Monday, August 14, 2017

Trump Is Not the Problem

His election is the consequence of a crisis that’s been brewing for a long time.

August 8, 2017

Like it or not, the president of the United States embodies America itself. The individual inhabiting the White House has become the preeminent symbol of who we are and what we represent as a nation and a people. In a fundamental sense, he is us. It was not always so. Millard Fillmore, the 13th president (1850–1853), presided over but did not personify the American republic. He was merely the federal chief executive. Contemporary observers did not refer to his term in office as the Age of Fillmore. With occasional exceptions, Abraham Lincoln in particular, much the same could be said of Fillmore’s successors. They brought to office low expectations, which they rarely exceeded. So when Chester A. Arthur (1881–1885) or William Howard Taft (1909–1913) left the White House, there was no rush to immortalize them by erecting gaudy shrines—now known as “presidential libraries”—to the glory of their presidencies. In those distant days, ex-presidents went back home or somewhere else where they could find work.

Over the course of the past century, all that has changed. Ours is a republic that has long since taken on the trappings of a monarchy, with the president inhabiting rarefied space as our king-emperor. The Brits have their woman in Buckingham Palace. We have our man in the White House.

Nominally, the Constitution assigns responsibilities and allocates prerogatives to three co-equal branches of government. In practice, the executive branch enjoys primacy. Prompted by a seemingly endless series of crises since the Great Depression and World War II, presidents have accumulated ever-greater authority, partly through usurpation, but more often than not through forfeiture.

At the same time, they also took on various extraconstitutional responsibilities. By the beginning of the present century, Americans took it for granted that the occupant of the Oval Office should function as prophet, moral philosopher, style setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and—last but hardly least—celebrity in chief. In short, POTUS was the bright star at the center of the American solar system.

As recently as a year ago, few saw in this cult of the presidency cause for complaint. On odd occasions, some particularly egregious bit of executive tomfoolery might trigger grumbling about an “imperial presidency.” Yet rarely did such complaints lead to effective remedial action. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 might be considered the exception that proves the rule. Inspired by the disaster of the Vietnam War and intended to constrain presidents from using force without congressional buy-in and support, that particular piece of legislation ranks alongside the Volstead Act of 1919(enacted to enforce Prohibition) as among the least effective ever to become law.

In truth, influential American institutions—investment banks and multinational corporations, churches and universities, big =city newspapers and TV networks, the bloated national-security apparatus and both major political parties—have found reason aplenty to endorse a system that elevates the president to the status of demigod. By and large, it’s been good for business, whatever that business happens to be.

Furthermore, it’s our president—not some foreign dude—who is, by common consent, the most powerful person in the universe. For inhabitants of a nation that considers itself both “exceptional” and “indispensable,” this seems only right and proper. So Americans generally like it that their president is the acknowledged Leader of the Free World rather than some fresh-faced pretender from France or Canada.

Then came the Great Hysteria. Arriving with a Pearl Harbor–like shock, it erupted on the night of November 8, 2016, just as the news that Hillary Clinton was losing Florida and appeared certain to lose much else besides became apparent.

Suddenly, all the habits and precedents that had contributed to empowering the modern American presidency no longer made sense. That a single deeply flawed individual along with a handful of unelected associates and family members should be entrusted with determining the fate of the planet suddenly seemed the very definition of madness.

Emotion-laden upheavals producing behavior that is not entirely rational are hardly unknown in the American experience. Indeed, they recur with some frequency. The Great Awakenings of the 18th and early 19th centuries are examples of the phenomenon. So also are the two Red Scares of the 20th century, the first in the early 1920s and the second, commonly known as “McCarthyism,” coinciding with the onset of the Cold War.

Yet the response to Donald Trump’s election, combining as it has fear, anger, bewilderment, disgust, and something akin to despair, qualifies as an upheaval without precedent. History itself had seemingly gone off the rails. The crude Andrew Jackson’s 1828 ousting of an impeccably pedigreed president, John Quincy Adams, was nothing compared to the vulgar Donald Trump’s defeat of an impeccably credentialed graduate of Wellesley and Yale who had served as first lady, United States senator, and secretary of state. A self-evidently inconceivable outcome—all the smart people agreed on that point—had somehow happened anyway.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Confession of 1967 (PCUSA): Fifty Years Later

In 1967 amid the tumultuous societal upheaval of the late 1960’s the then Northern Presbyterian Church issued The Confession of 1967. It applied a reformed, Barthian approach to theology to the issues of those times. Specifically, it addresses discrimination, conflict among nations, poverty, and male-female relations. I’ve reproduced them below from the inclusive language version. It is striking how relevant these concerns are today fifty years later.

9.44 a. God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God over comes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.

9.45 b. God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the ground of the peace, justice, and freedom among nations which all powers of government are called to serve and defend. The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding. Reconciliation among nations becomes peculiarly urgent as countries develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, diverting human power and resources from constructive uses and risking the annihilation of humankind. Although nations may serve God’s purposes in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.

9.46 c. The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty , whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is in different to poverty , or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.

9.47 d. The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which God created humankind. Anarchy in sexual relationships is a symptom of alienation from God, neighbors, and self. Perennial confusion about the meaning of sex has been aggravated in our day by the availability of new means for birth control and the treatment of infection, by the pressures of urbanization, by the exploitation of sexual symbols in mass communication, and by world overpopulation. The church, as the household of God, is called to lead people out of this alienation into the responsible freedom of the new life in Christ. Reconciled to God, people have joy in and respect for their own humanity and that of other persons; a man and woman are enabled to marry, to commit themselves to a mutually shared life, and to respond to each other in sensitive and lifelong concern; parents receive the grace to care for children in love and to nurture their individuality. The church comes under the judgment of God and invites rejection by society when it fails to lead men and women into the full meaning of life together, or withholds the compassion of Christ from those caught in the moral confusion of our time.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Almost Completely Unknown Difference that Makes All the Difference….

