close

Bible

ApologeticsBibleReligionTeaching SeriesTheology

the origin, evolution, & end of religion (part 2 of ?)

Sacrifice of Noah

PART 2: What’s the Big Idea?

[NOTE: This series of posts expresses and expands on one sermon at The Meeting House – part 4 of our Origins series, called East of Eden. To hear that sermon, please go here.]


Now I’ve done it. I’ve become so excited about researching and writing on this topic that I have to repent of my previous commitment to keep this series to only four parts. For now, here’s the plan: I’m just going to keep posting on this topic until I stop posting on this topic. (Genius.) So, better get to it…

So what’s the big idea?

Here is the thesis of this series, the “big idea” that makes a world of difference if it is true: Religious sacrifice was never needed nor invented by God. Rather, ritual sacrifice is our human invention that God accommodates and uses for a season, and then eventually enters and ends through Jesus.

As we saw in the last post, in Matthew 19 Jesus sends us back into the Hebrew Scriptures to examine what God meant when he said:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
(Hosea 6:6)

We also looked at other passages where King David says God never wanted sacrifices (e.g., Psalm 40:6; 51:15-17). And yet, in the Bible God himself commands lots of sacrifices, especially in the book of Leviticus. So which is it? Or is it possible that God could actively command something that he doesn’t really want?

The answer is, yes. And we have plenty of examples of this, so much so that the phenomenon has its own name: the principle of accommodation. I’m going to use this post to help us nail this idea down. Unless we clearly see and savour in Scripture how God uses the principle of accommodation, the rest of what we have to say in this series won’t make much sense. So, let’s dig in…

The principle of accommodation

To begin with, the principle of accommodation is often applied to language itself. All verbal and written revelation from God is an example of God accommodating human language and ideas and concepts in order to communicate clearly with us. God meets us where we’re at, using language and metaphors and imagery that is drawn from our own experience in order to communicate truth to us in a way that makes sense in our time and space.

We have no reason to believe that the original biblical languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic are the languages of Heaven. The Bible is an example of God’s accommodation to human ways of communicating.

When Jesus says the kingdom of God is like “a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth” (Mark 4:31), Jesus was not speaking from the standpoint of divine omniscience (since this statement on the surface is patently false) but he was accommodating the knowledge of his day.

What I find most fascinating is that the Bible goes on to record instances of God adopting and using human desires and ideas that he himself finds repulsive, in order to meet us where we are at in communicating important truth.

Examples of God’s accommodation to human desires

1. Kings

The Bible tells us that God originally designed Israel to function as a nation with God alone as their king, speaking through prophets. But at some point, the people of Israel decided they wanted a human king to rule over them, so they could be like the other nations around them. The prophet at that time, Samuel, took this as a kind of personal rejection of his role representing God to the people. But God responded to Samuel:

Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.
~ God to Samuel (1 Samuel 8:7)

God says that this is not a matter of people rejecting Samuel as their prophet as much as it is a matter of people rejecting God as their king! God takes this demand of the people as personal rejection of his rulership. This is serious corporate sin. And yet, God says that Samuel should listen to the people, and later makes it explicit – Samuel should represent God by appointing Israel’s first king.

Now here’s the thing: if you were to parachute into a later part of the biblical narrative without context, you would think that God is really into Israel having kings. God appoints and anoints generations of kings through the prophets. That’s because – and this is key – once God accommodates a human desire or practice, God doesn’t pout about it. God makes full use of this new direction in his relationship with his people. He adopts the new practice as though it were his own, even though it has sinful origins.

In fact, mind-blowing as it is, God always knew this would happen! And God already had plans in place to partner with Israel through their (sinful) desire to have earthly kings! Way back in Deuteronomy, hundreds of years before Israel would (against God’s better judgement) demand their first king, God says through Moses:

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses.
(Deuteronomy 7:14-15)

Wow. This is important because sometimes Christians will argue that animal sacrifices cannot be an example of divine accommodation because God had, before the foundations of the world, always planned for the sacrifice of Christ (see Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8), and animal sacrifices prefigured the sacrifice of Christ. This means that God always knew and planned for the death of Jesus, and therefore always knew and planned for animal sacrifice to point to Jesus. This is true, but as Deuteronomy 7 shows us, just because God knows something is going to happen in the future and has an advance plan for it doesn’t mean it was his initial and ideal will. Yes, God planned for the sacrifice of Jesus because God knew we would sin, but we do not say that God’s will is or ever was that humans should sin. Likewise, God always knew Israel would reject his kingship in favour of an earthly king, and God had a plan for that, but this doesn’t mean that it was always God’s will for Israel to reject him. God always had a plan to use sacrifice for our salvation, just as he had a plan to use kings for Israel’s blessing – but neither was God’s ideal.

Just because God plans for something doesn’t mean it isn’t an example of divine accommodation, because God can plan for accommodation! Whether it is Israel clamoring for a king, or the Romans crucifying Jesus, God is in the business of redeeming rather than rejecting some of the worst ideas people come up with.

2. Temple

At the time of Jesus, the Jerusalem temple was at the centre of the religion of Israel. When it was built by Solomon, God blessed it with his holy presence (2 Chronicles 5:13-14). Later God called the temple “my house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7) and when Jesus was a child he called it “my father’s house” (Luke 2:49). When he grew up, Jesus was passionate for the purity of the temple, and said it should be “a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17).

So, you would think that the temple was God’s idea right? Not a chance. In fact, when King David first proposed the idea to God, God reminded David that this was something he had never asked for (see 2 Samuel 7). God had already given instructions to Moses to build a tabernacle, or a special holy tent. It seems that God preferred the symbolism of a tent over a temple – God was mobile, on the move, ready to meet with us wherever we went, and not locked down to a single location, like a fixed temple might suggest. But God acquiesced and incorporated David’s desire to built him a temple into God’s own plans. Once again we see that God redeems rather than rejects our faulty human ideas.

3. Divorce

In the Torah (Deuteronomy 24), God gives instructions about divorce. When religious leaders ask Jesus about this in Matthew 19, Jesus responds saying that God allowed for divorce because of human hard-heartedness. In other words, divorce law in Deuteronomy is an example of God accommodating human stubbornness. As an aside, if Jesus is calling his followers away from the hard-hearted approach to life revealed in the Law, he must be offering us a heart-softening, morally empowering alternative. And that’s the Holy Spirit, made available to everyone in the New Covenant.

Besides these examples, we could add things like polygamy, patriarchy, war, and even eating meat. Maybe you can think of more. In all of these cases, God accommodates and uses things for our good and his glory that were never part of his ideal will.

The principle of accommodation is rooted in the fact that God made humankind in his image and likeness. We were designed to be people not pets, genuine partners not manipulated props. And God always honours his own image in us, taking our desires into account in how the future unfolds. This is real synergistic friendship.

Now one last example…

4. Slavery

We may wish it were otherwise, but in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, God accommodates slavery. God makes room for the cultural practice and even offers governing rules to minimize the damage and degradation of slavery.

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
(Leviticus 25:44-46)

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
(Colossians 4:1)

And yet, even with slavery-affirming passages like the above, we know enough from Scripture to conclude that slavery is not part of God’s ideal for human flourishing.

The Bible begins by telling us that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. There are no levels of value within humankind, not according to gender, to race, or social status. Jesus affirms this in how he relates to “sinners” and social outcasts, treating them with high honour. And the New Covenant community lived out their faith in churches, relational family-styled communities, where slaves and slave owners would worship side by side as brothers and sisters. Over time, this alternative-culture of the Church would plant the seeds for the end of slavery (even if, we must admit, it took the Church far too long to get the memo).

So here we have a practice that is woven into the Torah itself, the very commands of God (e.g., Leviticus 25), and yet all Christians today would agree that slavery was never and is not now God’s ideal will for humankind. Instead, God’s way of relating to slavery in the Bible is what we could call a “harm reduction model”.

A Harm Reduction Model

If you were to walk into a safe-injection site funded by the Canadian government, without context you might think that the government of Canada desires that more and more people become drug addicted. But you would be wrong. The safe-injection sites are designed to help manage the damage and reduce the harm of drug use. This, I believe, is why we have the Law of Moses filled with its many instructions about everything from slavery to sacrifice.

