Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: Prolegomena Part 3

Initially I wasn't planning on a third post related to prolegomena, but I have realized that in my desire to gloss over it I have not fleshed out my position fully enough. I have stated how I approach the Bible and have given some rationale for why. However, I realize that I did not explain what that means for constructing theology and ethics. While the Bible is central for developing Christian theology, we need to beware of having too high a view of Scripture[1] and ground our hope in something surer.

As I stated in my earlier discussion of prolegomena, Barth's view of Scripture as witness to past revelation by God where it itself is not the Word of God (though through the agency of the Holy Spirit we often encounter it as such) is, in my opinion, basically correct. While I do not hold this position for "practical" reasons, there are "practical" and apologetic benefits.

As I listen to people who have left Christianity, I often hear the following tune. I was taught 'X' was essential to the Christian faith but it was disproved, therefore I stopped being a Christian. Typical values for X might be young earth creationism or the inerrancy of Scripture. In one hundred years I believe we will see the same phenomenon with different values for X. The issue isn't really the issue, it's the way some Christians approach the Bible. Since they believe that Bible is the Word of God, it becomes quasi-divine. It's inerrant, infallible[2], and only correctly understood when interpreted "literally."[3] This insistence, coupled with the eagerness to take a stand against the "liberals" on issue X, is very very dangerous. Once what they were taught about "X" is falsified, as it often easily is, the exodus of the (usually) young away from the faith they grew up with begins. Some will end up in less rigid forms of Christianity, but many will walk away from God altogether.

In these scenarios, I believe that the wrong object was receiving worship. Only one thing is strong enough to rely on, not the Bible, but God himself. The Bible is God's tool that he uses to change us, but we only change in the first place because we are in relationship with him, because we are united with him and with one another. Perhaps the Bible isn't what some people want it to be, maybe it has errors and contradictions, even meaningful contradictions at the level of theology. That's ok. God is all about redeeming fallibleness and mistakes and using them for his own ends.

Practically, this also makes life easier on the theologian. I don't need to spend undue time trying to harmonize the unharmonizable. I can define a center a work out, building a coherent and consistent theology from the Scriptures,[4] hopefully under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For me, Matthew, Luke-Acts, 1 Peter and what I take to be the authentic Pauline letters[5] are my center.[6] They bring theology and ethics together in a way that has inspired and transformed me and drawn me closer to God. I am, though, as you may know, about to embark on close study of John. John is in tension at key points with my current preferred reading of Paul.[7] I'm hoping that by seeing the Christian way of life from a different angle that my vision will be enlarged and modulated from hearing a different perspective. Additionally, this will allow me to hear John on his own terms (hopefully), as I won't be trying to force him into the grid of Pauline theology.

For Further Reading:

Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith

God's Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship by Kenton Sparks

[1] My thanks to my friend John Kim who was the first I heard express his reservations this way.

[2] I mean the natural meaning of the word infallible - incapable of error.

[3] They don't actually mean literally, I think they actually mean ahistorically and, often, atomistically.

[4] This is what everybody does anyways; I'm just being honest about it. :)

[5] I leave myself free to change my mind, but as of now I would include the 7 undisputed letters, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, and Colossians. To what extent the Pastorals are Pauline is unclear to me and is something I wish to investigate more fully at a (much) later date.

[6] Someday I will study Revelation, and perhaps it will join the group.

[7] Drawn primarily from Campbell, Wright, Horrell, Dunn, and Stowers in that order. John focuses much more on personal belief than I believe Paul does. It's more than a difference in focus. I believe it is actual tension, which is not surprising to find. The early Christian movement was diverse, and, at times, barely unified. The three to four decades gap between the writings of Paul and of John also mean that the church was going through very different issues.

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