December 17, 2012 by Roger E. Olson

The Almost Completely Unknown Difference that Makes All the Difference (between Christians and Culture and between Christians and Christians)

We talk endlessly about differences among Christians: Catholic versus Protestant, Calvinist versus Arminian, liberal versus conservative, neo-fundamentalist versus postconservative, premillennial versus amillennial, pedobaptist versus credobaptist—to name just a few of our favorite divisions.

But over the past few years I have become convinced there’s one deeper difference that is largely unrecognized and runs deeper than all those others. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, among Protestants, at least, it is rarely spoken about. We certainly don’t divide over it. Yet it does divide us without our knowing it. We don’t know it because it’s so seemingly subtle, it sounds esoteric. Whenever I bring it up eyes glaze over and people act as if it’s a drug that immediately causes mental confusion. Yet, it’s not really all that difficult to understand.

Before the dawn of modernity nominalism was hardly known or ever discussed except in the most rarified circles of scholastic philosophy and theology. Only as it became more widely discussed did people begin to realize Christians had always been something else—“realists.” Now, suddenly, beginning sometime in the high middle ages but increasingly with modernity, there was an alternative . . .


Thursday, August 10, 2017

The First Five of Ten Commandments for Bible Reading

                                                                        Herman and Herma Neutics offer the first five of Ten Commandments of Bible Reading 

1.       You shall expect to hear God speak to you through the Bible, even if you are not always aware of it.

2.       You shall treat the Bible as a strange book from far distant cultures. It is written for you but not to you. What you think you know about it will probably mislead you.

3.       You shall hear a word of Grace in the Bible. Humans hate grace, however, and are likely to twist it into a word of self-justification or self-expression.

4.       You shall also hear a word of judgment. You will know by when you hear it as a call to return to the God who loves you and not as a word of condemnation.

5.       Whatever you think you hear in the Bible, if it doesn’t end up with you clinging to and/or shouldering the cross, it’s not God’s word.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

8 Thoughts on Staying Christian Anyway

In my last post, we looked at your 5 biggest challenges to staying Christian from a survey I took a few years ago.

Now let’s move on and talk about moving forward amid those challenges.

I’m a little nervous about using language of “moving on” and “moving forward,” since that could imply minimizing the challenges“Oh that’s not really a problem. Here’s the answer, now move on.” I avoid that common pattern like mold on bread.

To get us started, below are my present thoughts on addressing and living with the challenges to staying Christian. In the comments section you can interact with them or add your own.

To be extra clear, I am not in any way, shape, or form suggesting that what I think is mandate for the rest of you, an attempt at an iron-clad defense of Christianity, or an etched-in-stone “here I stand” statement. But this is where I am. You are, of course, free to accept, ignore, modify, be bored, whatever.

I number them as separate items (because I’m German), but these thoughts overlap.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Rabbi Kushner on Reading the Bible

The Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote a book called God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know, in which each chapter is a different interpretation of the same passage in the Bible. ...

You keep turning the gem, seeing something new each time. That’s what we’ve been doing in this book—we’ve been turning the gem.

We read it, and we let it read us. We dive into their story, discovering our story in the process.
I’ve heard people say that they read it literally. As if that’s the best way to understand the Bible.

It’s not.

We read it literately.
We read it according to the kind of literature that it is.

That’s how you honor it.
That’s how you respect it.
That’s how you learn from it.
That’s how you enjoy it.

If it’s a poem, then you read it as a poem.
If it’s a letter, then you read it as a letter.
If it’s a story but some of the details seem exaggerated or extreme—like when Samson kills exactly one thousand Philistines
or Balaam’s donkey starts talking to him
or Elijah is taken up into heaven before their very eyes—
there’s a good chance the writer is making a larger point and you shouldn’t get too hung up on those details.
You read it,
and you ask questions of it,
and you study and analyze and reflect and smile and argue and speculate and discuss.

Other times people want to know the right answer to a passage in the Bible. As if there is a right and a wrong reading of each verse in the Bible. There are, of course, lots of ways to miss the point and truly read it wrongly. But to say that there’s a right way may unnecessarily limit your reading of the Bible.

There are lots of right ways to read it. In fact, right isn’t even the best way to think about the Bible.
How about dancing?
You dance with it.
And to dance, you have to hear its music.
And then you move in response to it.

My friend Kent was doing graduate work in Jerusalem with a rabbi who one day gave the class an assignment to go home and read the story of Abraham offering his son Isaac (which is called the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac) and then think up as many questions as they possibly could about the story. They returned to class, and the rabbi asked the students to share their questions. They each had a few. After a few students had read theirs, the rabbi launched into a rant about how dumbfounded he was that they had so few. Hadn’t they read the story? How could they have read it and come away with so few questions?