If this is true, then we should see a paper trail in Scripture, and that’s exactly what we find. We have already seen that the later prophets, King David himself, and the author of Hebrews declare that God never wanted sacrifice. And we should also expect to find in the Bible the idea of sacrifice initiated first by humans rather than God – something we’ll examine in future posts in this series.

Sacrifice as Accommodation

Before we wrap up this post, let’s review what we know so far.

We have established that God has a pattern of embracing and using human inventions with complete investment, as though they were his own. That is, some direct commands of God in the Bible are not God’s ideal but God’s temporary accommodation of human ideals. And there is good reason to believe that this is the explanation behind the idea of sacrifice in the Bible. Like with Israel’s kings, God redeemed rather than rejected this very human idea.

To paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 19, God permitted us to make sacrifices because our hearts were hard. But it was not intended to be that way from the beginning.

In our last post we looked at how the author of the book of Hebrews quotes Psalm 40:6 from the Septuagint and comments:

“Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law.
(Hebrews 10:8)

This is significant. God was not pleased with the very sacrifices God himself was commanding in the Law of Moses. I don’t think it could be stated any more clearly.

This principle of accommodation answers so many questions, and raises so many more! And we will get to some of those questions in future posts. For now, let me thank you for tracking along with this blog series. I’m looking forward to your questions and feedback. Comment away!

Peace,

read more
ApologeticsBibleGospelJesusReligionTheology

the origin, evolution, & end of religion (part 1 of 4)

Sacrifice_boar_Louvre_G112

PART 1: Mercy, Not Sacrifice (An Introduction)

Prolegomena: Before we dive into our main topic, here are two caveats…

  1. This new miniseries of posts expresses and expands on one sermon at The Meeting House – part 4 of our Origins series, called East of Eden. To hear that sermon, please go here.
  2. Some people use the word “religion” in a positive sense, the way Jesus uses the word “faith”. If you struggle with the pejorative use of the word “religion”, please see this post here.

Now let’s dive in!


When religious leaders asked why Jesus was befriending sinners and religious outsiders, Jesus responded:

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
~ Jesus (Matthew 9:12-13)

Jesus came, not for those who think they’ve got it all together, but for the rest of us who know we don’t. Wow, that’s good news. And if we really want to understand how that gets worked out in the real world, Jesus tells us where to look. To the religious leaders who repeatedly misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied their own Scriptures, Jesus said: Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

Jesus gives them, and us, some clear marching orders if we want to understand him and his good news better. Go back into the Bible, says Jesus, and focus your attention on figuring out the meaning of this one verse: Hosea 6:6. That’s what Jesus is quoting here. The full version reads:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
~ The Prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:6)

Religious sacrifice – that is, offering vegetation, animals, and even humans to God or the gods in order to get their attention, procure their blessing, and/or remove their wrath – was ubiquitous in ancient religions. It amounted to a kind of religious magic, where practitioners arrange the right elements (often blood) in the right ways (shed on a sacred altar and/or applied to sacred objects) to manipulate cosmic powers for their benefit.

This is one of many ways the God of the Bible stands out. He says: I don’t need or even want you to sacrifice stuff to me. I simply want your heart, your love, your partnership.

The word for “mercy” in Hosea 6:6 is the Hebrew word hesed, which means loyal love, faithful friendship, caring kindness. It is similar to the Greek word agape, meaning unconditional love. God wants a real, intimate, ongoing relationship with us more than the petitioning and pleading rituals of religion. In fact, where there is already love and trust, ritual sacrifice merely gets in the way. Sacrifice suggests that God is far away and assumes he is either mad and must be appeased or fickle and must be persuaded to bless us. That’s not a step towards but a step away from the intimacy God desires with us.

Notice God doesn’t say, “I desire mercy along with sacrifice, an acknowledgement of God along with burnt offerings.” He wants one and not the other, relationship rather than religion.

But if this is all true, then why in the Bible does God command so many sacrifices? I mean, have you read the book of Leviticus? The answer to this question lies in what scholars call “THE PRINCIPLE OF ACCOMMODATION” and in the history of sacrifice in the Bible, which we’ll get to in future posts in this series.

For now, we can at least lay down this firm foundation: ritualistic religion, including the sad practice of animal sacrifice, was never part of God’s ideal for the human-divine relationship.

King David was called “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). David had a particularly intimate relationship with God, one that pointed forward to Jesus who was called “the son of David” (Matthew 12:23; 21:9, 15; 22:42; etc.).  And when praying to God, David says:

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
    but my ears you have opened—
    burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
~ King David (Psalm 40:6)

God did not require, nor even desire, the religious ritual of animal sacrifice. The idea and impulse for the system of sacrifice came from somewhere else.

The author of the book of Hebrews paraphrases Psalm 40:6 and comments:

“Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. 
(Hebrews 10:8)

Just to make sure we’re getting the point, the author of Hebrews reminds us that God was not pleased with the very sacrifices God himself was commanding. Let that sink in.

Again, David says in a recorded prayer:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.
~ King David (Psalm 51:16-17)

The real “sacrifice” that God desires is our hearts, not the blood of bulls and goats. (Along these same lines, also see Isaiah 1:1-20; 43:25; Jeremiah 7; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Amos 5:21-25.)

David knew this truth down to his bones. He had committed the sins of adultery and, indirectly, murder. And catch this: there is no sacrifice for these sins in the Torah. The Law of Moses prescribed sacrifices primarily for unintentional sins (see Leviticus 4-5) and some lesser intentional sins (Leviticus 6). But for the most serious sins like murder and adultery, the prescribed response was not sacrifice but the death penalty. If there was any hope for David to receive God’s forgiveness, religious sacrifice was not the way. For someone who committed the most serious of sins, their only hope was to cast themselves directly upon God’s mercy and to invite his forgiveness, apart from the religious system.

All of this raises loads of questions. Doesn’t God need blood in order to forgive sins? If not, why did God directly command blood sacrifice in the Old Testament? And what is the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross?

My hope in this post has been to simply set the table for this series. We’ve begun to “go and learn” as Jesus instructed.  In future posts, we’ll look at the principle of accommodation, the nature of the human religious impulse, the origin of sacrifice, and the way God enters and ends the entire system through Jesus.

I’m looking forward to your feedback, questions, and comments!

Peace,

read more
BibleTeaching SeriesTheology

adam and eve and the new covenant

maryconsoleseven

[Note: This post coincides with week 3 in our Origins series: Paradise Lost. If you haven’t heard that message yet, it might be better to go there and give a listen first. Also, don’t forget to sign up for email alerts! Enjoy!]


Adam and/or Eve are mentioned a handful of times in the New Testament, always with something helpful to teach us. In this post, we’ll look at those instances and ask how these references contribute to our understanding of human origins, how we interpret the Bible, and the good news of Jesus.

1. Jesus and Marriage and Singleness

Haven’t you read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 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’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

(Matthew 19:4-6)

In response to the Pharisees’ questions about divorce in the law of Moses, Jesus points back before the law to God’s original design. This is good wisdom whenever we feel pulled into debates about this or that command of Scripture. Always look for the love that precedes the law.

Even though this debate was initially about divorce, Jesus makes it about marriage, and eventually singleness too as a high calling of God (read on in Matthew 19). Adam and Eve are a model for marriage, for companionship, and for the value of men and woman being friends and partners together.

And since Jesus refers to Adam and Eve (though not by name) as real examples, this also supports the view of their historic reality. Still, some Christians point out that it may also be that Jesus is referencing God’s first story, his first parable. Just like we might draw on the Parable of the Prodigal Son for teaching truth. (This line of reasoning could also be used for Jesus’ reference to other Old Testament stories, like Jonah in the belly of the big fish.) 

As an aside: notice above that Jesus says he is quoting “the Creator” saying “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother…” etc. Jesus says that this line in Genesis 2 is God talking. But in the actual Genesis 2 text, this line is not spoken by God. It is, rather, the author of the text speaking as the narrator and making a point. Are you catching this? Jesus sees the ultimate author of Scripture as “the Creator”. That is to say, Jesus believed that all Scripture is inspired by God and therefore, in some way, speaks for God. What motivation to keep on learning from the Bible!

2. Genealogies

Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, … the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.
(Luke 3:23-33, with a lot of names skipped)

Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them…
(Jude 1:14)

In the Gospel of Luke, the genealogical line of Joseph is traced right back to Adam. Jude also assumes a known genealogical connection directly back to Adam. It seems this puts Adam on the map as a historical person.

