them as they look at the Scriptures.  Apparently our early scholars also came to that conclusion as the evidence stacked up in front of them. Interesting, to me, is that hundreds of years ago committed Christians were noticing the same things in the texts – including Adam Clarke, John Wesley, John Calvin and Matthew Henry! Our fundamentalist friends indicate you can’t really embrace the Scriptures and follow Jesus without strict inerrancy, but history shows that plenty of people do.

The NEW Test for Christian Orthodoxy!

In my last post, I listed the ten commitments of the emergent ‘Mesa’ group, here  https://toddrisser.com/2014/04/23/the-mesa-list-of-ten-commitments/

One word in that list will jump out to many evangelicals who I know these days: sexuality. It will trump, override and cross out everything else in the document.

Evangelicalism has a new test for orthodoxy. This is how you see if someone is a Real Christian or not. It’s how you tell if they love Jesus. Like a grocery store scanner scanning a bar code, all you have to do is check their brain for one issue: How do they interpret the verses in the Bible about homosexuality?

Never mind that the Nicene Creed has been the standard for orthodoxy for around 16 centuries. That’s not good enough. A Real Christian is now determined by ideas or questions someone has about homosexuality and how to interpret or apply those seven passages of Scripture.

Forget about if they have repented of their sins and become a follower of Jesus. Forget about placing all their hope and trust and faith in what Jesus did on the cross, and on Him daily. Forget about loving God and loving neighbor. Forget about doing justice, loving mercy or walking humbly with God. Forget about Matthew 25 and what it says about the Great Judgment. No, none of that matters. The new test for a Real Christian is how you exegete and apply seven pieces of Scripture about homosexuality.

It’s not the only New Nicene Creed. About 30 years ago Jim Dobson declared that the moral equivalent of a human being is when a sperm fertilizes an ova, even though it hasn’t attached to the uterine wall (and isn’t viable until it does, I might add). And so, that too became the new test of Real Christianity: your position on when life begins, or when it has the moral significance of a human (the question was never that life is sacred in the womb – Christianity has always agreed on that – the question became your view of scientific theory on whether that moment was fertilization, ovulation,  attachment to the uterus, or later). Though I land in the relatively conservative end of these conversations on sexuality and life in the womb, I find it ludicrous that we’ve now substituted these questions for the Nicene’s summary of faith-assertions about Jesus as the New Christian Orthodoxy.

But before that there was another. The Nicene Creed wasn’t enough for the fundamentalists in the 1920s. They made up a new list of doctrines you had to sign on to be a Real Christian.  Even though one of those doctrines (penal substitution) wasn’t around the first 1000 years of Christianity.

It seems evangelical Christianity is bored with the Nicene Creed and we need other, more interesting tests for Real Christianity than just how we respond to Jesus.

Honest Conversations about the Bible

I’ve written a few posts about biblical inspiration, and some of the conundrums we face in trying to understand the human and divine interface in the Scriptures, and what that means for interpreting and applying  the Bible. Someone might ask, Why talk about this at all? Just believe!

Quite a few reasons, compelling ones for many people. (In no particular order), first, with widespread exposure to other cultures and the world religions today, many people ask “How is the Christian Bible different than any other religion’s Scriptures? Why would I consider it more authoritative than any other one?”  As hard as this may be for some Christians to comprehend, circular arguments that basically boil down to “because we say so” or “because the Bible claims that God says so” do not convince people. I’ve watched many young people walk away from church because no one would offer them better answers than “just believe what we tell you.”

Secondly, people know that the Bible has been used by Christians to promote some pretty terrible things: slavery, Crusade, racial prejudice, hatred, to name a few. This makes them wonder if the problem is in the Bible or Christianity itself and if there is anything good and life-giving to be found in either. They also know Christians have used the Bible to disagree with science, (for example: Galileo, Copernicus, and the earth revolving around the sun), and latter realized  science was actually right.

