Sunday, April 19, 2015

Creation is For Jesus Christ

This is as clear as it gets in describing how I approach a doctrine of creation; of course, it comes

as a description of Karl Barth’s own creatiounderstanding of creation within God’s economy of things. In case you weren’t aware Dutch Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer wrote a summary and critique (book length) of Barth’s theology, years ago, before Barth’s Church Dogmatics had been translated into English. I take this description of Barth’s doctrine of creation from Berkouwer’s description.

When Barth speaks of creation he does not have in mind an act of God which can in and by itself be a subject of theological reflection. The reason for this is that in his view creation is indissolubly related to the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ. It is not possible to speak of a natural theology with an independent cosmological interest in “God as Creator.”

Friday, April 17, 2015

Ian Provan on Dealing with the Violence and Warfare in the OT

I’ve been following with great interest your posts on Seriously Dangerous Religion for the last several months, and all the comments they have generated. I want to thank you very much for your thorough and accurate reporting on the content of the book – I feel very well represented!
Now that your posts are concluded, I wonder if I could enter the discussion on the point that is the focus of the final one? In this post, you say that “a valid case can be made that The Old Story is intrinsically dangerous if it actively teaches and encourages violence and warfare.” I do agree with this sentiment. So the question is: does the Old Testament do such things? It certainly describes violence and warfare in the ancient world – but does it actively teach and encourage us to engage in these activities? After all, there are many actions described in the Old Testament that cannot reasonably be taken by the alert reader of Scripture as intended for our imitation (e.g. David’s adulterous actions with respect to Bathsheba). This includes many actions commanded by God – since the alert Scripture reader knows that God commanded ancient Israelites to do many things that are not required of the Church (e.g. to engage in animal sacrifice). So we need to be discriminating in our judgments when it comes to questions of “teaching” and “encouragement.” My own judgment with respect to herem warfare very much agrees with your own: “We are not called to purify the land or to establish a holy kingdom by force.” That is absolutely correct, in my opinion.
The question of whether ancient Israel was ever called by God to do such a thing is another matter, and I think that it will help with clarity if we consider it separately. My conviction here is that our biblical authors certainly thought that ancient Israel was called to do such a thing at one point in its history. But here it is very important to read carefully and to note what these authors do say about this, and what they do not. In spite of what modern readers quite often claim (and this includes some of your respondents), the biblical authors evidently do not think that Israel was called to conquer and settle Canaan because of the race or ethnicity of the previous inhabitants, or because Israel had some kind of right to the land and the previous inhabitants were simply and inconveniently “there,” in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Our authors explicitly tell us, to the contrary, that in the events of the conquest and settlement, the Canaanite peoples were experiencing the justice of God, on account of their longstanding wickedness (Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 18:24-26; Deuteronomy 9:4-5) – just as the Israelites themselves in the period of the later monarchy are also driven out of the land on account of their longstanding wickedness. For the biblical authors, the war in Canaan as God’s (and not the Israelites’) war. The Israelites are only God’s vassals, summoned to help him fight against wickedness (e.g. Amos 2:9; Psalm 78:53-55).
Perhaps we should like to argue with our biblical authors about these claims; but at least we should recognize that this, and not something else, is indeed what they propose. It will not help the conversation if we begin by misunderstanding them. If we then advance to the argument itself, it interests me to know how we shall establish that, in fact, these claims are false – that, in fact, God was not bringing justice on the Canaanites for their long-term wickedness, but that something else was happening instead. What is the argument to be, on this point? That God cannot bring justice on wicked cultures in the here-and-now, but must wait until the eschaton? Or what? We need to be clear on this point. It will not do just to say that “this idea is dangerous because it has, in the past, and might in the future, encourage some people-groups to attack others.” The biblical authors do not tell us about these events in order that we can generalize from them about how we can recruit God to our own bloodthirsty schemes. Indeed, Scripture as a whole never does generalize from them, as it does from the Exodus, about the ways of God in the world. They are understood, within Scripture itself, as highly unusual events (which is indeed why I did not spend much time discussing them in my book – they are not considered in Scripture to be “normative”). Yet the question remains: did God (unusually) once bring these people-groups to justice in this way or not? The biblical authors claim that God did. What are the grounds for dismissing this claim?
And then, thirdly, there is the question of what, exactly, ancient Israel was called by God to do with respect to the Canaanites – not the “whether” question, but the “what” question. This is an important question that has not received as much consideration as it deserves and needs. Modern readerly attention tends to be drawn quickly to the herem language in answering this question, and to passages like Joshua 10:40-42 that give the impression that the conquest of the land of Canaan was complete, and that all the original inhabitants were wiped out. Yet the predominant way of referring to the conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament is in terms of expulsion, not killing (e.g. Leviticus 18:24-28; Numbers 33:51-56; 2 Kings 16:3)— just as the Israelites, later, are said to have been expelled from the land because they sinned in the same way as the Canaanites (2 Kings 17:7-23). Further, there are clearly many Canaanites still living in the land in the aftermath of Joshua’s victories – people who are not ultimately even expelled from the land, much less killed (e.g. Judges 1:1-3:6; 2 Samuel 24:7; 1 Kings 9:15-23). Clearly, then, there is something very strange about the language of Joshua 10 (and associated passages). Indeed, as Lawson Younger has helped us to see (Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing, 1990), we are likely dealing here with the kind of hyperbolic language that is fairly typical of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts in general – with ancient literary conventions governing descriptions of conquest and battle that should not be pressed in a literalistic manner. To press them in such a manner is immediately, in fact, to create enormous tension between what they apparently say, and what other Old Testament passages say about such important matters as distinguishing combatants from non-combatants in warfare (e.g., Exodus 22:24; Numbers 14:3), and not holding children, in particular, morally accountable for wrongdoing, or allowing them to be caught up in the consequences of their parents’ wrongdoing (Deuteronomy 1:39; 24:16—in the very book of Deuteronomy that speaks about the Canaanite wars). A particular absurdity that arises from such a literalistic approach is that Deuteronomy 7:1-3 must then be read as speaking of God “driving out” the current inhabitants of the land, then urging the Israelites to “destroy them totally” (herem), and then prohibiting intermarriage with them!
We are dealing with very important matters here. I hope that this short response has at least clarified what I think about them, and what it is that I read the biblical authors as thinking about them. I am very grateful to have had the chance to write. I shall also be grateful, however, if readers of both the Old Testament and my own humble attempt to explicate it in Seriously Dangerous Religion do not so dwell on these things that they neglect the many matters that our biblical authors consider to be much more centrally important. People like Richard Dawkins display a purpose in such a focused neglect. Perhaps the only thing worse than this is neglect with no purpose at all. There are many other aspects of the OT tradition that deserve our attention, and which RJS herself has done an admirable job of articulating over the last few months