Yes, it could be argued that genealogies were not scientific and they didn’t have Ancestry.com. Ancient genealogies were more literary devices to give people a sense of place or to point to a symbolic reality. Certainly, ancient genealogies were not always technical – skipping, adding, adjusting. And since Augustine, theologians have noted that Luke’s genealogy totals a count of 77, a numeric symbol for total forgiveness. Still, these passages are among the strongest biblical evidence that Adam and Eve were historical people. (For those of you who do not believe Adam and Eve were historical people, I would love to hear your views on this in the comments!)

Finally, notice that Luke calls Adam “the son of God,” since Adam was a direct creation of God. This points beautifully to Jesus, the second Adam. Just a few verses later, the serpent will tempt this second Adam beginning with the phrase, “If you are the son of God…” (Luke 4:3). The pieces are fitting together. 

3. The First and Second Adam

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, BECAUSE all sinned—

13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.14 Nevertheless, death REIGNED from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern [or type/model; Greek, tupos] of the one to come.

15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death REIGNED through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness REIGN in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin REIGNED in death, so also grace might REIGN through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord

(Romans 5:12-21)

Wow. This is the longest passage about Adam and it is packed with gospel goodness. 

As we pointed out in a previous post, Paul says we die because we sin. Adam has somehow influenced us, but we are not guilty because of Adam – we are guilty because of our own sin. So how did the doctrine of original sin morph into the doctrine of original guilt

When translating from the original Greek into Latin, an early Church Father, Jerome (347-420 AD), mistranslated “because” in verse 12 as “in whom”, referring back to Adam. So the text was made to say that we all sinned in Adam’s sin. That makes us all equally guilty as Adam just by virtue of being born human.

Augustine (354-430 AD), one of the most influential Christian theologians, used this wrong translation to build his case of original sin being original guilt – we are not only born with a propensity to sin, which we act upon and therefore acquire our own guilt, but we are actually born guilty with the sin of Adam already condemning us. We are born depraved, guilty, condemned from birth. Not a terrific way to start life.

Also, notice Adam is said here to be a “pattern” or “type” of Christ. Does that suggest he must be historical since Jesus was a historical figure? That makes sense to me. But a literary character can also be a type. The  Prodigal Father in Jesus’ parable shows us a picture, a type, a pattern of who God is, but that doesn’t mean he is a historical figure. The same goes for the the gracious manager or a number of others characters in Jesus’ parables.

So Adam is a type of Jesus, perhaps because both are historical humans who were directly fashioned by God. But other parallels are even more striking: both Adam and Jesus are in their own way a fresh start for humankind, made sinless, in God’s image and likeness, and both will face the temptation of the serpent. 

And, as Romans 5 goes on to explain, Adam is also a kind of anti-type for Jesus – a mirror image, a reverse form, like a photographic negative.

Adam is disobedient, selfish, and the bringer of death, whereas Jesus is obedient, loving, and the bringer of life. 

One more thing before we move on: in the passage above I highlighted the word group for “reign” which is the same word group in Greek for “kingdom”. The gospel of the kingdom shines through here. God created and established humankind to be rulers (Genesis 1), and we blew it (Genesis 3). We turned God’s kingly commission to us – to be benevolent rulers over creation – into a pursuit for personal gain apart from God’s partnership. We welcomed sin and shame and death into our realm. We abdicated our royal role and lost our way.

Jesus came to establish his upside down kingdom of love, and to re-invite all of humanity to join with him in crushing the serpent’s head under our feet (Romans 16:20).

4. All die in Adam

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. …

So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven.49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

(1 Corinthians 15:21-22; 45-49)

Here Adam is contrasted with the resurrected Jesus in a few ways, as a sort of anti-type: 1) Adam leads us to death, while Jesus leads us to life. 2) Adam transitioned from non-being to living-being, while Jesus transitioned through his resurrection from physical body to spiritual body. 3) Adam’s origins are dust, while Jesus’ origins are divine.

Paul is encouraging Christ-followers to remember: Adam may be our past but Jesus is our future.  

5. Eve was the one deceived

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

(1 Timothy 2:11-14)

This passage helps us understand why the serpent targeted Eve for temptation. In the Genesis story, when God gives Adam the instruction, the command, the Torah about the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Eve is not created yet (Genesis 2:16-17). We are left to assume that Adam passed along the instruction to Eve after she was made from his side. So, Eve had indirect knowledge of God’s Word, and indirect knowledge is never as firm and secure as direct knowledge. So the serpent knows whom to target – the one who has a less firm grasp on the details and importance of the Torah.

Likewise, Paul in his context knows whom to restrict from teaching – those who had not been allowed to study Torah directly, namely, women. They will be more easily deceived, like Eve. And yet, over time, we might expect this situation to change. Paul’s first thought above – “A woman should learn…” – amounts to some of the most provocative words in this passage. (For more on this, please check out our Her Story series and the corresponding After Parties.)

6. Eve as a warning to all believers

I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.

(2 Corinthians 11:3)

Eve is a type, a pattern, a warning for all Christians. The serpent’s deception of Eve is not a warning that all women are more easily deceived by virtue of their gender, but rather that all Christians, male and female, might become deceived and drawn away from God’s will, as was Eve. Eve is a type of what deception might look like for any one of us at any time. Beware the subtly of the serpent! 

7. Adam as the origin of all people?

From one man God made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

(Acts 17:26-27)

Many ancient Jewish commentators saw the story of Adam and Eve as the story of the first Jews. They accepted that there might be many races of people already living in the world outside the garden of Eden, but the story of Adam and Eve was an origin story about God creating and choosing and commissioning Israel. That’s an interesting way of looking at Genesis, but passages like Acts 17 suggest otherwise: the apostle Paul saw Adam as the origin of everyone. 

It is possible that Paul actually has Noah in mind when he refers to the “one man”. But that doesn’t change the main lesson here. The story of Adam and Eve, like the story of Noah, should be understood as the origin story of all humankind. 

That being said, what I love most about this passage is the main point Paul makes: that God has been constantly working through history, politics, geography, etc., to create maximum opportunity for people to seek him, reach out for him, and find that he has always been close by.

And while God is always at work “behind the scenes” working at arranging people in the best position possible to hear the gospel, he leaves it up to us, the Church, to actually go out and share the gospel. 


As I’ve said before, I see the local Church as being a lot like the garden of Eden. It’s a place God puts us so we can be with him, learn from him, train with him, and practice our calling. And that calling is to eventually move out beyond Eden, beyond the Church, to “serve and protect” the world and to share God’s good news. We were made to live in the garden, but we were never meant to stay in the garden. 

Peace,

 

read more
BibleTeaching Series

so what’s the problem?

Evolution 2

[NOTE: This blog post pairs with our ORIGINS teaching series at The Meeting House, Week 1: Love’s Great Choice. If you haven’t heard that message, you might want to begin there before reading on here.]

I hope you, like me, base your faith on Jesus – not young-earth-creationism or old-earth-evolution or Intelligent-Design or any other origin theory.

This disposition allows us to follow the evidence wherever it leads concerning how or how long God created. Our faith does not stand or fall on any particular interpretation of Genesis 1 since our faith is in Jesus, through whom God made the universe (John 1:3; Hebrews 1:2).

That said, it seems fairly evident from the text of Genesis that the six “days” of creation are not required to be understood as literal 24 hour chunks of time. I’m not contrasting the Bible VS science – I’m referring to what the biblical text itself is saying.

As we learned in our Sunday teaching at The Meeting House…

  • The sun and moon, from which we get our 24 hour cycle, weren’t created until the fourth “day”.
  • The sixth “day” in chapter 2 seems longer than 12 hours of daylight – how could 12 or 24 hours be enough time to create animals, then create Eden, then create Adam and place him in Eden, then instruct him on gardening and the moral decision of avoiding the which tree and why, then have time to name all living animals, take a nap, and meet his new bride? Just the animal naming alone must have taken months. “Day” six seems like a longer period of time.
  • The seventh “day” of rest has no “evening and morning” and instead seems to be ongoing, even today, and we are invited to enter into God’s sabbath rest (see Hebrews 4).
  • And most straightforwardly, the word “day” (yom in Hebrew) is used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to indeterminate, often much longer, periods of time (e.g., Genesis 2:4; Exodus 2:11; Job 24:6; Proverbs 25:13), like we might say “back in the day”.

