Category Archives: Bible

The Church and Singles

Hey, guys:

There’s a lot that I’ve been wanting to blog about, but as the father of a five-year-old, an almost-three-year-old and a nine-month-old who is currently teaching an overload at the college (um, I’m doing the teaching, not the the baby), spare minutes to write are getting hard to find.  But I was in an email discussion among some preaching friends about what the church should preach on Valentine’s Day, and I said:

I’ll just add this: whenever I paid specific attention to married life and romance in my preaching, I spent equal time on singleness, and emphasized the unmarried lives of Jesus and Paul.  Married people tend to get a lot of attention and positive affirmation in churches, and that can leave singles feeling like they aren’t real people yet.  That’s unscriptural and damaging, especially in a culture where most people don’t marry until their late 20’s, and many are between marriages.

On the other hand, depending on the background of your congregation, you might want to make the affirmative case for marriage, given how many secular people don’t see the point of it anymore.  Have to get the secular folks to value commitment and get the churchy folks to honor singleness.

I was asked what it would look like if I were invited to preach a sermon honoring singleness, and my attempt to answer that turned into a rant I thought I would share here.  Disclaimer: this rant is ranty.

__________________________

Well, to be honest, my primary impulse is to tear down the idol of “family” which is often used as a synonym for “Christian” or “responsible.”  The biggest place you see this is in the term “family values,” which when used in conversation means “Christian values as I understand them” 90% of the time and means nothing at all the other 10%.  Or, I remember being at a pastors’ prayer breakfast with mayor once when the mayor said he didn’t like all the focus on “the Almighty dollar” in our town and wanted to replace it with “the Almighty family.”  I nearly fell out of my chair, since I was expecting his last word to be “God,” and I think I did drop down a few inches when assembled pastors burst into applause.  But most of them had been focusing on the family and promoting family values for so long that it might not have been a big stretch to just declare the family almighty and worship it.

I think I preached a sermon once called “Can Single People Have Family Values?” that tried to kick some of the stones out of the family altar the modern evangelical church has created.  What I’m afraid this does is create an expectation that real  Christians have spouses and kids, and if you don’t, you are either defective or in a sort of holding pattern while you’re waiting for your real life to begin.  Too many larger churches have singles’ classes that are functionally either “Youth Group 2.0” or not-so-thinly veiled elder-sponsored match-making services.  As someone who was single until 29 and hated that dynamic, I can attest that if you insist on showing up to just a normal adult class, there will be some people who try to gently steer you toward the kiddie table where you belong.  Or, consider this: if you have knowledge of biggish churches, you’ll find a lot of singles’ classes sponsored by a married couple, which is, again, a not-too-subtle hint that either (1) you guys can’t govern yourselves and need a real adult around here or (2) you would benefit from a living example of someone who has successfully gotten married, since that either is or should be your goal.  But how often do you hear about a couples’ class taught or sponsored by a single person?  “Never” is the answer in my experience.  Churches will choose someone who was married at 19 to lead a class of singles in their 20’s and 30’s even though that person has no experience in long-term singleness because we don’t value the experience of long-term singleness.  We value marriage, and they have proven they can get married.  We think long-term singles can learn from long-term married people–and, sure, they can–but we almost never reverse that.  And the fact that married people and single people are on such unequal footing in many churches, with the former always teachers and the latter always students, shows you how far we are from Biblical teaching.

And, as any unmarried preacher knows, you aren’t going to get very in a ministry career until there is a ring on your finger, in spite of the fact that almost all of the New Testament is either about an unmarried preacher (Jesus) or written by one (Paul).

Matthew 19 is one of the primary texts in this regard:

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

I think it’s worth pointing out to the church that when the disciples say “Sounds like maybe it’s better not to marry!” Jesus doesn’t respond, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t go that far!”  He says, “Yeah, for some people it is–and single living can be done for the sake of heaven,which means it is something that heaven honors and finds valuable, even if earth doesn’t.”  In fact, for several hundred years of the early church, it would have made a lot more sense to name an organization “Focus on the Singles” or to talk about “Single Values.”

A few quotes from a paper I once wrote about this topic:
Jerome, writing to Eustochium, a celibate woman of aristocratic heritage, encouraged her to realize her superiority over married women: “Learn from me a holy arrogance: know that you are better than they are!” Ambrose provided the corollary: “Those who decide to marry…must of necessity confess that they are inferior to virgins.”

We should also remember that the Lord also taught, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 24.26). In its haste to point out that Jesus did not literally mean “hate,” the contemporary church has neglected to teach that Jesus certainly did mean that family matters are subservient to kingdom concerns, and his disciples may be called upon to leave all those attachments behind. Certainly that was true of those he called during his earthly ministry.

The fact that Jesus taught both that that some are called to be eunuchs for the kingdom and that whoever comes to him must hate his family, and the church has still managed to make an idol of family life shows how powerful this dynamic is.  I think we’ve basically given into the impulse to take what is the norm in our society and declare it the standard that all should strive for.  It’s very reassuring for our married folk to be told they’ve done it the right way.  But the Bible at the very least, presents both married and single life as valued paths, and, honestly, by the time you really absorb Matthew 19, Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 7, it’s pretty easy to make the case that celibate singleness is the standard and marriage is a concession for people who can’t handle the higher calling.  This is a message most of the evangelical church is unable or unwilling to hear, even though it is right there in the Bible. And when a single person reads those passages and notices that they are either (1) never preached or (2) preached with so many disclaimers and caveats that there’s no message left by the end of the sermon, they see what’s going on.  We are going to do what it takes to continue honoring married people above singles even if we have to tape up the mouths and Jesus and Paul to do it.