You dance with the Bible, but you also interrogate it.
You challenge it, question it, poke it, probe it.
You let it get under your skin.
We read it, and we let it read us,
and then we turn the gem,
and again,
and again,
seeing something new over and over and over again . . ."
- Rob Bell

Thursday, August 3, 2017

How a Church Can (and Should) Come to  Love Leviticus

The great early church theologian Origen speaks for most of us today when he says:

“If you read people passages from the divine books that are good and clear, they will hear them with great joy . . . But provide someone a reading from Leviticus, and at once the listener will gag and push it away as if it were some bizarre food. He came, after all, to learn how to honor God, to take in the teachings that concern justice and piety. But instead he is now hearing about the ritual of burnt sacrifices!”[1]

Love Leviticus? Perish the thought! It’s in the Bible but most of us offer it only scorn or more or less benign neglect. Love it? We don’t even like it. All that holiness and purity stuff. Clean and unclean – who can make sense of all that? Who wants to? What difference does it make?

No, we don’t love Leviticus. And we really don’t want to.

It’s about a nation we don’t understand (biblically and theologically),

in a time and place foreign and distant to us,

full of ideas and image that mystify and sometimes appall us,

that make it the strangest book in the Bible (save Revelation) to us.

And there’s the stuff about homosexuality.

Oh, there’s the Day of Atonement stuff that we can connect a little bit to the work of Christ. And the Year of Jubilee laws are, well, somewhat inspiring but mostly daunting and unbelievable.

There’s just precious little relevance we can find in it for our Christian lives today.

And that’s the main reason we don’t (or can’t) love Leviticus: it’s not about us! Leviticus is about something else altogether. It doesn’t fit into the frame of understanding most of us bring to the Bible. Our inability or failure to grasp the importance of Leviticus and embrace is a measure of how little we really “get” what this being God’s people is all about!

That’s because we believe (in practice if not in theology) that God is distant from us (in heaven) and our gospel too small (about the salvation of my soul and assurance of life with God in heaven after death). David Wells summarizes this “too small” gospel”

“The biblical interest in righteousness is replaced by a search for happiness, holiness by wholeness, truth by feeling, ethics by feeling good about one's self. The world shrinks to the range of personal circumstances; the community of faith shrinks to a circle of personal friends. The past recedes. The Church recedes. The world recedes. All that remains is the self.”[2]

To be sure, Leviticus is far distant in culture and thought from us. Hard work I still required to get into its world enough to grasp what’s going on in it. But even with that, we’ll never get it coming at it with the above-summarized “too small” gospel.

For, in a word, Leviticus is about God’s presence in our world. The Temple. And how that presence in the temple shapes the whole of our lives. Indeed, my title for Leviticus is “How a Holy God makes an Unholy People Wholly His.” When God comes to “rest” in his creation (Gen.2:1-3) his presence created the equilibrium that keeps order in the cosmos. God at rest (which means not relaxing and taking it easy but seeing that the creation operates as he designed it without opposition or malfunction). God creates “sacred space” in the world for him to reside. And maintaining the equilibrium his presence bestows is what Leviticus is all about. John Walton summarizes the early parts of the biblical story:

“God has brought order and equilibrium to the cosmos and maintains them in the world he has created. Further distinctions in sacred space are made as Eden is identified as the place of God's presence with the garden planted adjoining it. Temples or palaces with adjoining garden/parks are well-known in the ancient Near East. Gen 2:10 details how the rivers flowed from Eden (the equivalent to the Holy of Holies) to water the garden (adjoining it, equivalent to the antechamber). When Adam and Eve sinned, they were cast out of the garden, lost their access to sacred space, and upset the equilibrium that God had established. The plan of the tabernacle (and later, the temple) was designed to reestablish equilibrium in a sacred space—God's presence on earth—while retaining restricted access.

“The design was reminiscent of Eden with the cherub decor, the Table of the presence (provision of food as in Eden), and the menorah, which most agree represents the tree of life. As Exodus 40 describes the glory of the Lord filling the temple, the Israelites experience what is, in effect, a return to Eden—not in the sense of full restoration, but in the sense that God's presence again takes up its residence among people, and access to God's presence, however limited, is restored.”[3]

The ritual, priests, the sacrifices, the celebrations, all recorded in such seemingly tedious detail in Leviticus, are all about maintaining the equilibrium of God’s presence, the source and goal of the world.

Major foci emerging from these practices of maintaining equilibrium of the divine presence revolve around space, status, and time.[4] The Day of Atonement was the annual “recalibration” of the equilibrium of God’s presence in the midst of his people.

Both practices to reset the equilibrium of the divine presence in the tabernacle/temple (Chs.1-23) and in the larger camp (chs.24-27) are present and embrace the whole of Israel’s life. Everything in Leviticus is finally about God’s presence with his people. Space, status, and time form the matrix within which Israel is to maintain the equilibrium. These three matters point us to what for ancient Israel and for us are of urgent and perennial importance.

Though the details and rituals of the tabernacle/temple are not applicable to the church today because Christ is now the temple of God (Jn.2:22), the site of God’s presence now and forever. In him we are part of that temple as well. And the same dynamics for maintaining that equilibrium are relevant for it is still God’s presence we are dealing with! And the world is his as well, so these dynamics apply there too.

The matrix of space, status, and time is an important, perhaps essential, way of conceptualizing the church’s ministry in our world. It would be useful to flesh all that out but this is not the place for that. Perhaps your next small group Bible study could take a shot at it?

Space, status, and time – a fulsome, no-reductive way to describe the church’s life in the world. A “too-small” gospel directs our attention only to the status aspect. A “Levitical” gospel directs us to the full expanse of what God is up to in the world. Such a gospel of course only achieves this fulness in and through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is its temple, the world is its camp, and we “redeem the time” (Eph.5:16) by living by the rhythms of the liturgical year. Our focus is on maintaining a lively and living sense of the presence of God. And the deeper and more intentionally we live our way into this matrix of space, status, and time, the more we might come to love Leviticus. Or at least have our gag reflex tamped down a bit.