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Searching Book— Rachel Held Evans’ ‘Searching for Sunday’



It’s tax day and Rachel Held Evans’ latest book has just emerged, Searching for Sunday (Nelson Books, 269 pages, $16.99 pb). In some ways this book has appeared at just the appropriate moment, because in some ways it is like a refund check from the IRS, much anticipated, and a big help. In some ways however, the book is simply taxing, burdened down with a false sense of righteous outrage about an issue Rachel should have given more thought and prayer to before choosing to start firing away against the Evangelical womb from which she has emerged. This is not to say that she isn’t right that a large portion of the church has wrongly stigmatized and singled out gay and lesbian people, and wrongly treated them as if they were somehow worse sinners than the rest of us. We have often done that. Hypocrisy stinks, and Rachel is right to stress this point. I will speak about what she says on the issue of same sex relationships and marriage later in the review, but I want first to say a few things about this book which I really like.

First of all Rachel is indeed a genuine Christian person, genuinely wrestling with deep issues. I’ve had the privilege of meeting her once, and there is no doubt that she has a great deal of the passion and compassion of and for Christ in her life. She is in addition a very gifted writer, and apparently speaker as well (though I have not heard her teach or lecture personally), and you can hear echoes of other gifted writers like Annie Dillard and Barbara Brown Taylor in the way she writes. There are chapters in this book which are poignant and powerful and deserve an amen.

There is no question either about whether she speaks on behalf of many of her generation of millenials, because you can tell from her blog she does. Women especially resonate with a good deal of what she says. And frankly, she is right about the many flaws of the Protestant Evangelical Church. She is right that we have often failed to truly be church for her generation, indeed, we have managed to turn many of them off to or turn them away from the church by failing to truly be the body of Christ. The title of the book ‘Searching for Sunday’ could just as well have been ‘Searching for a real Church’. She is also right about the wrongful suppression of women’s gifts and graces for various sorts of ministries. And one can certainly agree the church is not supposed to be a museum for plastic saints, but rather a hospital for sick sinners. But the church should never never become just like an AA meeting (one suggestion in this book). Why not? Because while we need such meetings, the church should not be focusing on our own brokenness and mainly sharing about that. We should be focusing on His brokenness when he hung on the cross, precisely so we will get away from our self-centered fixation with our own flaws and foibles. The church needs to be relentlessly theocentric in its worship, fellowship, and praxis, not anthropocentric.

There are many poignant moments and powerful passages in this book about the sacraments, about silence, about other spiritual disciplines, and especially about the feeling of being bereft, cut off from the church, feeling abandoned or even spurned by the Evangelical Churches in which she was raised. A trial separation from such churches gradually became something of a divorce, and she landed in a ‘less-judgmental’ Episcopal Church in Cleveland Tn. What her book fails to really grapple with however is the major difference between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance of us as we are.