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An Atheist Who Gets It

A lot of the atheists I run into have a really warped view of the Bible–almost the mirror image of the fundamentalist view. I understand where that comes from–it’s largely a reaction to vocal fundies in the media. But for people who espouse the virtues of rational discourse to dismissively refer to the Bible as a collection of fairy tales about an evil old man in the sky is an absurd a failure to see what it actually is–about as absurd as saying that it is inerrant and never contradicts itself.

Robert Price, an atheist speaking to a group of (mainly) atheists, gives them a better view of what the Bible actually is, and why even a non-believer can (and should) love it.

Listen to it here, on the podcast of the “Point of Inquiry” radio show.

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The Wrong Definition of Having Faith

I’ve been wanting to comment on a certain strain of American evangelical culture for a while now and haven’t been sure how to get into it, but Mike Cope broached the topic, so I’ll take this as my opportunity to jump in.  He’s commenting on Jason Boyett’s new book O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling, and I’ll re-quote part of the book Mike quoted:

“When you live and work within the American Christian subculture — especially the less liturgical, more conservative, evangelical, megachurch sub-subculture — you hear a lot of people talking casually about the intimacy of their relationship with God. The way they tell it, they get frequent, distinct impressions from the Holy Spirit. They get personal promptings from Jesus. They get very specific answers to prayer and detailed directions about even the most trivial aspects of their lives.

“I’ve heard someone tell a friend, ‘I woke up in the middle of the night and thought of you, and it was definitely the Holy Spirit wanting me to pray for you right then and there.’ I’ve overheard a middle-aged woman say, ‘It was totally a God thing that my flight got cancelled, because I got to share my faith with the lady next to me. Talk about a divine appointment!’

“I’ve heard musicians credit God with having written their song lyrics. I’ve heard businessmen give God credit for finally coming through with the promotions for which they’d been praying. I know a few people who don’t hesitate to reveal that God told them to quit their jobs and go into full-time ministry.

“One Sunday I overheard someone give this breathless recap of a worship service: ‘The Lord totally showed up in church this morning. When we got to that key change in “Breathe,” you just knew God was moving.’

“You’ve heard this kind of talk too, maybe coming out of your own mouth. Please understand me: I’m not telling you — or them — to stop. I’m pretty sure most of those kinds of statements express a sincere and real faith in a personal God who is intimately involved in our lives. That people talk this way is not what bothers me.

Unlike Boyett, I am asking them to stop, and I’m not at all sure those statements reflect a sincere and real faith in a personal God who is intimately involved in our lives.  I think it reflects a sincere and artificial faith that mistakes predictable responses to certain stimuli as the work of God.  Far from being more spiritual, I think that people who are always going on about the latest thing that God has said to them are less spiritual.  One of the keys to authentic life with Yahweh is not taking the Lord’s name in vain, which I take to mean, in part, not acting as though your own thoughts and purposes necessarily have divine approval.  If it’s wrong to falsely proclaim that God has damned something, surely it’s also wrong to falsely proclaim that he has blessed something.  I’m not going to be as generous about this stuff as Boyett is.  We seriously need to knock this stuff off, and we definitely need to stop sending the signal that that real Christians hear from God on a regular basis.

Why does it bother me so much?

1)  It’s unbiblical.

Search the scriptures are closely as you can.  You aren’t going to find any instances of God leading someone through a coincidence, or a gut feeling or an intuition. That never happens. No one ever tries to discern God’s will for their lives. His general will is communicated through the scriptures, and if he has a specific mission for someone, he sends a message that can’t be missed–an audible voice, an angelic visit, something like that. As soon as someone says “God laid a message on my heart” they have departed from all Biblical precedent. You can, of course, argue that not every Christian practice needs to have Biblical precedent, and for some matters, I would agree. But on the central question of “how does God communicate with people?” I’d sure like to see a verse or two that supports our practices.

2) It “defines divinity down.”

Another problem with hearing from God every afternoon is that when your way of hearing from the Lord is completely indistinguishable from the routine products of your own imagination, the experience of God has became so meager and small that the glory of God is inevitably diminished. Frankly, I’d much rather worship a God who communicates clearly through overwhelming personal encounters, but rarely, than a God who works in my life exactly the same way coincidence and personal insights work for atheists.

We’ve gotten used to speaking about the presence of God and the voice of God in casual ways that don’t knock us down to our knees (and that certainly doesn’t line up with the biblical testimony). I’ve often thought about that when I’m in a worship service where they sing “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord”

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You

To see You high and lifted up
Shinin’ in the light of Your glory
Pour out Your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy

The sounds great to sing, but do we realize what we are asking for? When someone sees God high and lifted up, it isn’t a fun or casual experience, and you don’t leave feeling good about yourself. Just ask Isaiah.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

One of my big pet peeves is when some human person cleverly designs a worship experience for maximum emotional impact through dramatic lighting and moving song selections, and then, when it is over says something like “God really showed up and showed off tonight!” This bothers me because a) nothing happened here that doesn’t happen in secular concerts or movies every day and b) if God had decided to show up and show off, you wouldn’t be telling me about it over dessert at Chili’s. You’d still be in the sanctuary shaking with fright, and we’d be on our way there to bring you a clean pair of pants.