[1] Origen, Homily 27: Numbers 33:1–49, quoted in Ephraim Radner, Leviticus, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), 17.
[2] David Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993) 183.
[3] John H. Walton, “Equilibrium and the Sacred Compass: The Structure of Leviticus,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.2 (2001), 295-296.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

People from Somewhere vs People from Anywhere

by Michael Frost | Jul 29, 2017 | Homepage | 1 comment

Are you a Somewhere or an Anywhere?

Last years Brexit vote stunned many pundits and social commentators, who struggled to explain how it could have happened. But one of them, author David Goodhart has come up with an intriguing explanation for the deep divisions in British society.

It’s all about “people from Somewhere versus people from Anywhere.”

I think this fascinating idea helps make sense not only of Brexit, but the emergence of conservative nationalism in Europe and Australia, and the election of US President Donald Trump.

Let me explain. In his book The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, David Goodhart says society can be broken into two large groups.

First, there’s the Somewheres. . .

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

For the Love of God, Bono, Please Stop Touring

By Ben Swihart  July 21, 2017

I thought she was joking.

“I had to find someone who wouldn’t annoy me the whole time. Consider this your fair warning—this will be a spiritual experience for me.”

A friend called me a couple of weeks ago with an extra ticket to see U2 ’s Joshua Tree tour. I remembered liking some of their songs on the radio, and knowing that everything sounds better at a live concert, I happily accepted. Having not yet been lured into the cult of Bono’s personality, all I knew was the legend that preceded him—international poverty relief icon, (aging) Gen-X sex symbol, and all-around good guy.

As the openers left the stage, a scrolling montage of poetry slowly came into focus. While those around me were ordering another $12 beer and taking selfies with their new merchandise, the depth and radicality of this real-life “U2charist” struck me. Maybe this dude was the real deal. While waiting for the founder of the ONE anti-poverty campaign, the author of the corporate (RED) campaign against HIV/AIDS, and the role model for American evangelicals (not to mention multi-platinum rock star) to come to stage, my friend proclaimed, “I think Bono just reads poetry when he’s not recording,” barely giving the screen another glimpse.

read more at:

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Learning to Love Leviticus

Hey, friends! We've been on vocation for a few weeks now. But we're back now and wanted to give you some help on how to understand the second most confusing book in the Bible (after Revelation): the OT book of Leviticus. Our friend, the esteemed OT scholar Christopher J. H. Wright, wrote an excellent and lucid article on this, so we give it to you as our best guidance on reading Leviticus. it's from Christianity Today, 7.22.13.

Learning to Love Leviticus

Even those passages about shellfish, mixed fibers, and animal sacrifice.

Christopher J. H. Wright| July 22, 2013

Learning to Love Leviticus

Even those passages about shellfish, mixed fibers, and animal sacrifice.

Christopher J. H. Wright| July 22, 2013

Perhaps the fact that it is catalogued under "Humor and Entertainment" should tell us how to rightly appreciate A. J. Jacobs's best-selling 2007 book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. In the course of a fascinating year, Jacobs tries to obey literally the 700-plus commands he finds in the Bible—including stoning an adulterer, offering an animal sacrifice, and upholding all the jots and tittles of the Old Testament law. Clearly, taking the Bible literally does not always mean taking it seriously.

More recently, Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans undertook her own experiment in "living biblically" by following for a year all the Bible's passages about women's behavior. A Year of Biblical Womanhood is Evans's subversive way of revealing that no one—not even the most conservative Christian—takes the whole Bible literally, and that to do so is both impossible and silly.

Both books, while unfortunately mocking in their own ways, nonetheless underscore some persistent misunderstandings about the Bible:

How the Bible has come to us. Scripture is placed within the context of ancient cultures in the Middle East. It comes dressed in all the particularities of history and geography, which God took seriously when he spoke to us through various people who lived in them. To treat all of Scripture as if it were written directly into today's world is to imagine that God himself thought the world would never change and that we could just keep on obeying all the rules. That is absurd, as we shall see.

How laws function in society, then and now. Sometimes laws are like statutes—expressed in general principles. Sometimes they are cases or precedents from which judges draw principles that can be applied to different situations. Sometimes laws reflect a whole culture's way of thinking about life.

The Old Testament laws are like all of these. They exemplify how God wanted certain kinds of situations to be handled. They embody values and objectives, on the assumption that people would understand how to extrapolate from a particular case to a general principle and apply that to new situations. So to take all of the Old Testament laws at face value is to misunderstand their original intent in the first place.

How commands can function in relationships and communication. If I hear someone on the street shout, "Freeze! Put your hands behind your head!" I need to know two things. First, who is shouting? If it's a police officer—someone whose authorized command I need to submit to—then yes. Second, is he addressing me? Likely the answer is no. It's addressed to the guy who just robbed a street vendor and is running away. So the command has authority because of who gave it, but it is not addressed to me in that moment. It claims my respect—I should not break the law in that way either—but it does not claim my compliance.

Next time you come to London, ask your taxi driver if he is obeying the law. Doubtless he'll answer, "Yes, Guv."

