Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Future God Dreams of on Memorial Day

2 In the last days
the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established
as chief among the mountains;
it will be raised above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.

3 Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4 He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

Isaiah 2:2-4

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America’s Poor Are Its Most Generous Givers

Story by Frank Greve at McClatchy.


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Coming to Terms

I have argued that the parameters that emerged over the Christian centuries, expressed in terms such as inspiration, authority, and word of God, are actually unscriptural and inhibit an articulation of the theological status and function of scripture.

–John Goldingay, in a review of Paul Achtemeier’s Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture

The Bible never uses the term inerrant or infallible, and I doubt that any Biblical writer means “the canonical scriptures” when he says “the word of God.”   In my upbringing in Churchesgeneva bible of Christ, I was taught to “call Bible things by Bible names” and to be wary of traditional human interpretations.  Those are still my instincts, which is part of why I’m troubled by the insistence on framing the debate in terms that don’t appear in scripture.  Everything that the Bible says about scripture, I gladly affirm.  It’s useful for training in good works, it can make us wise for salvation, it points to Jesus.  If the debate centered on those propositions, a lot of what we fuss over would evaporate.

The traditional terms of the discussion have the unfortunate effect of stripping away all nuance.  If I don’t like the inerrancy doctrine, that doesn’t mean that I am proposing a theory of scriptural errancy.   I don’t want to poke holes in the Bible or comb through it to make a list of factual errors.  (Although it can be done, if you absolutely have to go down that road.)  I want to drop the idea of inerrancy altogether and take the Bible as it is, for what it is.  Framing our doctrine of the scriptures in terms of error (of the absence thereof) has shifted a bizarre amount of attention away from things like the resurrection and onto things like whether the four resurrection accounts can be harmonized.  I really don’t care whether they can or not. I just don’t. That’s not supposed to be the point. What I really want is to be spiritually formed by the four accounts without having to do some nit-picky modernist analysis of “what actually happened that morning.”  If God wanted us to have a harmony of the Bible, I suppose he could have given us one.  But he didn’t.



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N.T. Wright on Scripture

Read the whole lecture here.

In private reading, and in informal group meetings, we need again to experiment with new ways of reading scripture. Anyone who has heard an entire biblical book read, or even acted (think of Alec McCown on Mark, or Paul Alexander on John; I have heard the same done with Galatians, and very impressive it was, too) will realize that such things as chapter-divisions, or almost any divisions at all, can be simply unhelpful. We need to recapture a sense of scripture as a whole, telling and retelling stories as wholes. Only when you read Exodus as a whole (for example) do you realize the awful irony whereby the making of the golden calf is a parody of what God wanted the people to do with their gold and jewels . . . and only by reading Mark as a whole might you realize that, when the disciples ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand, they are indeed asking for something they do not understand.

It is perhaps the half-hearted and sometimes quite miserable traditions of reading the Bible—even among whose who claim to take it seriously—that account for the very low level of biblical knowledge and awareness even among some church leaders and those with delegated responsibility. And this is the more lamentable in that the Bible ought to be functioning as authoritative within church debates. What happens all too often is that the debate is conducted without reference to the Bible (until a rabid fundamentalist stands up and waves it around, confirming the tacit agreement of everyone else to give it a wide berth). Rather, serious engagement is required, at every level from the personal through to the group Bible-study, to the proper liturgical use, to the giving of time in synods and councils to Bible exposition and study. Only so will the church avoid the trap of trying to address the world and having nothing to say but the faint echo of what the world itself has been saying for some while.

If we really engage with the Bible in this serious way we will find, I believe, that we will be set free from (among other things) some of the small-scale evangelical paranoia which goes on about scripture. We won’t be forced into awkward corners, answering impossible questions of the ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ variety about whether scripture is exactly this or exactly that. Of course the Bible is inspired, and if you’re using it like this there won’t be any question in your mind that the Bible is inspired. But, you will be set free to explore ways of articulating that belief which do not fall into the old rationalist traps of 18th or 19th or 20th century. Actually using the Bible in this way is a far sounder thing than mouthing lots of words beginning with ‘in—’ but still imprisoning the Bible within evangelical tradition (which is what some of those ‘in—’ words seem almost designed to do). Of course you will discover that the Bible will not let you down. You will be paying attention to it; you won’t be sitting in judgement over it. But you won’t come with a preconceived notion of what this or that passage has to mean if it is to be true. You will discover that God is speaking new truth through it. I take it as a method in my biblical studies that if I turn a corner and find myself saying, ‘Well, in that case, that verse is wrong’ that I must have turned a wrong corner somewhere. But that does not mean that I impose what I think is right on to that bit of the Bible. It means, instead, that I am forced to live with that text uncomfortably, sometimes literally for years (this is sober autobiography), until suddenly I come round a different corner and that verse makes a lot of sense; sense that I wouldn’t have got if I had insisted on imposing my initial view on it from day one.