So, why not just go with an old Earth theory as the most faithful to Scripture? Why not accept the idea that God created life on our planet through the long process of evolution?

Recently our twelve-year-old daughter, Maya, came to me with her first “crisis of faith”. She explained, “I know that evolution is supposed to work over millions of years, but the Bible says God made everything in six days. So, what’s up with that?”

After I celebrated her astute observation and critical thinking, we sat down and opened the Bible together and I pointed out some of the above points about how the Bible uses the word “day”. Then I also drew her attention to the order of creation in Genesis 1: first inorganic matter, then life begins, starting with plants, then life in the seas, then birds, then mammals, and finally humans. We talked about the possibility that God is very smart at explaining the process of evolution in a way that all people of all times could understand. Maya thinks God is pretty cool.

But was I right? Some Christians, including many that I respect and admire as followers of Jesus, would argue against what I taught Maya. They would contend that evolution necessarily contradicts the Bible. And why is that? Why not just accept current scientific consensus? What’s the problem?

The problem can be summed up in one word…

DEATH.

Twice in the New Testament (Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 44-49) the apostle Paul says that death entered the world when Adam and Eve sinned. See here…

 Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to everyone, because everyone has sinned. Although sin was in the world, since there was no Law, it wasn’t taken into account until the Law came. But death ruled from Adam until Moses, even over those who didn’t sin in the same way Adam did—Adam was a type of the one who was coming.
(Romans 5:12-14)

That seems pretty straightforward. And pretty significant. Entire theories of how sin works and how atonement works have been built around the idea of a literal Adam being the literal entrance point for human sin, which opens the door for literal death to enter an otherwise perfect world. There is a lot riding on this. And I can understand why. If we take Paul at face value, then the idea of millions of years of “survival of the fittest” leading up to Adam and Eve, with lots of death as part of that necessary machinery,  is impossible for a Bible-believing Christian to embrace.

Unless…

It may be possible, even probable, that the apostle Paul is referring to spiritual death – our separation from the God of life. That seems to be the kind of death God is talking about in Genesis. Remember that Adam was told that if he ate from the bad tree, “on that day” he would surely die.

From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die. (Genesis 2:17)

Except, he didn’t.

Or did he?

On that day Adam ran from God, hid in the bushes, and accused both God and his new wife of causing his condition. The separation was real. Adam did die, in a way. And it was caused by the always-separating force of sin.

A spiritual death makes sense of the Genesis account, otherwise you have God promising a physical death that never comes when God promises it will come. And if spiritual death is the immediate consequence for sin in Genesis (followed by a later physical death because of being barred from the Tree of Life), then it follows that this spiritual death is what Paul has in mind as well when he’s talking about Adam and Eve. Scripture is consistent.

This opens up the door for a Bible-believing Christian to embrace the possibility of evolution as a tool God used to create the varieties of life on planet Earth. Do I believe this is the best route forward? I don’t know. Discovering the Bible’s openness to an old earth answers some questions while raising others…

Do we consider death and pain “good” parts of creation? Is Eden merely God’s good greenhouse in the middle of a planet marred by suffering and death? Were Adam and Eve commissioned to go out from Eden and rule over the rest of creation in order to help it become more Edenic?

It’s worth noting that the Hebrew word for “good” that God uses to describe his creation in the first chapter of Genesis is different than the word for “perfect” or “sinless”. In fact, in the last chapter of Genesis, this same word for “good” is used to by Joseph to describe a series of evil things that God intended for a loving purpose.

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20)

Perhaps God’s creation was “good” because it was accomplishing what he wanted it to bring about.

Still, this leaves us with the question: Why would God choose to use the death and suffering inherent in the system of evolution to create his “good” world? Is it possible that the destructive power of sin was at work well before the time of Adam and Eve? Is evolution an example of God bringing good out of evil, like in the story of Joseph? Should we think of the real “Fall” from grace as the fall of Satan from heaven to our primordial planet Earth long before Adam and Eve were created?

The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
(Revelation 12:9)

Is your head spinning yet? Many of us are still sorting this all through. And without any threat to our faith, which is built upon the solid rock of Christ and his teaching (Matthew 7:24-27).

Yes, at this point, there are more questions than answers, but that’s exactly what we should expect if the apostle Paul was right when he said…

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.
(1 Corinthians 13:12)

For now, we can be confident of the most important take-aways from Genesis 1…

  1. God is good, artistic, and loving.
  2. God (Father, Son, and Spirit) made us all to be like God, to love and create like God, and to do it all in partnership with God.
  3. Humans have a mission, a calling, a purpose: to represent God – his love and creativity and care – to this world.
  4. The seventh day is open-ended and ongoing. And, according to Hebrews 4, we are invited to enter into God’s sabbath rest with him.
  5. The story of Adam and Eve is not just an origins story, but also our story, repeated by us in every generation. We know better, and still we choose the selfish pursuit of our own pleasure at the expense of others people and our planet.

About that last point – notice that our guilt is not just something we can blame our parents (or ancient ancestors) for, because we repeat the story of Adam and Eve again and again, failing to make better choices than they did. Remember what the apostle Paul says in that Romans 5 passage…

Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to everyone, because everyone has sinned. (Romans 5:12)

In the end, we can’t blame Adam and Eve, or Mom and Dad. The story of Genesis is the story of us.

Whether you believe in a young or old Earth, a literal or figurative Adam, or a geographical or metaphorical Eden, I’m looking forward to interacting with you during this series of blog posts, Sunday sermons, and Home Church discussions. To that end, I’m looking forward to your comments to this post at the bottom of this page!

I hope we all, with inquisitive and curious kindness, enjoy the journey of seeking answers, together.

Peace,

PS: For the keeners, here’s a starter pack of some extra reading resources…

  • Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? (Three Views), Counterpoints Series
  • The Historical Adam (Four Views), Counterpoints Series
  • Death Before The Fall, by Ronald F. Osborn
  • Adam and the Genome, by Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight
  • The Lost World of Genesis One, by John H. Walton
  • The Lost World of Adam and Eve, by John H. Walton
  • God Against Religion, by Matthew Myer Boulton
  • Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Genesis and Human Origins.  Wipf&Stock, 2016, by Luke Janssen – a scientist and a Christian (but not a Christian Scientist) in our own Hamilton, Ontario!

Enjoy!

read more
BibleOtherTeaching SeriesTheology

origins: an introduction

Origins

This blog post is backwards. I’m not going to say much, but instead I’m asking YOU to to do most of the talking.

This Sunday at The Meeting House we begin a new series called “ORIGINS: The Story of Everything That Matters” which will focus on the first four chapters of Genesis. This will also be a blog series, so stay tuned here too – and subscribe for email alerts!

In “ORIGINS” we will cover topics like…
1. The Origin of Earth
2. The Origin of Us
3. The Origin of Ethics
4. The Origin of Evil
5. The Origin of Religion (I’m really looking forward to this one)

And now I’m interested in hearing from you…

What questions do you have or are you often asked by your family or friends about the beginning of the Bible?

Please comment below! Just scroll to the bottom and “LEAVE A REPLY”. And thank you in advance for posting your questions and thoughts! The Adventure begins THIS SUNDAY!

Peace,

read more
AnabaptismBibleHoly SpiritJesusTheology

radical christians & the word of god (part 3 of 3): application

Dusty Bible

We believe in the authoritative, infallible, inerrant Word of God – and his name is Jesus. 

All the Scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments, on every hand, point us to Christ Jesus that we are to follow him.
~ Menno Simons (16th Century)

Welcome back to our concluding post in this series. If you didn’t catch the first two posts, do not read further, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Instead, go here and start at the beginning. Otherwise, let’s dive in.

Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48), and when it comes to the Bible, our post-Gutenberg, widely educated and online generation of the Church has been given much. Very much. And we are required to make much of what we have been given.

In this final post of our “Radical Christians & the Word of God” series, we’re moving our focus beyond authority and inerrancy to application.

The Radical Reformers of the 16th century were gaga for Scripture. They studied it, memorized large portions of it, and asked the Holy Spirit to help them use the Bible to follow Jesus. Application was everything. They were not a Bible club or an academic society; they were Jesus followers, citizens in his Kingdom, and ambassadors on behalf of Christ’s Kingdom to the kingdoms of this world.