Then ask him, in that case, where his bale of hay and bag of oats are located. Remind him of the English law, never repealed, that requires London-licensed hackney cabs to carry those items for the horses that originally pulled them. Clearly he stands accused of not literally obeying the law. But he will probably retort, "You can't be serious." We all understand that an ancient law passed in the days of horse-drawn transport no longer applies to vehicles with engines. Mind you, it does embody a principle about how to care for a working animal, and that remains relevant—we'll come back to that.

In the same way, common sense tells us that when Paul commands Timothy to "endure hardship as a good soldier of Christ," that is a command that I should seek to obey whenever I face hardship like Timothy. It transfers to me in principle. But when Paul commands Timothy, "Come before winter, bring my cloak, and especially the parchments," we know that is a local, particular command, meant for Timothy only. The idea that all the imperative statements in the Bible should be taken literally, as if they all apply to me, is a nonsensical way of handling Scripture.

Old Testament law: Why is it there?

What we usually mean by "Old Testament law" comes from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The word Torah does not really mean "law" in the sense of legislation. It means "guidance." And the Torah guides its original recipients, and us, by setting the laws and commandments within the framework of a story.

Before we get the Ten Commandments, we get the story of Creation, the brokenness of our sin and rebellion, and the wonder of God's redemption, displayed in the Exodus of the Israelites. So the law was given to a people who not only knew that story, and knew the God who stands behind it, but who had lived it as well. God gave his law to people who had already experienced his grace, his love and faithfulness, his great act of salvation. Obeying the law was never a way to earn God's salvation, but the right way for redeemed people to respond to God's salvation when they had experienced it (Ex. 19:3–6; Deut. 6:20–25).

And God gave Israel his law in order to shape them into a society that would reflect God's character and values in the midst of the nations—what we might call a missional motivation (Lev. 18:3–4; Deut. 4:6–8). The Israelites were to be distinctive by living in God's way, the ways of personal integrity, economic and social justice, and community compassion. The law was not a set of arbitrary rules to keep God happy. It was a way of life, a way of being human, a culture in a particular time and place, to show what a redeemed people under God looks like.

To imagine that "living biblically" means trying to keep as many ancient rules as possible just because they are in the Bible misses the point of the law in the first place. Old Testament law was not just about rules but also about relationship with God, founded on God's grace and redemption, and motivated by the mission of living as the people of God in the world, so that the world should come to know the living God.

Old Testament law: What's in it?

Every society follows different kinds of law—constitutional, criminal, civil, and so forth. So also in Old Testament Israel. There's an old tradition that divides Old Testament law into three categories: moral, civil, and ceremonial. It has some value, but it can result in people saying, "I only need to pay attention to the moral law and can ignore all the rest." But that doesn't seem to fit with Paul's affirmation that "all Scripture" is authoritative and useful (2 Tim. 3:16–17, emphasis mine).

To fill the picture, we need to recognize that the ancient Israelites had at least the following kinds of law.

Criminal laws: Offenses against the foundations of the society itself, meaning against God and the covenant. Most of those were sanctioned by the death penalty, indicating how seriously the Israelites took any behavior that threatened the nation's relationship with God. All the capital offenses in Israel are linked, directly or indirectly, to one of the Ten Commandments.

Civil laws: Disputes between citizens over land, property, damages, compensation, animals, and so forth. Many of the case laws fall into this category.

Family laws: Parents, rather than courts, dealt with most of these matters, such as inheritance, marriage, and divorce. Only if something went beyond the power of parents to control did it come before the elders.

Religious or cultic laws: All the regulations concerning sacrifice, priesthood, festivals, offerings, cleanness and uncleanness, and so on.

Compassionate laws: We would hardly call these "laws" at all, but the Torah has many of them, such as how to treat the poor and needy, the homeless, those without families or land, debtors, ethnic minorities, and immigrants.

The point is that on one hand, all of these kinds of laws were intended for Israel's society and not directly for us. They are culturally specific and limited. Yet at the same time, as Paul says, all of the laws were "written for our instruction" and are "useful" for us. So we should not find ourselves asking, "Which of these laws do I have to obey, and which can I ignore?" Rather, we should ask, "What can I learn from all of these laws about how God wants me to live and how he wants his people and society at large to live?" Not, "What rules do I have to keep?" but rather, "What kind of relationship do I need to cultivate with God and live out among others?"

Why don't we keep all the laws?

Obviously we don't obey all the Old Testament laws—law such as avoiding clothing made of mixed fibers, stoning to death people who cheat on their spouses, and refusing to eat seafood without fins or scales. Indeed, many of the laws we simply can't obey, because they would break the laws of our own time. For example, we cannot obey the Old Testament laws about how to treat slaves as owning a slave is now illegal (though the biblical laws about slaves have plenty to teach us when we note how unique they were in the ancient world). History has moved on. God knew it would.

See also Wright's sidebar to this article, "Sex in Leviticus."

But just as well, we should never say, "Oh, we don't bother with those things because they are just Old Testament rules." There are principled reasons why Christians not only need but also should not observe certain Old Testament laws simply as written. And regarding two kinds of law, the New Testament itself provides those reasons.

The sacrificial laws: The New Testament makes it clear that the religious system of temple, altar, animal sacrifices, priesthood, and the Day of Atonement has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ through the Cross and Resurrection. He has accomplished once and for all what that great system pointed toward. The Book of Hebrews stresses that, whether we are Jewish or Gentile believers, we must not go back to that system, because we already have all that it represented through Christ's sacrificial death and ascended life in the presence of the Father.

