Monday, March 30, 2009

Theolgia Crucis

In lieu of anything profound from me, please do look at Michael Jensen's excellent summary of Luther's theology of the cross. I am particularly excited by his conclusion:
For Luther, then, the Christian life is lived in the middle of a tension between faith and experience. Our experience only serves to contradict our faith. This was something Luther expounded when he thought that he might be martyred. Where was God in this? Luther used the word Anfechtung – 'temptation', or 'assault' – to describe this experience. The devil, the world and death are allied in a war against man. But of course, it is a work of God too, to reduce man to utter reliance on him and him alone. The only way to grow in the Christian life is to return to the foot of the cross and start all over again.
Please do read the whole thing. Everything I want my theological thinking to be is encapsulated in this one theme of Luther's.

I wanted to write something more here about the doctrine of Scripture, but I find that as much as I want it to, a blog cannot be a place for test-driving unfinished thoughts. Hopefully I'll come back to that later.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Verbal Inspiration (4)

And so we come to the point. Throughout the history of God's dealings with his people, there has just one way for them to know anything about him: namely, revelation. If anything is to be known about God by human beings, it must be revealed to them by God. Israel knew God only because he revealed himself at Sinai; the disciples knew (more of) God only because Jesus stood in front of them; the early churches knew God only because of the witness of the apostles to Christ. Revelation all the way.

What the doctrine of verbal inspiration particularly safeguards is an implication of this basic fact. Because revelation was given in a specific form, that form is not incidental or accidental, and cannot be changed, ignored or somehow minimised. Just as you could not be a committed Yahwist and yet dispense with certain ceremonies of the law; just as you could not be a disciple of Jesus and yet ignore a few things he said ("get behind me Satan"!); just as you could not be a primitive Christian and yet disparage the authority of the apostles; so you cannot be a Christian today and not take every word, phrase, concept, image - in short, every jot and tittle - of Scripture with absolute, earnest seriousness.

God revealed himself in Christ. God commissioned the apostles as his witnesses. God oversaw the preaching, teaching and writing of the apostles such that their witness is also his witness by the Holy Spirit. And that witness is now collected for us in Holy Scripture, which we must take as it comes, recognising our inability to establish even one thing about God without it.

The way the doctrine of verbal inspiration has traditionally been stated and used, and particularly the place it has been given at the very doorway of evangelical theology, can (and I think should) be subjected to critique. But we must be absolutely certain that the critique of this doctrine is not driven by a desire to wriggle out of the fact that Scripture comes to us in a concrete, solid form - a form with edges, as it were - which we must take seriously and must consider ourselves bound to. Otherwise, the slide into idolatry has already begun. We begin by assuming that the form in which God's revelation comes is secondary - just packaging. That implicitly permits us to engage in the task of discerning what is 'secondary' and can be discarded and what is 'the real thing'. And that, of course, allows our preferences to override God's revelation. May he keep us from it.

Now, there's much that could be said in critique of Barth's doctrine of inspiration, but in defence of the master I must point out that he definitely believes in verbal inspiration as I have just stated it, and I'd like to leave off with a quote from him. (You can find it on page 533 of CD 1.2)

We can sum up all that must be said on this point in the statement that faith in the inspiration of the Bible stands or falls by whether the concrete life of the Church and of the members of the Church is a life really dominated by the exegesis of the Bible. If the Biblical text in its literalness as a text does not force itself upon us, or if we have the freedom word by word to shake ourselves loose from it, what meaning is there in our protestation that the Bible is inspired and the Word of God? To say "Lord, Lord" is not enough. What matters is to do the will of God if we are to know His grace and truth - for that is the inspiration of the Bible.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Verbal Inspiration (3)

Fear not, gentle readers, we're homing in on the point of this discussion - I expect us to arrive tomorrow, or perhaps the day after at the very latest.

Thus far we've seen that OT Israel and the disciples of Jesus both found themselves confronted by solid, fleshed-out revelation, and that they were bound to confine themselves to that revelation, whether it was the Sinai covenant as the provisional revelation of God or Christ himself as the final revelation. But what about the post-ascension world in which we live? Well, the NT gives us the answer in a number of ways and in a number of places.

We could start off still in that last discourse recorded in John's gospel. A lot of the groundwork for the post-ascension church is laid here. Note particularly 15:26-27, and 16:12-15. These passages describe the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation. Given their position in the discourse, and some of the things that are said in chapter 15 ("you have been with me from the beginning") we should see these verses as applying to the apostles and not to all Christians, as attractive as that might be. Jesus is promising here that the Holy Spirit will both remind the apostles of what Jesus has said to them, and will guide them into truth that he has not been able to explain to them. The apostles, along with the Holy Spirit, are to bear witness to Christ.

A similar point could be made from the great commission in Matthew 28. The apostles are sent by the authoritative Lord Jesus to make disciples, "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you". It is in this capacity that they receive the promise of Christ's perpetual presence ("to the end of the age"), and I am quite tempted to go along with Barth in attaching the promise to their witness rather than their persons. But that may be pushing things.