This emphasis on application was no doubt aided by the fact that the Radicals were largely non-academic. They were less systematic theologians and more step-by-step-figure-it-out-as-you-go-along Jesus followers. An emphasis on practical application is what happens when you’re doing your theology on the run.

During the earlier years of the Radical Reformation, most of the movement’s thought leaders were imprisoned and/or executed by other Christians. This resulted in the the remaining leaders within Anabaptistism being by-and-large uneducated when compared to their Protestant and Catholic brothers and sisters. This removal of their educated leadership simply reinforced to Anabaptists the idea that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, regular Christians should be able to benefit from Scripture reading, as long as they a) kept Jesus in the centre and b) read the Bible with an emphasis on application rather than on building and defending complex theological systems. So Radical Reformers read the Bible like a series of concentric circles, starting by living out the Sermon on the Mount as the bulls-eye, then zooming out to learn and obey the rest of Jesus’ teachings in the gospels, then moving forward into the rest of the New Testament and backward into the Old Testament.

 

THE HOLY SPIRIT

As they read Scripture, the Radical Reformers believed in the active, ongoing, powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus IS Lord (not WAS Lord) and his current, ongoing, living Lordship is being activated by God’s Spirit filling his Church, the body of Christ. Many Anabaptists were charismatic, proto-Pentecostals, open to all of the gifts of the Spirit at work in their lives, yet they didn’t see the Holy Spirit as leading them away from what Jesus had already taught and modeled in Scripture. Rather, Anabaptists believed that the mark of a Holy Spirit filled Christ-follower is someone who is increasingly drawn to and becoming like Jesus. And how can we know what Jesus is really like? Here we come full circle to the Bible, but with a renewed and relentless Christ-centred focus.

Otherwise, Anabaptists taught, if we don’t use the Bible to help us follow Jesus, we’re not moving with but rather against the wind of the Holy Spirit, who is consistently blowing us toward Christ.

All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.
~ Jesus (John 14:25-27)

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. …. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.
~ Jesus (John 16:13-14)

So, knowing that the very Spirit of God is moving us in the Jesus-ward direction, let’s list this as the first of three suggestions for how to make the most of the Bible…

#1. START WITH JESUS

Silhouettes are interesting, but when you love someone, why not look into their face, rather than stare at their shadow? Speaking about Old Testament teachings, the Apostle Paul wrote:

These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
~ The Apostle Paul (Colossians 2:17)

The Apostle John wrote that Jesus was such a clear vision of God, it was like everything that preceeded him could not qualify as really seeing the reality of who God is.

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
~ The Apostle John (John 1:17-18)

Moses gave us the Law, but Jesus showed us the truth. Radical Christians start with Jesus.

Anabaptism makes Jesus the lens through which all Scripture is read, concentrating attention on the pattern of Jesus’ life as the authentic example of God’s will for human society. … A second distinguishing perspective, one that marked the Anabaptists off from other Protestants, was their insistence that because the New Testament (NT) is the record of God’s revelation in Jesus, the Christ, it has authority over what preceded it. This was not merely a legalistic shift from the text of the Old to the text of the New. Rather, their new authority was Jesus, the Messiah, and not Moses, the Lawgiver. Christians’ mandate is to follow Jesus, and because the NT scriptures are the trustworthy written witness to him, they are of supreme importance. The Anabaptists valued the Old as a preparatory document, the historical witness and record of God’s covenant with Israel preparing the way for Christ and a new covenant to be written on the hearts of God’s people, in the words of Jeremiah 31. The NT, they held, is the culmination of, fulfills, and serves as the interpretive key to the Old.
~ C. Norman Craus, Anabaptist or Mennonite? Interpreting the Bible (in The Conrad Grebel Review)

When we want to know what Scripture says about a certain matter, we go first to the words, example, and spirit of Jesus. We may go to other Scriptures for further background and understanding, but our primary guidance comes from Jesus.
~ Palmer Becker, Anabaptist Essentials

Jesus is the author and finisher, the pioneer and perfecter, the start and stop, the the beginning and end, the alpha and omega of our faith (see Hebrews 12:2; Revelation 22:13). Jesus is the whole shebang. Most Christians agree with this sentiment intuitively, even if they don’t say it so plainly. Let’s face it, when Christians want to introduce new people to our faith, we hand out Gospels of John not the book of Leviticus. Somehow we intuit that “God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) carries more weight than “do not eat shellfish” (Leviticus 11:12).

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. …. But we must not use the Bible (our ancestors too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.
~ C.S. Lewis, (Letter to Mrs. Johnson, November, 1952)  [For more on C.S. Lewis and the Bible, see this informative lecture.]

We need to have ears to hear this. When we don’t start with Jesus, the Christian church can go terribly wrong. We will be tempted to establish the Kingdom of Christ as described in the New Testament by using the tactics of the Kingdom of Israel described in the Old Testament. This can lead to the horrific phenomenon of a zeal for Jesus (a New Covenant ideal) alongside an openness to kill others who don’t honour God in the way we think they should (an Old Covenant allowance).

This problem isn’t theoretical – we have real world evidence of what C.S. Lewis describes happening in Church history. An Anabaptist splinter group took over the German city of Münster in 1534, ignoring the Radical Reformation’s Schleitheim Confession of 1527 in which Anabaptists agreed that absolute non-violence was the way of Jesus. This charismatic cult group tried to establish a city-wide Old Testament styled theocracy by force based on what they thought was fresh revelation from the Holy Spirit. It failed miserably, and those who tried to live by the sword died by the sword.

Out of respect for the Bible as a whole, the the earliest Protestant Reformers tended toward a “flat” reading of Scripture – giving every part of the Bible equal weight in discerning God’s will. This resulted in Protestants combining the Old Covenant with the New Covenant as their blueprint for building “Christian” nations.

Read the following quotes slowly:

Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church. It is not in vain that he banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that he almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of his honor, unless the piety that is due to him be preferred to all human duties, and that when his glory is to be asserted, humanity must be almost obliterated from our memories?
~ John Calvin, cited in “Calvin’s Defence of the Death Penalty for Heretics” in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume VII: Modern Christianity, the Swiss Reformation, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 791.

Commenting on this quotation by Calvin, Philip Schaff states,

Calvin’s plea for the right and duty of the Christian magistrate to punish heresy by death, stands or falls with his theocratic theory and the binding authority of the Mosaic code. His arguments are chiefly drawn from the Jewish laws against idolatry and blasphemy, and from the examples of the pious kings of Israel.

On this issue, Calvin was following the Bible; he was not, however, allowing the Bible to lead him to Jesus and then following Jesus. The difference is, literally, a matter of life and death.

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
~ The Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 3:6)

Martin Luther advocated violence against Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. He wrote the following about Anabaptists and other heretical groups…

That seditious articles of doctrine should be punished by the sword needed no further proof. For the rest, the Anabaptists hold tenets relating to infant baptism, original sin, and inspiration, which have no connection with the Word of God, and are indeed opposed to it . . . . the stubborn sectaries must be put to death.
They teach that a Christian should not use a sword, should not serve as a magistrate, should not swear or hold property, may desert an unbelieving wife. These articles are seditions and the holders of them may be punished with the sword. We must pay no attention to their avowal ‘we did no one any harm’, because if they persuaded everybody there would be no government.
~ Martin Luther (pamphlet of 1536)

Ultimately, while we LEARN from both the Old and New Testaments, disciples of Jesus are called to LIVE in the way of the New Covenant inaugurated by Christ. In fact…

By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.
(Hebrews 8:13)

Let this verse produce the “shock and awe” it was meant to. One part of the Bible calling the other part “obsolete”?! A new way of living in relationship with God (the idea of “covenant”) calling the old way of living in relationship with God “outdated”?! Does this mean we should just read the New Testament? Or better, just the gospels? Or just the red letters? No, we read the entire Bible, but we read it differently. The Old Testament as our ethical rule book, as law for life, is “obsolete”. We don’t keep kosher, burn witches, or stone adulterers. Neither do most of us avoid wearing clothing woven of two kinds of material, or believe we are mandated to worship God on Saturdays (one of the top ten laws!). Yet, as God’s guide to point us to Jesus, the Old Testament endures as precious Scripture for Christians. Used this way, ALL Scripture will be “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” – the righteousness of the nonviolent, enemy-loving, peace-making way of Jesus.