The food laws: The distinction between clean and unclean animals and foods was symbolic of the distinction between Israel as God's holy people and the Gentile nations (Lev. 20:25–26). In the New Testament, that separation is abolished in Christ, as Paul says in Ephesians 2. Through the Cross, God has made the two cultures one new humanity. And as Peter discovered through his vision in Acts 10, before going to the home of the Gentile Cornelius, what God has called clean should no longer be called unclean. Today some Messianic Jewish believers choose freely to observe the kashrut regulations as a mark of their Jewish community and cultural identity. But in their unity, believers are free from food laws.

But just because we no longer keep these laws literally does not mean they can't teach us anything. We are called to present our bodies as a living sacrifice in the service of God. We are called to offer the sacrifice of praise. We are called to cleanness of life in a corrupt world. In fact, if we are tempted to mock Jewish fastidiousness over kosher food in the kitchen, we might ask if we have any sustained commitment to the moral and spiritual distinctiveness that the New Testament upholds.

We can find principles even in Israel's civil laws to apply today. The urban Christians in Corinth did not see oxen grinding corn in their city houses. But when Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he took an Old Testament law about allowing working oxen to be fed from the product of their labors (Deut. 25:4) and applied it to Christian workers in Corinth. He sees a principle in the case law—originally meant for the benefit of animals—and applies it to working humans. The principle: Work deserves reward. Later he applies another commandment about how manna was to be collected (totally irrelevant to Corinth, you might think), and applies it to the principle of equality between Christians (1 Cor. 9:8–10; 2 Cor. 8:13–15). These are biblical examples of creative application of biblical laws in nonliteral, but very appropriate, ways.

How do we find the principles?

The best way to derive principles from the Old Testament law is to ask questions. All laws in all human societies are made for a purpose. Laws happen because people want to change society, to achieve some social goal, to foster certain interests, or to prevent some social evil. So when we look at any particular law or group of biblical laws, we can ask, "What could be the purpose behind this law?" To be more specific:

● What kind of situation was this law intended to promote or to prevent?

● What change in society would this law achieve if it were followed?

● What kind of situation made this law necessary or desirable?

● What kind of person would benefit from this law, by assistance or protection?

● What kind of person would be restrained or restricted by this law, and why?

● What values are given priority in this law? Whose needs or rights are upheld?

● In what way does this law reflect what we know from elsewhere in the Bible about the character of God and his plans for human life?

● What principle or principles does this law embody or instantiate?

Now we won't always be able to answer these questions with much detail or insight. Some laws are just plain puzzling. But asking questions like these leads us to a much broader and deeper grasp of what Old Testament laws were all about: forming the kind of society God wanted to create.

Then, having done that homework as best we can, we step out of the Old Testament world and back into our own. Ask the same kind of questions about the society we live in and the kind of people we need to be, and the kind of personal and societal objectives we need to aim for in order to be in any sense "biblical."

In this way, biblical law can function sharply as a paradigm or model for our personal and social ethics in all kinds of areas: economic, familial, political, judicial, sexual, and so on. We are not "keeping it" in a literalist way like a list of rules. But more important, we are not ignoring it in defiance of what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16–17. We are studying and using it as guidance, light for the path, in the joyful way of Psalms 1, 19, and 119.

What would Jesus and Paul say?

A. J. Jacobs tried it for a year. The rich young ruler said he had done it all his life. Jesus' response might have been the same: "You need to follow me and get your priorities right. Seek first the reign of God in all of life." Even the law itself expresses key priorities (e.g., Deut. 10:12–13). The prophets put social justice way above religious rituals (1 Sam. 15:22; Hos. 6:6). Jesus agreed, telling those who were meticulously keeping the jot-and-tittle rules that they had forgotten the bigger picture—namely, justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt. 23:23). And he concentrated all the law in the twin first and second commandments, love for God and neighbor. Paul took the same view (Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:13–14).

But Paul went further. To those who imagine that "living biblically" means keeping all the rules you can possibly find in the Bible, I think he would say, "You haven't understood the first thing about the gospel. The Good News is not, 'Here are the rules, see how many of them you can keep.' " Instead, I believe he would say, "Here is Jesus. See what God has done for you through him."

The good news is that the God who created the world has kept his promise to save the world. He has done it through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And we can be part of the story that ends in a new creation, with Christ reigning as king. The good news also is that once we have entered that story by repentance and faith, God gives us his Spirit, precisely so that "the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4).

There is plenty that we can learn from Old Testament laws that can still usefully guide our ethical and missional thinking and action. The Torah was always intended to do just that. But the heartbeat of Christian life and freedom is not keeping all the rules. Instead, it is living as people whose whole life and character are shaped by God's Word in all its Christ-centered fullness, becoming more like the Christ we trust and follow, and bearing the fruit of God's Spirit. That's living biblically.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tales of the Demonic

Posted on 6.25.2011

Last year I was sitting in the backyard typing away on my laptop. It was one of those wonderful mornings where I'm working outside with a cup of coffee and the dog running around.

Suddenly, things got very bad. I was surprised to see a man let himself into my backyard. I was startled but saw he was wearing a hard hat, a tool belt and a florescent vest. He was from the electric company and he was looking for our electric box.

Feeling cheerful I said, "Well hello, checking the meter?"

He responded, "Ummm. No sir. I'm here to shut off the power."

Shocked, I sought clarification, "Turn off the electricity!?"

"Yes sir."

"But why?"

"Lack of payment."

Now I'm really alarmed and confused, "Lack of payment? We're set up on an automatic bank draft. How could there be lack of payment?"