Third, people have enough information today about history, archeology, the human input to the Bible, and how the Scriptures were gathered together, they wonder how to reconcile the human aspects of this Book with the claim that it is Divinely inspired. As I’ve mentioned before, when they read Paul saying things like “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else” or “now this isn’t a word from the Lord, it’s from me…” they wonder how many other places like this reflect the human element in Scripture, and in what sense it is Divinely-inspired. Psalms about bashing infants’ heads on the rocks in revenge cause them to wonder the same thing.

Fourth, people have figured out that certain parts of the Bible are true-er than others, and we are to treat certain parts of the Bible differently than others. For example, look at the book of Job. Throughout the book Job’s friends make theological arguments they insist are true. But at the end of the book God Himself declares that they were wrong and so were their statements. So, throughout the book of Job, we have theological statements about God that God later says are incorrect. We clearly would be mistaken to assume that the speeches of Job’s friends are to be understood as revealing the truth about God. If we are to learn the lesson from the Book of Job, we have to see the larger picture painted by the whole book, and not assume every verse is equally true about God. God Himself says they aren’t. We would mis-understand the clear intention of the book of Job if we treat each verse as equally, literally true.

I want to keep this short, so I will come around to this subject again later. But suffice it to say, 21st century people have many, and sometimes new, questions about the Bible’s true-ness, and working through a doctrine of Inspiration that makes sense of everything we know is important for those who don’t want to “check their brains at the door and just believe” whatever we tell them.

The Hallmark Card Theory of Inspiration

Once a brilliant friend of mine who works for Compassion International told me about a theory of biblical inspiration he had heard about in graduate school. He had never been able to find any information on it, and neither have I, but both of us were intrigued by the potential movement forward that could possibly be in, near, or around this idea. He had heard it called The Hallmark Card Theory of Inspiration.

“It’s like a Hallmark card,” he said. “You pick one up and read it and say ‘that’s a good card! That’s exactly how I feel about my wife.’ And you buy it.” In a similar manner, this theory says, God did not inspire human authors proactively while they were writing, but He looked at what some people who loved him/ were sensitive to His Spirit,  were saying about Him and started picking things. “That’s a good letter, I’ll take that. That’s a great story, it describes exactly what I’m like, I’ll take that too. I’ll take these four gospels about Jesus – they got it right…” etc. etc.  In this view, God is picking the best, the truest things that have been written about Him and pulling it together into what we have today – the Bible.

A theologian friend of ours, Dr. Eric Flett of Eastern University, commented, “Ah, like the adoption theory of the atonement, except for Scripture.” Well, yes.

This reverses the order in which we typically imagine Inspiration occurring in. We tend to think top-down. This is bottom-up. One thing for sure, bottom up is how the books of the Bible were collected. The people of God agreed that this letter, this gospel, these psalms, etc.  are life-giving and spark and nurture our relationship with God when illumined by His Spirit. Even in cases where a portion of Scripture is given (the Mosiac Law Code), the people of God still decided, generation after generation, to keep it.

I suppose that the assumption of the Hallmark idea is that it isn’t that every word of the Scripture is the absolute truth about God, but that the book/letter/collection of psalms/etc. as a whole reveals important things about God, the best available at that time. This Hallmark idea, though it certainly doesn’t solve all our questions about Inspiration, (and in fact raises plenty of its own), brings several things to my mind.

1) Brevard Childs’ thought on canonical exegesis.

2) C S Lewis once commented on what he figured was the relative nature of inspiration, or inspiration by degrees. He said something along the lines that he assumed that the prophet Isaiah felt a much stronger thrust of inspiration from the Spirit than, say, the writer of 1 Chronicles. Upon hearing it, this seems common-sensical to me. Did the court historian of 1 & 2 Chronicles even have any idea he was writing Scripture? I’m going to go with “probably not.” Did Isaiah know he had a message from the Lord? Absolutely.

3) I have also heard something similar described as an “incarnational” model of Scripture, in which God accommodates inspiration to the limitations of the world-view, such as the historical and scientific knowledge, of the writers.

So, if there is anything helpful in the Hallmark Card Theory of Inspiration, where do we go from there?

Next time: Why talk about this at all?