We get to see how this works out in Acts and the Epistles. Just a few brief instances to highlight. Firstly, I have always thought it significant that when Paul says farewell to the elders of the church in Ephesus, he commends them "to God and to the word of his grace" - not to any replacement human minister. This is interesting not least because Timothy will have a lengthy period of ministry in Ephesus later. The point is that the message the apostles preached is to be the thing that guards the churches, not human successors to the apostles.

In this connection, it is also worth considering Paul's outburst in Galatians 1:6-9 against any preaching of a gospel contrary to that which he preached. He self-consciously stands on his authority as an apostle, commissioned by Christ to bear witness, but also allows for the (albeit hypothetical) possibility that he himself could go wrong and preach another gospel himself, in which case he should be ignored. The pastoral epistles generally make similar points: what Paul's successors are to do is pass on what they heard from him (e.g. 2 Tim 2:2), and to maintain the apostolic deposit without alteration.

Ponder also the introduction to 1 John, with its emphasis on the apostles right and qualification to be witnesses, uniquely commissioned. Note that fellowship with God is only possible through fellowship with the apostles (1:3)! And consider 2:18-27 - antichrist is defined as one who denies the apostles' witness to Christ, and thus leaves their company; antichrist is to be combatted by abiding in the truth they have already heard in the power of the Spirit.

All in all, the NT church finds itself confronted by solid, explicit revelation in the form of the apostles' witness to Christ. Again, we have a situation where it is not permissible to look anywhere else for knowledge about God. This apostolic deposit cannot be ignored, cannot be refined, cannot be slimmed down, cannot be got behind - not if we want to know God.

Tomorrow: probably the conclusion...

Monday, March 23, 2009

Verbal Inspiration (2)

The next scheduled stop for our little exploration of the notion of verbal inspiration comes in the New Testament, and specifically the gospel of John. There are many places we could have stopped of on our way through the Old Testament, and there would have been interesting sights to see. But for now, suffice it to say the OT follows the pattern established by Deuteronomy 4 pretty closely, such that when the question arises - "what is God like? and what does he want?" - the only necessary response is "he has told you, O man".

Which is just a way of saying that the concrete revelation of God and his will at Sinai is normative for the whole of the Old Testament.

John's gospel is very interested in revelation, and undertakes to ask and answer afresh the question of how we come to know about God. Hence programmatic statements like "No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known" (1:18). The answer to the question is that we know God through his incarnate Son. This point is hammered home throughout the gospel account through Jesus' claims to unique knowledge of heaven (3:11-13), unique knowledge of the Father (8:55) and most stunningly unique and comprehensive revelation of the Father (8:19 amongst many others).

Perhaps the most astonishing statement in this regard is found in Jesus' last discussion with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. Ponder John 14:7 - "If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him". The ensuing conversation with Philip makes Jesus' point abundantly clear: if you want to see God, you must look at me, and what is more you must not look elsewhere (as Philip wants to).

The NT presents with a similarly concrete revelation of God, which sums up and supercedes everything in the OT. (I won't try to defend the latter clause here and now - maybe some other time). Just as OT Israel couldn't be imaginitive about God, the disciples of Jesus cannot go groping around their own thoughts or the world around them to find the divine. They need revelation, and revelation stands right in front of them in Jesus - in a very solid, fleshly form.

To be continued...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Verbal Inspiration (1)

In setting out his doctrine of Scripture, Wayne Grudem asserts that "all the words in Scripture are God's words". That's a pretty typical (albeit very brief) statement of the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Scripture. The doctrine states that the very words of Scripture - not merely the message they convey, or the impression they make - come from God. This is stated in such a way that it does not in any way deny human agency (i.e. many different human authors wrote the Bible), or the fact that it is the message conveyed that is primarily important. Nevertheless, the doctrine asserts that not only the content of the message but also the form of the message - the words, grammatical arrangements and the like in which that message comes to us - is arranged by God and finds its ultimate source in him.

I take issue with the way this doctrine is often applied in evangelicalism today. But that is not my concern right now. Right now, I take issue with those who attack this doctrine without understanding what they are doing in undermining people's faith in Scripture. The doctrine of verbal inspiration performs a very important role in theology. I'd like to illustrate in a very roundabout way that will occupy several posts and will probably initially seem like it's wandering into hopeless irrelevance. Hope that's okay.

Our journey begins in Deuteronomy 4. Moses is reminding the Israelites of their experience at Sinai, and in the course of his discourse he says a number of interesting things - you'd best read the whole chapter, but I want to pull out a couple of remarks. Firstly, Moses says "You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord" (v2). Then he points out "You heard the sound of words (at Sinai), but saw no form; there was only a voice" (v12). And then this becomes the rationale for avoiding idolatry: "Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you... beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourself..." (vv15,16).