The man looked worried, like I was about to totally go off on him. "Sir, I can't say. All I know is that I'm supposed to shut off the power. I'm just doing my job."

I took a deep breath...

Monday, July 17, 2017

Do not “prejudge divine things from human”: Tertullian on Divine Anger

I have been doing a little digging in Tertullian’s work The Five Books Against Marcion the last couple of days. The five books cover an astonishing amount of ground (creation, hermeneutics, prophecy, goodness, Christology, etc.), which makes sense once you consider what a convoluted mess Marcion’s theology actually was. They didn’t call him the “arch-heretic” for nothing.

One important area is his treatment of divine anger. Mark Sheridan has touched on the issue of the Fathers’ handling of Biblical anthropomorphism in Language for God in Patristic Tradition and shown how the different strategies involved were concerned with making sure we were reading the Bible in a way that is “fitting” to God’s dignity and majesty. Obviously, the Marcionites thought attributing anger or wrath to God was unfitting, which partially motivated their rejection of large portions of the Old Testament and New.
Read more at:

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Conquest, Exile, & Cross: Replacing Projection With Reality

Written by Branson Parler
on February 24, 2014

The problem

If you’re a proponent of nonviolence, you will definitely hear the question: what about the conquest of Canaan? How does this fit with the call to nonviolence? How does this “violent” God fit with the nonviolent Jesus? Numerous books have engaged this issue and the problem of God’s violence, often focusing on the Old Testament (usually meaning the conquest recorded in Joshua). These questions must be answered carefully because the answers given have far-reaching implications and not simply for our view of nonviolence. My contention is that Christian pacifists must affirm certain points of continuity between Joshua, Jeremiah, and Jesus—conquest, exile, and cross—or else they may undermine the central logic of the biblical narrative and, along with it, our doctrine of God.


One popular answer is that the conquest narratives record Israel’s projection onto God rather than God’s actual instructions to Israel. . .

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Finkenwalde Option

The Need for a New Monasticism

Many “options” for the survival/renewal of the church in North America are floating around today. Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is the best known among them and the touchstone for this recent flurry of other “options.” All of them share two basic convictions:

-the American church is in dire trouble and needs a fundamental reshaping, and

-this reshaping requires intentional community to resist the world’s incursions.

Most of them point to monasticism, a reform movement in the early church protesting the accommodation of the church to ideas, ways, and mores of the Roman Empire, as a model for the kind of reform needed. This is a sound instinct. The trick is to discern the shape of the features of a monasticism fit for North America in these times.

And that’s been the catalyst for the discussion around Dreher’s book. Is it Benedict, or Francis, or the Jesuits, or some other version of monasticism that might serve us best in this time and place?

I suggest that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (DB) experiment to design a community to both support and equip at Finkenwalde, the site of the Confessing Church’s underground seminary, merits consideration. Dare we call it the Finkenwalde Option?

In a letter to his brother in early 1935, shortly before he took on the task of directing this underground seminary to prepare pastors for Confessing Churches, he wrote, “...the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together to do this...”[1] 

In the context of the maelstrom ignited by Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 the thorough accommodation of the church to German culture was evident to DB. He indicted his church in these uncompromising words: "Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world."[2]

It’s no stretch to apply that same indictment to the American Church. Not suggesting that America and it leadership are comparable to Hitler’ Nazism, the Third Reich, but the reality of the church’s accommodation to our culture in denaturing and debilitating ways sadly mimics the German church of DB’s time.

The Sermon on the Mount

As noted, he turned to monasticism as a model for the renewal and reconstruction of the church in Germany. He did not seek to reduplicate what Benedict and others had done. He knew something new was required – the spirit and ethos of monasticism. In his view, the Sermon on the Mount must be at the heart of this effort. Indeed, in the above letter to his brother, he claimed that Jesus’ Sermon was “the only source of power capable of exploding the whole enchantment and specter (Hitler and his rule) so that only a few burnt fragments are left remaining from the fireworks.”[3]

The Sermon on the Mount, far from being an impossible ideal we can never reach or a teaching applicable only during the so-called Millennial reign of Christ on earth after the defeat of Satan and evil, or for a special, higher class of Christian, or any other evasion, Bonhoeffer fervently believed Jesus’ teaching here was meant as practical guidance on living the life of God’s kingdom which Jesus had inaugurated. His popular book Discipleship (aka The Cost of Discipleship) makes this clear. Glenn Stassen, a latter-day Bonhoefferian, has followed up DB’s conviction that Jesus’ Sermon is concrete, practical guidance for his followers today, with ground-breaking research that has confirmed this conviction made even clearer the Sermon’s practical thrust.[4] It would be quite possible, in my judgment, to gather Christian communities around this description of life in God’s kingdom (which begins now in this life) as a focal point of this new monastic life.

The Arcane Discipline

DB later in his Letter and Papers from Prison insisted on the need for the church to retrieve the ancient church’s practice of the “arcane discipline.” They excluded outsiders from the practice and celebration of its most intimate rites. This was to protect these rites from misunderstanding and profanation and outsiders from gaining untutored perceptions of what was happening. Even in the nonreligious Christianity DB was struggling to articulate there remained a necessary place for formative worship.

We could include here, I think, the development of spiritual disciplines[5] aimed at buttressing our intention to resist the empire’s push to accommodate the church to its needs and aspirations and instead inculcate the ethos and ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s probably the best single “Empire-Buster” we have in our Bibles. Jesus here contradicts or stands on their heads much of what the Empire wants us to buy into and live our lives by. (Bonhoeffer and Stassen are worthy guides for this endeavor.)