Frankly put, God doesn’t ‘accept’ us as we are, because what we are is fallen and flawed sinful people. God loves us as we are, but God is insistent that we all change, repent of our sinful inclinations and ways, and become more like Christ. A loving welcome by Jesus does not exclude incredible demands in regard to our conduct, and indeed even in regard to the lusts of our hearts. As it turns out, God is an equal opportunity lover of all humanity, and also an equal opportunity critiquer of all our sin, and with good reason— it is sin that keeps separating us from God and ruining our relationship with God. This is why the only proper Biblical approach to everyone who would wish to be ‘in Christ’ and ‘in the body of Christ’ is that they are most welcome to come as they are, and they will be loved as they are, but no one but no one is welcome to stay as they are— all God’s chillins need to change. Welcoming does not entail affirming our sins, much less baptizing our sins and suddenly calling them good, healthy, life giving.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Not the God of Traditionalists or Progressives

April 15, 2015 by Kenneth Tanner 1 Comment

In Jesus Christ, God is not an abstraction, concept, or idea but a Person. The Unknowable is made known. The Invisible is made material. All mysticism is now grounded, and all agnosticism now countered, in this particular Person; there is now, paradoxically, a Measure within Measurelessness.

For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body.” (Col. 2:9) “For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ.” (Col. 1:19) Conversely, whatever is not revealed in Jesus is not the Triune God.

Contemporary Christians (of all sorts of persuasions) tend to de-couple God from Jesus.

Traditionalists and progressives alike construct complicated (often confusing) systems of conceptual theology which collapse when confronted with the reality of Jesus, God enfleshed; the reality of Jesus, the crucified God; the reality of Jesus, the resurrected, ascended, yet-flesh-bearing–inescapably material–Lord of the finite and infinite.

Jesus makes it hard to claim that we don’t really know who God is and can’t really say much for certain about him, which is the temptation of many progressives.

He also makes it hard to press Classical Greek (pagan) attributes for the divine that no longer make entire sense when we encounter God’s arrival in time, space, and matter, which is the temptation of many traditionalists.

We can say a great deal about God because of Jesus Christ. We can also rule out a lot about God because of Jesus Christ.

Many skeptics and cynics are actually opposing not Jesus but the systematic God of the ancient philosophers or the soft “Otherness” God (who can be whatever we want God to be). Christians worship neither of these gods.

We follow the flesh-and-blood manifestation of the Creator we have in Jesus Christ, revealed in the New Testament and in the worship of the Church as the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world for the sins of the whole world.


Jesus Untangled

A few days ago I received an email from a friend of mine. He was sharing with me his frustration over the apparent blindness that many Christians seem to have when it comes to following Jesus.

His experience was that every time he attempted to talk about doing what Jesus commanded us to do – like loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, caring for the poor, etc. – the responses he kept receiving were comments like, “But the Founding Fathers say…”, or “The Constitution says..”, or “Common sense tells you…”,  and so on.

This isn’t something new to me. I’ve had – and continue to have – similar conversations with Christians on almost a daily basis.

So, what’s going on here? Why is this such an ongoing problem in the American Church today? What can we do about it?

I have a few ideas.

What’s going on?

Most Christians simply do not understand the Gospel, plain and simple. I know this because – only about 10 years ago – I was also unaware of what the actual Gospel was all about. Keep in mind, I was also a licensed and ordained Southern Baptist pastor at that time.

See, I used to believe that the Gospel was about saying a prayer so that I could go to heaven when I die.

But that’s not the Gospel.

The Gospel – or the “Good News” – that Jesus came and died to proclaim is found (curiously enough) in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Here’s what the “Good News” (or the Gospel) is according to the NT:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom..” (Mat. 4:23)

“Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mar. 1:14-15)

“But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” (Luk. 4:43)

Wait a minute, what does this have to do with why Christians confuse America with the Kingdom of God?

Pederasty in Rome


A few weeks ago, City Church in San Francisco announced its decision to become a “third way” church with respect to the issue of homosexual practice: a church where there could be divergence of opinion and practice (life-long abstaining or life-long commitment to a single partner), but where all would be treated as equal members of the body.
An important guide for the church’s decision has been Ken Wilson, A Letter to My Congregation. I think that Wilson’s book is, overall, helpful in laying out a biblical approach to a contested question.
Part of Wilson’s own journey included coming to the conclusion that what the New Testament opposes as same-sex relations is not what contemporary homosexual Christians are trying to live into. He cites three norms of homosexual practice which, he believes, are indicative of same-sex relations in ancient Rome:
  1. Pederasty
  2. Temple Prostitution
  3. Sex with slaves
Like most evangelical Christians, I am trying to play catch-up on the issue of homosexuality in the ancient world. I am not a classicist. There is a mountain of material to sift through.
However, as I understand it (and again, I’m learning here, so feel free to offer counter evidence or other conversation in the comments) pederasty as classically understood was not practiced in ancient Rome.


What “Render to Caesar” Really Means!


According to Mark 12:13-17 (CEB):
They sent some of the Pharisees and supporters of Herod to trap him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you’re genuine and you don’t worry about what people think. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay taxes or not?”
Since Jesus recognized their deceit, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a coin. Show it to me.” And they brought one. He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” His reply left them overcome with wonder.
This story of rendering to Caesar the things of Caesar has long been used as a proof text teaching that Christians should be good and upright citizens who pay their fair share of taxes. Sadly, however, the story has nothing to do with honesty in your IRS, IR, or ATO tax return. To be frank, it is not even about taxes for those who know some background and who can read between the lines.
Here’s the gist.

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