In fact, if you are a Gentile (non-Jew), the Old Covenant was never given to you in the first place. The Law of Moses was never your law. We are grafted into the story of Israel through Jesus. Jesus is our sponsor into God’s family. Without Jesus, the Bible is not our Holy Book. Without Jesus, we are still on the outside looking in. But because of Jesus, the story of Israel becomes our story, and the lessons they learned and recorded become our Scripture too. So the Word of God in print leads us to the Word of God in Person, and in turn he invites us back into the Scriptures to see new things we would have never noticed without his guidance.

Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.
~ Jesus (Matthew 13:52)

 

#2. LISTEN TO THE HOLY SPIRIT TOGETHER

The Holy Spirit began God’s communication with us through Scripture by inspiring it, and now at this end of the communication process the same Spirit is in each of us illuminating what we’re reading. This is true when we read Scripture by ourselves, and it is especially true when we read it together.

Sometimes people who are health conscious say things like, “My body is a temple”. As Christians, this is most assuredly true, even for people with my body type.

 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?
~ The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6:19)

But even more than this truth, the Bible stresses that we, together, form one unified temple for God’s Spirit to dwell within.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
~ The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

We are (plural) God’s temple (singular). And God will judge anyone who tries to tear apart his temple. Every brick in God’s house is precious. And God dwells within and between us, as we gather together around Scripture to encourage one another in living out its truth. Just as each individual Christian is a precious member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), so too we are like living bricks making up God’s holy house.

You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.
~ The Apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:5)

Practically speaking, the presence of God in us together means that I should be open to what God wants to say to me through you, and vice versa. Yes, our better educated scholars and pastors should be leading the discussion, but we all should be open to the modus operandi  of the Holy Spirit – using those of us who lack education and status to speak God’s truth in a way that keeps all of us humble.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
~ The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Jesus is our wisdom from God, and that wisdom is revealed through people who lack influential status or strength. We will all grow as we make room in our lives to listen to and learn from our weaker brothers and sisters. Does your spiritual practice include this kind of listening to what God might be saying to you through unexpected others?

In Western society we can tend toward individualism, and that has crept into our church subculture. Doing my private devotions has become a hallmark of spiritual practice for many Evangelical Christians. Without diminishing personal Bible reading, I encourage us all to organize ourselves around the conviction that studying the Bible together amplifies the voice of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Studying the Bible privately at the expense of learning together as the Church was never a temptation of earlier Christians. For the first 4 centuries of the Church (not until the Council of Carthage in 397) the books to be included in and excluded from the Bible were not yet fully and finally decided, or “canonized”.  After that, only those with the money to buy an expensive handwritten copy (which would take a scribe close to a year, so would cost at least a year’s wages) could afford to have a Bible. And only people who were educated and literate could read the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek, and eventually a Latin translation. So yes, if you were a privileged, multi-lingual, wealthy scholar, then we could tell you to go have your personal, private daily devotions. But for the vast majority of Jesus followers, you would need the Church, gathered together, reading together, listening and learning together, in order to grow in your knowledge of the Scriptures.

The Bible is the book of the church. This is a perspective that the Anabaptists inherited from and share with the Catholic tradition.
~ C. Norman Craus, The Conrad Grebel Review

True, now that we can and do have our own copies of the Bible in our own language and we have the privilege of widespread literacy and higher education, we should, in humble gratitude, make the most of what we have been given. We should study the Bible on our own as well as when we’re together, but we must never tip the scales of Christian spiritual practice toward the individual at the expense of the corporate. God used the collective body of Christ to write, preserve, and translate the Bible. It would be a shame if we then saw the Bible as anything other than “the book of the church”.

 

#3. LIVE AND LEARN

We can only really understand the Bible if we apply the Bible. Radical Christians put the emphasis more on organic theology than academic theology.

Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
~ Jesus (John 13:17)

Knowledge is like intellectual calories. A calorie is a unit of energy – energy we use to get things done. Calories are the fuel we need to live in this world. But if our intake exceeds our output, the very fuel that food gives us to be energetic and healthy will end up making us fat and unhealthy. (I’m an expert on this process.) The same is true with knowledge, especially spiritual knowledge. If we study and learn and feast on the truth of Scripture but do not apply and live and love others better because of it, the very Bible study we are hoping will help us grow will actually make us spiritually sick. This is called hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy happens when our knowledge exceeds our application. The distance between the truth we know and the truth we live is our hypocrisy gap, and the Christian life should flow from a constant desire to close that gap.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
~ James the brother of Jesus (James 1:22)

This is why, in one sense, the most important part of any Bible study is the moment we close the cover. That’s when we’ll see if we have been reading for information or for transformation.

 

ADDITIONAL TIPS AND TRICKS

  1. Get your own physical Bible. Studies show that using a physical Bible that you can mark up and interact with is better for learning over time than only using digital Bibles on your phone, tablet, or computer. We are physical beings who learn in real space. We remember things in books by also picturing where those thoughts were on the page and how far into the book they are located. We may also be helped by picturing our own underlining and other markings on the pages. All of these physical, visual, tactile realities work together to help our minds receive and recall information. A screen Bible is terrific to use as an immediate concordance and to consult multiple translations, but it can never take the place of a physical Bible.
  2. Bring your primary Bible with you to Sunday service and/or wherever you are reading and learning from it. Mark it up. Take notes in the margins, underline and circle specific words or phrases. I use a symbol system I made up to help me remember places and topics and themes in the Bible. It isn’t sophisticated. A cross for salvation. A heart for love. A crown for the Kingdom. A lighthouse for evangelism. A footprint for discipleship (following Jesus). A pitchfork for the devil (he uses one of those, doesn’t he?). Etc.
  3. If you’re at a church that prints sermon notes, like we do at The Meeting House, take notes on those and keep them in your Bible. Come back to them later in the week for review and reflection.
  4. If you attend The Meeting House, take your Bible and sermon notes with you to Home Church. Be ready to hit the ground running with your own questions and reflections. We learn best by interacting with the material, not just listening to lectures/sermons.
  5. Whether at Home Church or in another context that could be a learning opportunity, ask lots of questions. Be eager to learn and grow. Take responsibility for your own spiritual development within the context of a loving community who can help you.
  6. Don’t just read the Bible, but pray through and meditate on Scripture. I taught more about this in our series “Way to Pray” so I’ll just leave this here as a reminder. When we study, it’s like typing information into our brains. When we meditate, it’s like hitting the enter key. 
  7. Tell others what you are learning, especially your non-Christian friends. Psychologists call it the protégé effect – tutors who help other students will grow and learn faster.

When we teach, we learn.
~ Seneca (Roman Philosopher)

CONCLUSION

Our Protestant friends sometimes talk about the church being “reformed and always reforming”. I hope this is always true for all of our lives. God will help us grow as we learn from one another across our denominational divides. If you’ve resonated with this series, whether you are Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or “other”, you may also be a little bit Anabaptish. Whatever your leaning, thank you for giving this series about the Bible your attention. It’s been fairly theological and I really appreciate you tapping into your inner egghead and sticking with me! Next blog post will be more devotional, as I talk about my favourite recent scary movie. 🙂

In the meantime, join me in praying along with King David:

Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in your teaching.
~ King David (Psalm 119:18)

Peace,

 

NEXT POST, COMING SOON…
The Father’s Love in A Quiet Place

PS: Don’t forget to sign up for future email updates!

PPS: For more on the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of the Anabaptist movement, listen to this informative lecture given by a Protestant scholar.

 

 

 

read more
AnabaptismBibleJesusTheology

radical christians & the word of god (part 2 of 3): inerrancy

Sword on a Bible

We believe in the authoritative, inerrant, infallible Word of God – and his name is Jesus.

Welcome back! In this second part of our series on Scripture we’re talking about the idea of biblical inerrancy, why many Anabaptists like myself don’t use the term to describe what we think about the Bible, why that makes some Evangelicals uncomfortable, and why this should be an issue for rich discussion and debate, not division. (If you haven’t read part 1 yet, please start here.)