3) It’s a pagan worldview in Christian language.

In Deuteronomy 30, when Moses has finished passing on to Israel the commandments that God gave him (with an audible voice and written tablets, not a warm feeling in his heart), Moses says:

The LORD will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, if you obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

In other words–I’ve just laid out God’s will for you. It’s really clear, and now you all know it, and there’s no need to worry about how you are going to know what he wants. He’s told you up front.

This is really, really great news, because it means they don’t have to do what the pagans do, which is read tea leaves and animal entrails to try to figure out what the gods want, or search for signs in the heavens, or–worst of all–go to some witch or necromancer to see if the souls of the departed have any insights. One of the incredible plusses of the biblical tradition is that everything we need is set down in print.

Have you ever noticed that when Jesus encounters someone who isn’t hip to God’s agenda, he never says “you need to spend more time seeking God’s will for your life”? Instead he points them to the Bible. “Have you not read….?” This is one area where the Judeo-Christian tradition is in sharp contrast to the surrounding culture of the ancient world. Having written scriptures is better than having to search for signs of the divine will, and it’s a move backward (and one that mystifies me) to leave the assurance of a scriptural grounding for the uncertainties of analyzing your gut feelings.

I once heard someone say “Faith isn’t believing that God will do whatever you want him to do. Faith is believing that God will do what he has already promised to do.” He never promised to pick out your college, or your spouse, or your job, and whisper the answer to you. He didn’t promise “divine appointments” or messages laid on your heart. No matter how much we might want those things or how great we think they are, it doesn’t seem to be the way that God prefers to operate. And it causes all manner of practical problems. But more on that later, maybe.

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Something Better Than Heaven

A friend of mine asked me to preach for him last week while he was away on vacation. This is the rough draft of my sermon, which more or less follows what I actually wound up saying when I got there.

I’m going to depart from my normal preaching style this morning. That’s probably okay with you, because you don’t know what my normal preaching style is. Well, I’ll tell you. What I normally do is start with a reading from the Bible and spend the rest of the time in a sort of extended study and explanation of that passage, sticking closely to the text all the way through. One of the nice things about that kind of preaching is that no one ever asks “where is he going with this?” If they do ask, the answer is “I’m not going anywhere—we’re hanging out in this text all morning, just going deeper and deeper into it.”

That’s how I normally preach, but that isn’t how I’m preaching this morning. And I’ll tell you up front why I’m not. The first reason is that there are several passages I want to discuss, not just one. I want to give us a big picture of a Biblical teaching. My normal preaching is kind of like an architectural blueprint, with lots of notes that show how the planks and railings of a passage fit together. What I’m aiming for this morning is more like a water painting of a landscape. I’d like to leave you not with all the details worked out, but with a big picture that you can carry with you. The second reason I’m leaving my normal pattern is this: the passages that I really want to talk about are difficult for modern people to grasp right away. And that isn’t because the words are complex—they really aren’t. It’s because we have about an 1800 year history of reading them in a certain way that I’ve come to believe almost completely misses the point. Sometimes we read them the same way my daughter opens birthday presents. She’ll cut the ribbon and tear the paper off and then hold it up for everyone to see and say “Look! It’s a box!” You have to keep prodding her sometimes to get her to move past the box—which I admit is a wonderful and attractive thing—and get her to open up the present inside.

This morning, I want to try to get us to open up the box, but to get there we need to make some preparations. So let’s start someplace else. Let’s start with a Starbucks coffee cup.

Joel Stein is a writer for the Los Angeles times, and I think it’s fair to say that he had no idea when he first wrote those lines that they would eventually kick off such an enormous controversy.
World Net Daily conducted a survey asking its readers for responses to the coffee cup quote, and a near tie for first place among the 7600 responses:

27.64% said they will do their best to avoid buying anything at Starbucks in the future.
27.36% said it’s leftist garbage from a leftist company based in a leftist city.

Over at The Christian Courier, Wayne Jackson agreed, calling the cup “display of contemptible ignorance,” and asking his readers, “Why not put your money where your heart is, instead of into some humanistic-oriented corporation that has an agenda hostile to those who reverence the spiritual?”

You and are just barely getting to know each other. Right now, all you know about me is that I’m friends with Shane, and I don’t know whether you think that’s a good thing or not. So at this point I’m going to leap out in faith and make a confession.
Here’s my confession:

I think Mr. Stein has a point.

Try as I might, the popular images of heaven just don’t grab my imagination. Robes and harps, angel wings, lazy days among the fluffy clouds. That might be nice for an afternoon or even a few weeks. I’ll really stretch and say I could learn to like that for a year or two. But for all of eternity?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who’s ever had that thought, and I know what the approved response is: if you were just spiritual enough, you’d love the idea of heaven. Your problem is that you haven’t really cultivated the taste for worship and prayer. If you liked church better, you’d be excited about an eternity of praising God.

To quote Wayne Jackson:

The foregoing erroneous images of heaven are the result of….the lack of disciplinary training in things spiritual, in contrast to aggressive pursuits of the material. Many Christians truly do not fathom how they will be able to be happy in an environment where there is no golf, Monday Night Football, or shopping malls.
Quite frankly they find worship on earth dull—as obviously reflected in their patterns of church attendance. The thought of serving God continuously is a frightful nightmare to the “spiritually challenged.”