The Bible, clearly, is also to be used in a thousand different ways within the pastoral work of the church, the caring and building up of all its members. Again, there is much that I could say here, but little space. Suffice it to note that the individual world-views and God-views of Christians, as much as anybody else, need to be constantly adjusted and straightened out in the light of the story which is told in scripture. But this is not to say that there is one, or even that there are twenty-one, ‘right’ ways of this being done. To be sure, the regular use of scripture in private and public worship is a regular medicine for many of the ills that beset us. But there are many methods of meditation, of imaginative reading, ways of soaking oneself in a book or a text, ways of allowing the story to become one’s own story in all sorts of intimate ways, that can with profit be recommended by a pastor, or engaged in within the context of pastoral ministry itself. Here, too, we discover the authority of the Bible at work: God’s own authority, exercised not to give true information about wholeness but to give wholeness itself, by judging and remaking the thoughts and intentions, the imaginations and rememberings, of men, women and children. There are worlds to be discovered here of which a good deal of the church remains sadly ignorant. The Bible is the book of personal renewal, the book of tears and laughter, the book through which God resonates with our pain and joy, and enables us to resonate with his pain and joy. This is the really powerful authority of the Bible, to be distinguished from the merely manipulative or the crassly confrontational ‘use’ of scripture.

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The Apostle Paul on Inspiration

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

The KJV translated verse 16 as “all scripture is given by inspiration of God,” which is the only time the word “inspiration” appears in scripture.  I think the NIV’s rendering “God-breathed” is a better one, and it might even be what the KJV translators intended to convey. “To inspire” used to mean “to draw in a breath.”  

Normally, the best practice for determining what a word means in the Bible is to look at it in other contexts, but that’s a no-go this time.  The Greek word, theopneustos, appears only here. Second best, perhaps, is to look at related ideas.  Where in scripture does God breathe into something?  Several places, as it turns out, but here are some of the key ones:

Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.-Genesis 3:7

The Lord took hold of me, and I was carried away by the Spirit of the Lord to a valley filled with bones. He led me all around among the bones that covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out.  Then he asked me, “Son of man, can these bones become living people again?”

“O Sovereign Lord,” I replied, “you alone know the answer to that.”

Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to these bones and say, ‘Dry bones, listen to the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look! I am going to put breath into you and make you live again! I will put flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I spoke this message, just as he told me. Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them.

 Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to the winds, son of man. Speak a prophetic message and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, O breath, from the four winds! Breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again.’”

 So I spoke the message as he commanded me, and breath came into their bodies. They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army.–Ezekiel 37:1-10

But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them.–Revelation 11:11

The picture is clear–in significant passages throughout scripture God’s breath is shown to give life.  The most likely thing that Paul means when he says the scriptures are God-breathed is that they aren’t just dead letters on a page.  Something about them is alive, and gives life.  If we aren’t experiencing the vivaciousness of the scriptures, we aren’t reading them right.  What’s really interesting is the implication he draws.  If you were listening to a contemporary preacher, and he said “All scripture is God-breathed and is…..” what would you expect him to say next?  Holy?  Perfect?  Without error?  Infallible?  Maybe all of the above.  Paul doesn’t go there.  “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful.”  Useful especially for training people for good works.

Which means, I think, that if the scriptures aren’t coming to life as you read and prompting you to do good works, it doesn’t matter what your theology of inspiration is, you aren’t letting the Bible do what it is supposed to do for you.  And if your understanding of inspiration is off, or you completely misunderstand Biblical genres, but the words are living in your heart and compelling you to go out and serve the world in the name of Christ, you’re in pretty good shape.  I might want to have a chat with you about some better ways to study, but you’re letting scripture take you where it wants you to go, and that’s the point of inspiration.  It shouldn’t be just dead letters on a page to the believer.


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The Forgotten Faithful

The number of Christians in the Middle East is dwindling.  Read about it in the latest National Geographic:

Ironically, it was during the Crusades (1095-1291) that Arab Christians, slaughtered along with Muslims by the crusaders and caught in the cross fire between Islam and the Christian West, began a long, steady retreat into the minority. Today native Christians in the Levant are the envoys of a forgotten world, bearing the fierce and hunted spirit of the early church. Their communities, composed of various Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects, have dwindled in the past century from a quarter to about 8 percent of the population as the current generation leaves for economic reasons, to escape the region’s violence, or because they have relatives in the West who help them emigrate. Their departure, sadly, deprives the Levant of some of its best educated and most politically moderate citizens—the people these societies can least afford to lose. And so, for Jerusalem’s Arab Christians, there is a giddiness during Easter, as if, after a long and lonely ordeal, much needed reinforcements have arrived.

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RJS on Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns

I’m not sure who RJS is, but there’s some good stuff in his post here at Scot McKnight’s blog. Read the comments, too. One of them gives this great quotation from the book.

“It is somewhat ironic, it seems to me, that both liberals and conservatives make the same error. They both assume that something worth of the title word of God would look different from what we actually have. The one accents the human marks and makes them absolute. The other wishes the human marks were not as pronounced as they were. They share a similar opinion that nothing worthy of being called God’s word would look so common, so human, so recognizable. …”

I’ll have to add it to my list.

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