Christian Education might be reconceived and implemented as vocational training. Our needs and struggles as Christians attempting to live faithfully from one day to the next is its curriculum. Wes Granberg-Michaelson has recently promoted Finkenwalde as place for us to begin to begin thinking and acting toward a new church.[6] He identifies some of what we are up against in that effort as:

-chauvinistic nationalism,    

-growing economic inequality,       

-destabilizing climate change,       

-unprecedented forced migration,  


-increasing militarization

In a world that at its best valorizes human effort and achievement and at its worst gleefully entice us to long for, anticipate, and experiment with things most would recognize as base and low (even if they dabble in them themselves), the church will not lack grist for its reflection and training in living a Sermon on the Mount-centered life.

This arcane discipline reaches even further than this, though. It reaches into the very core of who we are in Christ and with and for one another. In Life Together Bonhoeffer makes the astonishing (to us modern westerners) claim that it is confession of sin, one to another, that makes the church the church!

The practical putting to death of the old nature (especially it chief expression as pride), assuaging our loneliness, assurance of forgiveness, breakthroughs to community and new life, all this happens as one person confesses their sins to another. Not a priest, not to God alone, but to another Christian. All God’s gracious gifts to us breathe their life from this center. For in meeting with and confessing to another person, we are confessing, receiving pardon, and being filled with new life by Christ himself who stands between us as the center of our relationship.[7]

Such confession prepares for the central act of worship, the Lord’s Supper. Here’s how Bonhoeffer sums it up:

“The day of the Lord’s Supper is a joyous occasion for the Christian community. Reconciled in their hearts with God and one another, the community of faith receives the gift of Jesus Christ’s body and blood, therein receiving forgiveness, new life, and salvation. New community with God and one another is given to it. The community of the holy Lord’s Supper is above all the fulfillment of Christian community. Just as the members of the community of faith are united in body and blood at the table of the Lord, so they will be together in eternity. Here the community has reached its goal. Here joy in Christ and Christ’s community is complete. The life together of Christians under the Word has reached its fulfillment in the sacrament.”[8]

The Three Circles of the Church’s Life

DB is famous, of course, for his insistence that the church be deeply involved in all dimensions of life, “helping and serving,” rather than dominating as he puts it in Letters and Papers.[9] In his book Faithful Presence, David Fitch articulates a vision for the church’s immersion in the world that is consonant with Bonhoeffer’s insight. He proposes three concentric circles in which the church engages it community

-the close circle is gathered community of the committed. Perhaps this would be Bonhoeffer’s “arcane discipline,” his term for the worship of the church in a world-come-of-age. Note Fitch does not say a “closed” circle. He focuses on the quality of relationship in the group rather than its boundaries.

-the dotted circle is a place in the neighborhood where Christians host others beyond the close circle. Perhaps it’s a home gathering, or perhaps a gathering in some other place where Christians offer others the chance to see and experience what goes on in the circle.

-the half circle encompasses the places of hurt and brokenness we encounter. Here the Christian is a guest who extends the presence of Christ into a situation where it may or may not be accepted.

This a helpful way to order our thinking about being immersed in the world as DB advises. Now Bonhoeffer believes we are in a period when the church’s verbal witness has lost credibility and we ought to express our faith during this time with our deeds alone. As Walker Percy put it in The Thanatos Syndrome, our words “no longer signify.” Fitch does not have such a reservation but both are united in insisting the presence, sharing, helping, and serving others is a necessary precursor to valid testimony.

A Finkenwalde Option

Truth is, the Finkenwalde Option Bonhoeffer innovated failed. Or, rather, aborted. The Gestapo closed the seminary in 1937. Two years does not a community of resistance to the kind of forces identified above. So it remains an open question whether we can do it, either. It requires a different way of thinking and certainly different structures for doing church this way. In all honesty the present adult generations in America will not entertain a Finkenwalde Option. We (and I include myself here) are incapable of breaking free from the bonds of reputation, consumerism, and comfort. But if we will own that, and make an effort to nurture younger generations to transition to this way of being church, well, there may be hope down the line.

When Bonhoeffer announced his intention to find a career in the church, his siblings teased and taunted him over the church’s boring, stodgy irrelevance. He brashly shot back, “Well, then, I shall reform it!” And in ways unimaginable nor predictable, he did. Or at least played his part. His indispensable role. And because we have the record we do of his efforts, we have impetus enough to take up his aborted reform of the church and begin working it through in our own very different time and place. We won’t likely see the fruit of it, us older generation folks, but in my judgment, it’s the right thing to do and past the right time to do it. So, thanks be to God for the work and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and we thank him by taking up and doing what he saw and began – a Finkenwalde Option.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament of Freedom, Geoffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 424.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm RĂ¼diger Bethge," Letters and Papers from Prison: DBW 8 (Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition), 11000.

[3] Bonhoeffer, Testament of Freedom, 424.
[4] Glen H. Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

[5] David Fitch has seven helpful disciplines in his Faithful Presence: the Lord’s Table, Reconciliation, Proclaiming the Gospel, Being with the ‘Least of These’, Being with Children, the Fivefold Gifting, Kingdom Prayer.
[6] “From Wittenburg to Finkenwalde,”
[7] Bonhoeffer expounds this understanding of our humanity as centered in Christ in his book Sanctorum Communio (“Communion of Saints”).
[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible DBWE 5 (Fortress Press. Kindle Edition: 2578.
[9] DBWE 8:14361.