Now, that might be the right diagnosis for some people. I don’t know. But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t find worship dull—well, most of the time I don’t. And I’m a pretty faithful church goer. I read my Bible regularly, I sing and pray every night with my children, and I spend a fair amount of time meditating on the things of God. Sunday morning is my favorite time of the week. I love a good gospel meeting. I’m sure I have a ways to go, and it’s dangerous to deny your own weaknesses, but I don’t think my lack of excitement about heaven has to do with not being churchy enough. I’m pretty churchy.

Furthermore, I have no interest at all in either golf or shopping malls, and—while I realize this is a true heresy in these parts—I’m really not all that much of a football fan. I can give those things up with no hesitation at all.

And, of course, there are some things about the traditional picture of heaven that I just love. Really, really, love. No more death! Hallelujah! No more sickness! Amen. No more pain or sorrow! No more farewells! The hope of dwelling in the true presence of God the Father and the Lord Jesus—to be surrounded by the saints of all the years before. To walk with loved ones who have passed on before me. That’s a joy and a wonder.

Those things are so wonderful that it makes me a little embarrassed to admit that I find the harps and clouds and wings part pretty boring to contemplate. But I do. Not only do I understand where Joel Stein is coming from, I kind of resonate with this coffee cup, too:

And even though in the church we know we are supposed to long for heaven, it’s a challenge for some of us to work up much excitement. I think the problem is that there isn’t much that the Bible tells us about heaven; the little bit we do read is pretty vague and the incomplete picture that results just isn’t always enough to stir a person’s imagination.

What’s missing in that picture for me are things like surprise. Challenges. A sense of accomplishment. Worthy goals. And, to be honest, things like feeling wet beach sand pushing up between my toes. Pushing myself to hike up a mountain, feeling the blood pump and the muscles groan and respond. I’m going to miss things like learning and exploring. The feel of a handshake or a pat on the back. Can wispy souls shake hands in the clouds?
I’m going to miss building things.

There’s a lot about life on earth that I love.

And you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that the things I’m talking about are bad or frivolous things. Don’t the scriptures testify that those things sprang from the creative mind of God? As he made the things that fill our planet, didn’t he say over and over again “This is good! This is good! This is very good!” I agree with God! I like the Earth! I think he did a great job! It brought him pleasure to create and it brings me pleasure to receive it, and to join with him in the work of building and restoring. I like it—and I think I’m supposed to like it.
I guess what it boils down to is this: if the traditional picture of heaven that you and I grew up with is right—if the physical is stripped away and there is nothing left of me but a soul, there’s just a lot that I’m going to miss.

You know what I think I would really love? If I could have the good things about physical embodiment without the down sides. If I could have hugs but be done with heart attacks. If I could have exploration but be done with illness. If I could have challenges but no more losses. If God’s actual plan wasn’t to do away with the Earth, but to renew it and restore it—I would love that. No more spilled oil, no more litter, no more rubble. Just clear blue skies, soft green grass, pristine oceans. If his actual plan wasn’t to leave us as bodiless souls but to resurrect us into perfect, eternal bodies, real solid bodies that could never age or die, forever—wouldn’t take be marvel? What if we could have all the things we love most about the traditional picture of heaven, but at the same time hold on to all that we love best about life on Earth. Hugs and handshakes and swing sets and forest trails, with Jesus himself and all the people we love.

And what if I were to say to you that as near as I can tell, that’s exactly what the Bible promises, over and over?

1) The expectation of the disciples was that if Jesus came back, he was going to come back in a bodily form.

So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

2) Jesus is only the first of many who will be raised in a new body.

12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27For he “has put everything under his feet.”[c] Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
–1 Corinthians 15

This is much more than a promise that “my soul will live forever in heaven after I die.” The Biblical promise is that I will be back—changed, immortal, renewed, and restored, certainly, but me.

But it doesn’t end there.

3) God will restore and renew all of creation.

10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
11Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
–2 Peter 3

18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that[i] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved.
–Romans 8

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
— Revelation 21

Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. 21He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
Acts 3:17-21

Why we almost completely stopped talking about restoration, renewal and resurrection and shifted to hoping that our souls would wind up in heaven is a long and complex story, but I think the short version is that a cultural tendency to discount the importance of physical things led our spiritual forebears to assume that God couldn’t really be interested in renewing earth and reviving our bodies—that his actual goal must be rest for our souls. And so, in spite of an abundance of verses about resurrection, and shortage of verses about the hope of heaven, we began to preach and sing as though getting in to heaven is what Christianity is all about. But that was never meant to be where we placed our hope.

Our hope is that just as Christ was raised, we too shall be raised, to new life, on the new Earth, forever.

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One Things the Gospels Never Say About Heaven

In the last post I looked at every verse in the gospels that mentions heaven.  Every single one.  Now, imagine that you were going to record and examine everything said in your average church about heaven.  How much of it would be about the souls of the faithful going there someday?

But when you look at the gospels, exactly none of the verses that reference heaven are holding it out as the eventual home of righteous souls.  None.

How did our rhetoric move so far away from the language of Jesus?

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Everything the Gospels Say About Heaven

The Flammarion Woodcut, a depiction of the heavens and the earth from 1888.

As part of my preparation for a Sunday School class I’m teaching next week, I decided to take a look at every place where the four gospels mention the word “heaven” and do a quick analysis.  This isn’t super scholarly–it was all done in English with some simple online tools, but it might be a good starting point for deeper study later.  I’ll try to write up some conclusions before long, but it might be fun (depending on your definition of “fun”) for you guys to take a good look first and see if anything in particular jumps out at you.  Again, this is a rough first look, done in my spare time over two evenings.