Radical Reformers (or Anabaptists) tend to talk about Jesus the way Protestant Reformers tend to talk about the Bible: Jesus is our perfect, inerrant, infallible, authority. What Christian would want to argue with that? (Quite a few, apparently, but let’s move on.) Now we’re asking, what do Anabaptists believe about the actual text of Scripture? Here’s the quick answer, and then we’ll slow down and unpack it: Anabaptists believe similar things to many Evangelicals about the Bible, we just tend to use different words and concepts to describe it. You will often hear (or read) me saying things like “Anabaptists tend to say it this way or that way” because our differences are often exactly that – a matter of tendency, of where we put the emphasis in our theology rather than trying to create a different theology. Our default? Jesus is always our emphasis.

But wait! Before you read further, two warnings:
#1. Please know that this post is primarily for theological eggheads and committed Bible nerds. The next post will be more practical, honest.
#2. This post is way too long. Sorry!

So, if you’re a Bible nerd with too much time on your hands, you’ve just struck gold. Enjoy!
Otherwise – see you next time!

MY STORY

In the first post of this series I talked a bit about my experience as a Baptist pastor investigating the Anabaptist tradition. I was asked to consider pastoring a Brethren In Christ church (now called Be In Christ in Canada). Even though part of me was thrilled with what might become my new denominational home, as a transitioning Evangelical I remember being suspicious when I couldn’t find the word “inerrant” in the BIC’s statement of faith. I was beginning to fall in love with this simple family of joyful Jesus followers and I remember thinking to myself, “Oh no! I knew they were too good to be true!” Inerrancy, I had been taught, was the litmus test of orthodoxy. Look for a clear and bold proclamation of the inerrancy of Scripture in any denomination’s statement of faith and you could be more certain that they were a Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching orthodox group of Christians – or so I thought. Today I’m so glad I didn’t run away from the issue or suppress my questions, and instead leaned into Scripture and the ongoing conversation around Scripture with my new Radically Reformed friends.

I remember meeting with the Bishop of the Canadian BIC at that time, Darrell Winger, to ask him about this potentially dangerous omission from the BIC statement of faith. “I’m wondering what to make of the absence of inerrancy in your doctrinal statement. Does this mean you believe the Bible is errant?” Darrell’s response was simple: “It just means we don’t think in those terms. Nothing more and nothing less.” Then he added, “But if you hang out with us for any length of time, you’ll see that we believe the Bible is breathed out by God, and as we read it together, God uses the Bible to thoroughly equip us to follow Jesus.” And that has been precisely my experience with Anabaptism.

Some Anabaptists (like the Brethren in Christ / Be In Christ) have no doctrine of the “inerrancy” of Scripture. We are not anti-inerrancy; we simply emphasize the perfection of Christ more than we highlight the perfection of Scripture. Rather, we stick to biblical language like saying all Scripture is “inspired” and “useful” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
~ From sermon notes in our teaching series “Radical Reformation” (You can listen to that series here.)

THE LIMITATIONS OF INERRANCY

Many (though not all) Evangelicals do hold to a doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, and by that they mean that the original copies of the Old Testament and New Testament texts were so inspired by the Holy Spirit that they are without error in everything they affirm. (Note: we don’t have the originals any more, but we do have enough early copies that we can get very close to what the original manuscripts said.) These Christians believe that the Holy Spirit did not allow any human error to creep into the process of recording the original handwritten biblical texts (what are called “the original autographs”). So technically, the idea of inerrancy does not apply directly to any existing Bibles today. All Christians agree (perhaps with the exception of the KJV only tribe, but that’s another issue), the Bible you hold in your hand or read online is not inerrant. It was not copied from the original manuscripts inerrantly, it was not translated inerrantly, and while we’re at it, you the reader are not understanding it inerranty. Yet God still speaks. His gospel is still proclaimed and the Holy Spirit still illuminates our understanding and application as we study it together. The process is imperfect, but it is a process God works through powerfully. We, the recipients of Scripture, do not live the teachings of Jesus out inerrantly, but we are introduced to Jesus who lived inerrantly and died sacrificially and rose triumphantly and is still passionately involved in our lives today by the Holy Spirit.

In brief, then, it would be more accurate for those Christians who embrace biblical inerrancy to adjust their grammar to say that Scripture was, not is, inerrant in the original copies. Or maybe there is a better way of talking about the Bible altogether. (Hint: that’s where we’re going here folks.)

Many Protestants – from C.S. Lewis to Ben Witherington III to N.T. Wright (to name a few) – align with Anabaptists in pointing out the inadequacies of inerrancy as a Christian doctrine, for a variety of reasons.

I don’t call myself an “inerrantist” because
(a) that word means what it means within a modernist rationalism, which I reject and
(b) because it seems to me to have failed in delivering a full-blooded reading and living of what the Bible actually says.
~ N.T. Wright, Anglican Scholar

As a segment of Anabaptist and Evangelical scholars have always pointed out, inerrancy also puts our focus on the negative, by emphasizing what what Bible is not – errant.

The terms inerrant and infallible are modern ways of attempting to make clear that the Bible tells the truth about whatever it intends to teach us about. I much prefer the positive terms truthful and trustworthy. When you start defining something negatively (saying what it is not) then you often die the death of a thousand qualifications, not to mention you have to define what constitutes an error. I am happy to say that the Bible has three main subjects– history, theology, and ethics, and that it tells us the truth about all three.
~ Ben Witherington III, Interview with Michael F. Bird

The late Luke Keefer, an influential BIC scholar, reminds us that committed Christ-followers should not need the added assurance.

Terms like “inerrant” and “infallible” are negative terms. They declare what the Bible is not – that it contains no errors and is not capable of being at fault. There is an assumption that the Bible must be defended against certain attacks upon it. But certainly it needs no such defense against people who believe that it is the only complete, reliable, true, and authoritative Word of God.
~ Luke Keefer, Jr., “Inerrancy” and the Brethren In Christ View of Scripture

And if inerrancy is an unnecessary assurance for committed Christ-followers, it can become a distracting claim for non-Christians. When I am sharing the gospel with someone and I claim to know about Jesus because the Bible is inerrant, I end up shifting the weight of the conversation from a Person to a book. I have, in a sense, dared my conversation partner to find fault with the Bible, as though my faith stands or falls on the perfection of the text. (When in reality, even this claim of inerrancy is about a version of the text that doesn’t exist any more.) The whole enterprise of evangelism – gospel sharing – can be thrown “off centre” (which is Jesus!) and, as Ben Witherington III points out, the claim itself can die the death of a thousand qualifications. “No error? At all? Then what about…?” and off we go, talking about something interesting, but not central.

Ironically, our Buddhist friends get this better than many Christians. When Buddhists talk about their beliefs, they focus on sharing the teachings of the Buddha rather than arguing for the perfection of the Pali Canon, their earliest Scriptures. As someone who cares about evangelism, I want to do my best to keep the conversation moving toward the good news about Jesus even more than the good news about the Bible. Arguments about inerrancy do not help me help others focus on Jesus.

Another inadequacy with an emphasis on inerrancy is that it can tend to lead to word legalism. After all, if every word of Scripture is individually important, should we not honour God by staring into each word on its own? Word studies can be very helpful, but if we lean too far in that direction, our Bible study can miss the forest for the trees.

Sometimes we do see cases of the New Testament writers emphasizing a single word of Scripture to make their point. In Galatians 3:16, for example, the apostle Paul highlights the word “seed” in Genesis 22:18 as part of his argument. Inerrantists might argue, if Paul based an entire argument on the numerical value of the noun (seed vs seeds), then every word of the Bible must be personally and perfectly picked by God. Perhaps. But I would argue that here Paul is not building his theology around a single word (his approach to Scripture is much more robust), but is using this single word to illustrate the point he is already making. Elsewhere we see that the New Testament writers tend to quote the Old Testament more thought-for-thought than word-for-word, often following closer to the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) rather than the original Hebrew words of Scripture.  These New Testament writers chose not to quote the actual words of the Hebrew text, yet they show no signs that they fear they might be watering down the power of the message itself.

Jesus himself follows this same pattern of interacting with the Hebrew Bible. In Mark 12, Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment in the Law. This is a question about Scripture itself, so you would think accuracy would be a priority in answering. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 when he answers:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
~ Jesus (Mark 12:30)

Only here’s the thing: there is no “and with all your mind” in Deuteronomy 6:5. Jesus has inserted it because it helps to emphasize the point of this passage. He is focusing more on the message of Scripture than the individual words of Scripture. And his earliest disciples followed his example.