The gist of the passage is this: Israel must keep God's words in their entirety - no addition or subtraction - and they must avoid making an image of the God they have not seen.

What is particularly interesting from our point of view is that it is not difficult to see the same issue behind the two parts of this exhortation. If you add to or subtract from God's words, you are allowing your own preference, imagination (pious or wicked) or priorities to over-ride the concrete message delivered to you, and therefore the information that has been conveyed to you about God. Similarly, if you make an image of God, given that you don't know what he looks like, it will inevitably be shaped according to your own preference, imagination or priorities.

The principle is this: you are dependent on revelation to know about God, and that revelation comes to you in such a concrete, solid form that you are not permitted to use your imagination. In this sphere, your creative faculties must be chastened and restrained, or you will be an idolater.

See where this is going over the next couple of days...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The question you can always ask

You are always free to ask the question "but what does it mean?" - even when the answer seems obvious, and especially when the question seems dangerous.

I raise this because sometimes we close the door on this question too quickly. An area I've been mulling over recently (for Relay-related reasons) is that of gender and women's ministry, and one of the things that I have noticed from some contributors to that debate is that they ask one question of the Scriptural texts deemed to be relevant - what does it say? - but not the follow-on question - what does it mean? The latter question will include all sorts of considerations, like "why does it say this? to whom does it say this? when did it say this? how does it fit with everything else?", which make the issue more complex than the simple "what does it say" question makes apparent.

It isn't enough to just quote the Bible. I need to know more than just what words are there. I need to know how they are being used, what they signify. And that requires more work, and perhaps the risk that we find something we didn't want in the text.


How much of my sinful behaviour is motivated primarily by fear?

I fear for my financial future - will I have enough? Consequently, I act in a stingy or dishonest fashion in the present, or perhaps I just live in a way that is sinfully conservative, venturing and risking nothing financially in order to secure my future. Fear leads to sin.

I fear for my acceptance with God - am I good enough? Consequently, I seek to build my own righteousness, work hard at being the best I can be, or perhaps I just steer clear of any contact with the world that might dirty me, and in so doing pass up the opportunity to be a witness. Fear leads to sin.

I fear for my relational abilities - can I really sustain a marriage? Consequently, I am tempted to retreat into fantasy and avoid reality, or perhaps I just fail to open up as much as I should. Fear leads to sin.

The most absurd fear I am aware of in myself (the foregoing are not necessarily autobiographical, but this is): I fear that the gospel doesn't have the power to stop me sinning, so I decline to deploy it when I am tempted, just in case I see it fail. Fear prevents me from fighting sin!

No wonder one recurrent message of Scripture is: Do not fear!

Monday, March 16, 2009

The man and the tree

So, there they were: the man and the tree, right in the middle. The tree had its companion, and the man had his, but right now they weren't in the picture. This man, and this tree - right in the middle, surrounded by captivating beauty from which they both seemed sharply removed. Because this was the moment of decision. There was nothing in the world but this man and this tree.

Stop, Adam! Don't you remember? Don't you recall what the Lord has done for you? For your sake he split apart the darkness, ripped the seas in two. For your sake he spoke order into the chaos and made grace into solid earth for your feet. Every plant he made for you, every tree he gave to you - but not this tree, Adam. Stop!

And the man stopped, but not to turn away. His eyes were still fascinated, and wisdom hitherto unknown entranced him. He walked, slowly, around the tree, his eyes never leaving the promised and forbidden fruit that hung there. He walked, in a perfect circle, as if there were some invisible line around the foot of this tree, a line which held him - as if he could not walk nearer, and could not turn away.

Turn, Adam! Look around you. Look at the garden the Lord has planted for you. Everything you need is there. He has made beauty, and given it to you. He has given you purpose and meaning and all that you could desire. Every plant is yours. Every animal bears the name you gave it. Look around you, Adam, and forget this one thing that you cannot have!

And he turned, but only his head. He looked about him, as if for the first time he wondered if he was being watched, monitored. But he saw only trees, leaves moving gently in the breeze, and turning back his attention to the tree, the one tree around which for that moment his world revolved, he paused, took a deep breath, and stepped forward.

Beware, Adam! Remember how precarious is your position. You live by grace, and life itself hangs in the balance. The waters are gathered above this fragile earth, held back only by the will of the Lord - the Lord whose will you are questioning, whose command you are doubting. Can you bear the death he promises? Can creation itself survive the chaos that you are about to release? Think, Adam - death, destruction and deluge ! Think, and turn back!

The man reached out his hand toward the tree, still standing back as if in awe, stretching for the fruit that weighed down the low branches.

Oh, Adam.

You did just what I would have done.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sin and the sinner

You don't get better. You don't get better because it isn't something you can heal, or work on, or try to fix. It's death. It isn't killing you; it already killed you. You have been, and are, and will be dead.

What you need is a resurrection. I know just the man.