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If you do a simple word search for “heaven” in the gospels, you find 123 verses that contain that word.

Matthew

Just over half of those verses, 65, are in the gospel of Matthew, which uses the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” where other gospels say the “the kingdom of God.”  That accounts for 31 verses, none of which are referring to the afterlife. Another twelve are references to “our Father in heaven,” used as a label for God.  Of the remaining 23, we have:

Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels

  • 3:16-17 Two references in the story of the baptism of Jesus, in which heaven opens and the spirit of God descends, and then a voice from heaven calls out “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
  • 5:24 “But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne…”
  • 6:10 (The Lord’s Prayer) “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
  • 11:25 A reference to God as “Lord of Heaven”
  • 14:19 Jesus looks up to heaven as he prays.
  • 16:1 The Sadducees demand a sign from heaven
  • 18:10 “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”
  • 21:25-26 Jesus presses his enemies to answer whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men.
  • 22:30 “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
  • 23:9 “And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”
  • 23:22 “And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”
  • 24:36 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
  • 26:64 “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
  • 28:2 “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.”

References to the faithful storing up rewards/treasures in heaven

  • 5:12 “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
  • 6:20 “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…”
  • 19:21 “Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Heaven mentioned as part of a hyperbolic figure of speech intended to reinforce a teaching point

  • 5:18 “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
  • 24:35 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

A declaration regarding apostolic authority

  • 18:18 “”I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”

A declaration regarding the authority of Jesus

  • 28:18 “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.””

Mark

The word “heaven” appears only 14 times in Mark, (1:10-11, 6:4,; 7:34, 8:11, 10:21, 11:25,30-31, 12:25, 13:31-32, 14:62, 16:19) all of which can be placed into the same categories used for Matthew, and most of which are parallel passages to a line in Matthew.  The one notable line which Matthew doesn’t contain is Mark 16:19, which is part of a longer ending added by an anonymous scribe.  The oldest manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8.  16:19 reads “After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.”

Luke

Luke uses the term 28 times.

Usages seen previously in Matthew and Mark

Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels

  • 2:15  “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven”
  • 3:21-22   At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends from heaven and the Father’s voice calls from heaven
  • 9:16  “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them.”
  • 10:21 “Father, Lord of heaven and earth”
  • 11:13 “your Father in heaven”
  • 11:16 “a sign from heaven”
  • 15:7 “rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents”
  • 15:18,21 “I have sinned against heaven and against you”
  • 18:13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
  • 19:38 “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
  • 20:4-5 Jesus presses his enemies to answer whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men.
  • 21:11 “signs from heaven”
  • 22:43 “an angel from heaven appeared”

References to the faithful storing up rewards/treasures in heaven

  • 6:23  “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.”
  • 12:33 “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
  • 18:22 “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

Heaven mentioned as part of a hyperbolic figure of speech intended to reinforce a teaching point

  • 21:33 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

Usages unique to Luke

Heaven as the originating place of the sun

  • 1:78        “by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven”

Heaven, the place from which divine punishments are issued

  • 9:54  “When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them ?”
  • 17:29 “But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.”

Heaven as the place where Satan once was

  • 10:18     “He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”

Heaven is where the names of the faithful are recorded

  • 10:20 “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Heaven, the destination of the resurrected Jesus

  • 9:51  “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”
  • 24:51  “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”

Obviously, where exactly one draws the lines between categories is a matter of subjective assessment.  The final category could easily be placed with the first, (Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels), but I thought it important to set it apart in this analysis because of the sheer importance of these verses to Luke.  9:51 marks a major turning point in the narrative—any scholarly outline of Luke will take note of the shift that happens here.  24:51 is at the very end of the book.  Most of Luke’s narrative is bookended by the line announcing that Jesus will at some point be taken up to heaven and the line that depicts it happening.

John

John’s themes and interests are very different than those of the other three gospels, and that is evident in his sixteen uses of the word “heaven.”  Four of them come under the most prominent category from the synpotics:

Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels.

  • 1:32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.
  • 1:51 He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
  • 12:29 Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.
  • 17:1 After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed

Of the other twelve occurrences, all are found in chapters three and six, and all twelve make exactly the same point:

Jesus came down from heaven

  • 3:13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
  • 3:27 To this John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.
  • 3:31 “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.
  • 6:31 Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ “
  • 6:32 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.
  • 6:33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
  • 6:38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.
  • 6:41 At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
  • 6:42 They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
  • 6:50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.
  • 6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
  • 6:58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”

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Marketing the Messiah

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.
–Luke 10:1-4

I’ve had this passage stuck in my brain for a couple of years now*, always wondering the same question: how do the people of Christ today fulfill their calling in a way that is congruent with this beginning? (Maybe I’m still a restorationist at heart after all.)

Sometimes we think the palpable weirdness of the New Testament is a function of gaping chasms of linguistic and cultural difference that must be crossed when reading an ancient document from another part of the world. And sometimes that’s true. But even in his own day and age, Jesus was a weirdo. I can’t imagine that anyone else who intended to start a new global movement would do it this way–send people out into the world resourceless and vulnerable, looking for a friendly home to take them in so they could spread their message of the kingdom.

Churches today–at least, the ones I know anything about–do almost the opposite. Rather than walk through the world empty-handed, looking for places where the Spirit is already at work, our impulse is to show the world how much we can offer it. “Exciting Youth Program! Upbeat Worship! Relevant Preaching!” I remember getting a advertisement in the mail for one congregation’s Easter service. Six different times it mentioned that the Easter bunny would be there in person to meet the kids who came to the egg hunt. Not once did it mention that Easter was a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, the words Jesus or Christ didn’t appear anywhere in the ad. And this wasn’t one of the flaky “Best Life Now” temples to personal success. It was a fairly well-grounded congregation that I had attended for a couple of years. But their idea of reaching the world, at least on that day, involved a volunteer in a bunny suit and a proclamation of the good news of free eggs and prizes.

The rebuttal I usually hear when I get all cranky and reactionary about this stuff is that we are supposed to do Nice Things for Our Neighbors and, anyway, Once We Get Them in the Door, We Will Tell Them the Gospel. This is where I’m kind of simple-minded. I think we ought to do Jesusy things in Jesusy ways. If you can honestly picture Jesus spreading the word that his new movement will have “Well Staffed Nurseries!” and “Beautiful Worship Spaces!” and “Your Kids Can Meet Astarte Herself During the Spring Fertility Rituals!” then go for it, I guess, but that’s not the vibe I get from him in the gospels. It looks to me like a bunch of us are deciding that the world doesn’t want what we actually have to offer, so we’ll give them what we think they do want, and kind of see what happens from there. Maybe everyone is in agreement that the pastor they interviewed on the Daily Show, who tries to win converts through Ultimate Fighting, has gone off the deep end, but I think of him as a kind of living reductio ad absurdum argument against evangelism that relies on the power of clever marketing rather than the power of the spirit working through our resourcelessness and poverty. Once you decide that you are going to offer the teeming crowds what they want in order to get them inside, you may as well notice that some of them really want Ultimate Fighting, so what’s the harm?

I think it would be an interesting learning experience for a church to try to recreate some of these gospel scenes as closely as possible. What if we agreed that one Saturday morning we would put on simple clothing, leave our wallet and keys at home, and walk out into the world looking for a place where God is working, praying for open eyes that will let us see where we can join in, and praying also for hospitable strangers who will welcome us?

Yeah, I know–do I want people to think we’re a bunch of weirdos?

*In fact, I probably blogged it before, but it’s on my mind again and I’m not going to let redundancy slow me down. The internet isn’t running out of pixels.

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Moving Past the Primitivist Paradigm

Those who were raised in the Churches of Christ and paid any attention at all knew that we were part of the Restoration Movement. That label alone tells you a lot–something had been lost, and we had set about trying to bring it back. In our case, what had been lost was The One True Church, shattered into a thousand apostate fellowships operating in various degrees of error. Or, if understood more graciously, what had been lost was God’s Original Design for the Church, which had been obscured by well-intentioned people who had cluttered up the simple New Testament plan with misguided creeds and practices that detracted from the purity of the early church. Or maybe that should be written The Early Church, a supposed monolithic organization so close to the time of Jesus and so submissive to the inspired teaching of the apostles that their practice constituted a (near?) perfect pattern that could be copied in any time and place. Any group of Jesus-followers who managed to recreate the primitive pattern of The Early Church will have, ipso facto, Restored the Church.

Over time, the Churches of Christ developed a hermeneutic that was understood to enable Bible readers to suss out the pattern from the evidence left in the scripture. That hermeneutic has been commonly called “command, example and necessary inference.” In short, the church can only take a certain action if it has been commanded in the New Testament, if there is an “inspired example” of the church doing it, or if it is necessarily inferred that it must be done in order to obey the commands and examples. That simple formula works in theory, but in reality a whole cluster of traditional interpretation arose to explain why Jesus’ command to sell all our possessions and give to the poor was not incumbent on all Christians, but the example of weekly celebration of communion was. It get even trickier when dealing with matters that are “unauthorized” due to lack of a positive scriptural command or example–like instrumental music. Why are instruments, which God positively commanded in the Old Testament and never mentions one way or the other in the New, now verboten, while something like congregational ownership of property (which I contend caused a much bigger change in the tenor of church life) is accepted without anyone even seeing a need to try to defend it? How do we justify four-part harmony, which was unknown in the early church (and surely as much of a departure from a cappella antiphonal chant as the pipe organ)? Other restorationist groups felt that it was essential to bring back such things as miraculous healings and speaking in tongues–and there are surely approved examples of both of those. Why does Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 14 that women are to be silent overrule Peter’s proclamation in Acts 2 (following Joel) that “your sons and daughters will prophesy?” If it’s possible to be a consistent primitivist, I haven’t seen it in action yet–which is a large part of why the Restoration Movement has divided so many times, over questions of instruments, Sunday School, paid ministers, multiple cups in communion, wine or grape juice in communion, missionary societies, and on and on. The Roman Catholic critique that Protestants got no closer to the truth of God by rejecting the papacy and relying on each person’s own interpretive skill has some bite to it. In the extreme Church of Christ position (which did and still does exist) being part of a congregation that takes the wrong position on any one of those issues could condemn a person to perdition, which means, necessarily, that the vast bulk of not just the world but even of confessing Christians are damned because they made a mistake in somewhere in their chain of logical inferences, and took something to be approved which was, in fact, forbidden, or vice versa.

It’s hard to write all that out now without being overwhelmed by how harsh, how misguided, and how unfeasible the whole system is, but such is the power of group conditioning. If you are raised in a setting where everyone tells you “well, of course instrumental music is not authorized by God” you tend to buy into it and thank Jesus that you were fortunate enough to be born into the company of such right-thinking and righteous folk. Which is, of course, what your teachers had thought when they were younger, and their teachers before them, back to the first revolutionaries who started down this path.

For thoughtful Christians, usually a change in one’s theological outlook comes about gradually, the result of long wrestling with the scriptures, and with valued books, and the stimulating conversation of friends. But occasionally some grand epiphany comes along, or something is said that, in a flash, gives substance to a mass of inchoate thoughts that were cluttering around in your head, waiting to take form.

One day when I was 20, I was performing some errand with the preacher at the church where I was interning, when he said to me “Where in the Bible does it say that we can only do what the Bible specifically says we can do?” I could have fallen over right then. BAM! Our hermeneutic was not commanded. Nor was there an inspired example of Jesus or the apostles interpreting the scripture like we were. And it certainly wasn’t necessarily inferred from anything. It was something humans thought up that was handed down through tradition–the very kind of fallible doctrinal accretion that we were so vigorously fighting to do away with. The foundation of our movement was self-refuting.

There’s a line in Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, where someone explains, “It’s the sort of thing that, once you see it, you can never not see it again.” Halfway across the parking lot, on a walk from the auditorium to the church gymnasium, my life changed.  While the reverence I had been taught for the Bible was a good thing, the way I had been taught to read it was a kind of idol that needed to fall and make room for something better.

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Will a Pain-Free Heaven Be Boring?

From an email I sent today answering a question that followed-up on a recent sermon.

I think you understood what I was saying exactly right. And, wow, that’s a good question. If troubles are valuable here for our growth, will we not have them in heaven?

I think it’s hard to figure out exactly what is going to happen in the world to come. On the one hand, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and God will wipe away every tear, and there is no more sorrow or pain or death. On the other, it seems to me that there will still be meaningful work to do (although what kind of work I really can’t imagine). Since the saints will reign with Christ, doesn’t that mean that they will be overseeing some kind of divine project? For a long time I’ve thought that the verses that say those who are faithful with few things will be trusted with many things imply some kind of continuation on the new earth–if we are faithful here, God will give us even more (and more meaningful) work to do there. Since human fulfillment seems to depend a lot on creatively overcoming obstacles to accomplish purposeful work, I have a hard time thinking that God would wire us that way and then the resurrected life would wind up being one enormous, overly long summer vacation. There’s more there, although the Bible only hints at it.

I guess my working theory is that in our incorruptable states, pain and loss won’t work any more as a means to growth. Peace can permeate everything. But somehow I don’t think that means we give up on excitement–it’ll just turn into the kind of excitement when things get gradually better and better, in surprising ways, and each new step forward is an unexpected delight. But I can’t provide book, chapter and verse for that! It just seems to be to be the overall trajectory of the scriptures.

Thinking out loud here,

Kirk

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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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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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My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 3: When the Author States his Method, that Counts Too

In full:

Any theory of Biblical inspiration needs to account for what the authors tell us about their own writing process.

You can learn a lot if you pay attention in the right places.  One of the most overt Biblical statements of authorial intent and process is in the prologue of Luke’s gospel:

1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

This is a gold mine of information:

  1. there have been many written accounts of the work of Jesus by the time Luke sets out to write his
  2. the stories were first handed down (orally) by people who were eyewitnesses to them
  3. Luke himself was not an eyewitness, so he conducted a careful investigation
  4. it seemed good to him to write an orderly account
  5. the purpose of his writing is that Theophilus would know the certainty of what he had been taught.

Already, several popular theories are dead in the water.  Luke wasn’t some kind of flesh and bone pen, taken over by the hand of God, scribbling down the thoughts of the Holy Spirit.  I think you have to throw out verbal plenary inspiration, at least as a statement about the entire Bible, if you take Luke at his word.  And you have to get rid of that super-popular illustration that compares the four gospels to four witnesses at a car crash, claiming that their differences are merely matters of different perspective.  That doesn’t fit well, because Luke lets us know up front that he wasn’t a witness.   And he reason for writing is so pragmatic–“it seemed good to me.”  I know a lot of folks would prefer it if he said that “the Spirit led me to write this” or “God placed a burden on my heart” or whatever the new catch-phrase is for a vague and unverifiable holy prompting, but that’s not what we have.  Luke did a survey of the literature about Jesus, thought that it was generally inadequate (presumably confusing or erroneous) and set out to write a better one.

When you compare the gospels against each other, it becomes clear that there is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Exact sentences are repeated, word-for-word, in two or sometimes all three of them.  Someone is incorporating parts of someone else’s previous writing.  Biblical scholars who try to sort out exactly who was reading which of the other gospels and what order they were written in call this the “synoptic problem.”  Most scholars set Mark as the first and earliest of the canonical gospels, with Matthew and Luke coming later, and using Mark as a primary source.  It’s likely that Mark’s gospel was one of the earlier accounts that Luke read, and Luke must have thought that it was the best of the bunch, because he uses much of its material.  On the other hand, he also thought it wasn’t quite right for his purposes, since he didn’t just copy it and send it on to Theophilus.  He wrote an expanded version with a special emphasis on showing Jesus as the fulfillment of what God had promised in the Old Testament.  (Read the first four chapters of Luke carefully, much of which is unique to his gospel, and you can see his desire to link Jesus to the Jewish tradition.)

Put all that together and we learn that it is okay for a Biblical writer to:

  1. do research
  2. quote other sources (sometimes without attribution)
  3. write because it seemed like a good idea (without special divine prompting)
  4. have specific purposes in mind when he writes (be conciously aware of his own authorial agenda)

That doesn’t seem very challenging or controversial to me, but you would never think those things were possible based on some popular theories about the Bible.  There is a lot of Luke’s own initiative and interest in his gospel, and he explains the production of it in simple human terms.  If you’ve ever become interested in a topic, read what was already written about it, and incorporated the best information into a new document you were writing that emphasized certain things that were especially important to you, then you’ve done exactly what Luke says he did to write the Gospel.  As the bumper sticker proclaims, “Luke said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Here’s another passage that we need to account for in our theories of inspiration, 1 Corinthians 1:13-16:

13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16(Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Now, I would never, ever want to claim that Paul’s memory is occasionally faulty and possibly erroneous, but unfortunately, Paul makes that claim himself.  Even though he is writing a document that will become holy scripture, the Holy Spirit has not intervened to give him perfect knowledge, even about his own ministry!  Paul simply can’t tell his readers with certainty how many people he baptized. So let’s add one more thing to the list.  It’s okay for a Biblical writer to

5.  show signs of faulty human memory.

Even if Paul hadn’t told us that clearly, we would have figured it out when he wrote this nine chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 10:

7Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.

And then we looked it up in in Numbers 25 and read:

6 Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

I look at this and think, “Ah, twenty-three thousand, twenty-four thousand, no big deal.  He was only a thousand off and it doesn’t change the point he was making.  So what if he can’t remember who he baptized for sure, and he mis-remembered the number who died in the plague?  Maybe he wrote 1 Corinthians when he was really sleep deprived.”  And I go on reading and studying, faith intact.  My faith depends on the perfection of Jesus, not of Paul.

That seems to be working out pretty well for me, but it is unacceptable to the folks over at Apologetics Press:

So how can we explain Paul’s statement in light of the information given in Numbers 25:9 (the probable “sister” passage to 1 Corinthians 10:8)? The answer lies in the fact that Paul stated that 23,000 fell “in one day,” while in Numbers 25 Moses wrote that the total number of those who died in the plague was 24,000. Moses never indicated how long it took for the 24,000 to die, but only stated that this was the number “who died in the plague.” Thus, the record in 1 Corinthians simply supplies us with more knowledge about what occurred in Numbers 25—23,000 of the 24,000 who died in the plague died “in one day.”

By this account, I am supposed to believe that Paul was supernaturally given special knowledge of the event beyond what was recorded in the scriptures.  He knew that 24,000 died in the plague, but he also knew that 23,000 died in the first day, and another 1,000 lingered on into day two.  Rather than just referring to the 24,000 total who died, Paul emphasized the number who died within 24 hours–the 23,000.

But what about the idea that Paul just had a little, inconsequential memory slip?  That was Peter Davids’ theory in Hard Sayings of the Bible, and he’s a pretty conservative writer.  But that’s a non-starter at Apologetics Press:

Unbelievable! Walter Kaiser, Peter Davids, Manfred Brauch, and F.F. Bruce pen an 800-page book in an attempt to answer numerous alleged Bible contradictions and to defend the integrity of the Bible, and yet Davids has the audacity to say that the apostle Paul “cited an example from memory and got a detail wrong.” Why in the world did Davids spend so much time (and space) answering various questions that skeptics frequently raise, and then conclude that the man who penned almost half of the New Testament books made mistakes in his writings?! He has concluded exactly what the infidels teach—Bible writers made mistakes. Furthermore, if Paul made one mistake in his writings, he easily could have blundered elsewhere. And if Paul made mistakes in other writings, how can we say that Peter, John, Isaiah, and others did not “slip up” occasionally? The fact is, if Paul, or any of these men, made mistakes in their writings, then they were not inspired by God (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), because God does not make mistakes (cf. Titus 1:2; Psalm 139:1-6). And if the Scriptures were not “given by inspiration of God,” then the Bible is not from God. And if the Bible is not from God, then the skeptic is right. But as we noted above, the skeptic is not right! First Corinthians 10:8 can be explained logically without assuming Paul’s writings are inaccurate….Paul did not “invent” facts about Old Testament stories. Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names. The Holy Spirit revealed the Truth to him—all of it (cf. John 14:26; John 16:13). Just like the writers of the Old Testament, Paul was fully inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Samuel 23:2; Acts 1:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

“Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names.”  Unless, of course, that name was “Stephanas.”  You can dance all around the Bible grabbing verses to try to make your case for inerrancy, but sooner or later you are going to have to deal with 1 Corinthians 1:16.  Paul says clearly that he is relying on “his own cognizance” to remember a name, and that his memory might not be accurate.  No carefully woven theories of inspiration, no syllogisms or dogmas get to trump the clear statement of the apostle.  You have to deal with what he says.

Who is the real Bible believer in this argument?  I believe what Luke says about his writing methods.  I believe what Paul says about his memory.  I honor their writings as scripture, and I accept their self-report.  If you believe in inerrancy, then you have to believe that Paul was literally correct and without error when he wrote that he couldn’t remember for sure who he baptized.  Which means his writing isn’t inerrant.  I have no doubt that someone has done a Rube Goldberg thought experiment to get out of that dilemma, but I sure don’t see how.

My plea: can’t we just accept what the Bible says?

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