The four canonical gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – were written in Greek, probably because Greek was the lingua franca of their day – the common language that would help their message spread furthest and fastest. Many people in the first century were bi-lingual, speaking their original tongue plus Greek, which is similar to how English is spoken around the world today. Jews spoke Aramaic (a language related to Hebrew), and Romans spoke Latin, but they could both communicate with each other through Greek. Now, did you catch that – Jews spoke Aramaic. Jesus spoke Aramaic. His teachings, among his fellow Jews, were in Aramaic. But the gospel writers wrote them down in Greek. Apparently, the writers of the four gospels who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to preserve the very teaching of Jesus didn’t feel the need to capture his exact words. Instead, the first written record of Jesus’ teaching is already a translation. The New Testament writers felt the radical freedom to make a practical, pragmatic, strategic decision – promote the word (or message) of Jesus rather than preserve the precise words of Jesus. There are so many missional lessons in this for us today, but I’ll have to save that for another time. For now we need to move on.

WHY INERRANCY BECAME IMPORTANT FOR SOME CHRISTIANS

So, if the idea of inerrancy only applies to the original manuscripts which we no longer have, and if Church history gives us ample evidence of error (minor, but present) in the transmission process throughout the past two thousand years, and if the process of translation is imperfect, not to mention our imperfect understanding as receivers of the message, and if Jesus and his disciples do not seem to prioritize the precise words of Scripture over the message and meaning of Scripture, then why are many Evangelicals so very much concerned that all committed Christians use the word “inerrant” to describe our contemporary Bibles? Why has “inerrancy” become the litmus test of orthodoxy for many contemporary Christians?

In the early twentieth century, conservative Christians became increasingly concerned about the slow creep of liberal Christianity, which they believed didn’t take the truth of the Bible seriously enough. Increasing numbers of liberal leaning Christians were tending to dismiss the parts they didn’t like in favour of the bits they did like, rather than see every bit of the Bible as “inspired and useful”. In 1978 a group of Christian leaders gathered together in Chicago to form a statement about biblical inerrancy. They called it “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (creative bunch!). They wanted to plant a flag, a clear statement of what Evangelicals believed (or at least should believe) about the Bible. Now “inerrancy” would increasingly become a clear identity marker, a code word for Christians who wanted to distinguish themselves from religious liberalism. Inerrancy became short-form for saying, “I take my Christian faith seriously!”

Two things worth noting:

#1. This was more of a North American rather than global phenomenon. British Christians, for instance, tend not to make as big a deal over inerrancy.

#2. More importantly for this article, note that most Anabaptists were not invited to this table. For the most part, we were not aware nor involved in this debate. We were not the liberals being reacted against, nor were we the conservatives fighting back against liberalism. The result is that Anabaptists have maintained a different language surrounding how we talk about the Bible which parallels neither liberal nor conservative Protestant Christianity.

THE ANABAPTIST APPROACH

Let me point out that Anabaptism, like Protestantism. is not a monolith. There are various strains of Anabaptists who have been influence by various other Christian groups since the birth of the Radical Reformation in the 16th century. This includes some Anabaptists who have been and continue to be influenced by Calvinism and are more classically Reformed in their approach to theology and church polity. But for the most part, Radical Reformation Christians practice a relentlessly Jesus-centred approach to everything they do, including how they read Scripture.

Anabaptists were already convinced that the Bible was trustworthy and reliable, so did not feel a doctrine of inerrancy was needed to undergird it.
~ Darrell Winger, former BIC Bishop

Anabaptists tend to stick to more biblical language to describe our understanding of the Bible. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The entire Bible is breathed out by God, or “inspired”, and because of this it is also “useful” to equip God’s people “thoroughly” for living like Jesus. These are the three points Anabaptists rally around regarding the Bible:

  1. The Bible comes from God.
  2. Therefore we should use it.
  3. The result will be that we are thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Our emphasis is less on the details of doctrines about the Bible and more on using the Bible as a gift from God for our guidance – especially as a guide to see Jesus most clearly. Our emphasis is more on transformation than information. Anabaptists are exceedingly practical, and our approach to Scripture is a perfect example of this.

The reason for this practical approach to the Bible is born out of both theological conviction and historical circumstance. For centuries, while Protestants were establishing seminaries and other schools of higher learning to debate theological details, Anabaptists were on the run, trying to avoid the persecution coming from their Protestant and Catholic brothers and sisters. While the Protestant Reformers were writing systematic theology text books, the Radical Reformers were meeting in secret, hiding in caves or barns, trying to evade arrest. Early Anabaptist leaders who were theologically educated in Protestant seminaries were killed for arriving at “heresies” like believers’ baptism and their conviction regarding the separation of Church and State, which led to their refusal to fight against any State on behalf of any State. Subsequent generations of Anabaptists just didn’t have the freedom or ability to spend time involved in heady theological discussions which had become common place for Protestants. Also, Anabaptists observed that those Christians who did invest a lot of time, money, and energy in advanced theological education were also habitually missing the simple peace teaching of Jesus. Often the most educated and theologically precise Christian leaders still advocated for brutal violence against anyone who disagreed with them in significant ways.

All of this served to reinforce the Anabaptist idea that Scripture should be primarily used to lead us to Jesus our Lord, otherwise the Bible could be used to justify horrific acts of violence. Even when Anabaptists made it to North America and found relief from generations of persecution, they were never inclined to use the Bible as an academic textbook, but as a gift from God to help them keep their eyes fixed on Jesus. Today, when it comes to Christian higher education and systematic theology, Radical Reformers have a lot of catching up to do with our Protestant Reformation brothers and sisters.

As we covered in the previous post, today when many Evangelicals find out that Anabaptists don’t tend to use the word “inerrant” to refer to Scripture, they may assume we must be theological liberals (where “liberal” is one of the worst things you can say about a fellow Christian). In their minds, there are only two camps: 1) theological conservatives who uphold the inerrancy of Scripture, and 2) theological liberals who demean Christian Scripture in order to import progressive (i.e., worldly) ideas into the Christian faith apart from biblical support. For many Protestants, it never occurs to them that there might be a third option: a group of deeply committed Christians who hold the Bible in very high regard as God’s inspired gift to the Church, but who also hold Jesus in even higher regard than Scripture and who use their language intentionally to reflects this.

Notice: in religious debates like this one, the majority usually sets the rules of engagement. So when it comes to discussions about the Bible, if Anabaptists want to be understood by other Christians, we have to become theologically bi-lingual. We don’t talk about biblical “inerrancy”, positively or negatively. It isn’t our language. But this IS the language of the Evangelical world around us that we want to have healthy fellowship with. So let me try to unpack my best attempt to describe what is an Anabaptist approach to the doctrine of inerrancy.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states that the Bible is “to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms” and adds that “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching.” Radical Christians can say “amen” to this. What the Bible affirms, what it means to teach, it does so perfectly. As the Statement of Faith for Tyndale Seminary, a local Evangelical seminary where I sometimes teach, says, the Bible is “the authoritative written Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, inerrant in all that it teaches” – a statement I have been happy to align with. It isn’t my primary language as an Anabaptist, but neither do I object to the idea. For Anabaptists, we are less concerned about the language of inerrancy as we are about using the Bible, Old and New Testaments, to help us see Jesus clearly and follow him faithfully.

I believe God meticulously compiled scripture as an inspired, authoritative guide to conform us to the image of Christ when read prayerfully in community.
~ Randal Rauser (randalrauser.com)

Alright, enough theory. Let’s look at some examples to better understand the differences between how Evangelicals and Anabaptists might approach this topic.

EXAMPLE #1: PAUL FORGETTING

I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)
(1 Corinthians 1:14-16)

Evangelical Commentary: Here God sovereignly inspires his inerrant Word so as to show us how God uses imperfect people to carry out his perfect plan.

Anabaptist Commentary: Here God’s inspired text shows us Paul’s faulty memory. This helps us know that God uses imperfect people to carry out his perfect plan.

EXAMPLE #2: MATTHEW & MARK MISLABELING

Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 
“They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
(Matthew 27:9-10)

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
(Mark 1:2-3)

[Note: Matthew claims to quote Jeremiah, but this quote doesn’t appear anywhere in Jeremiah. Rather it seems to be a combination of a passage in Jeremiah and one in Zachariah. Mark claims to quote Isaiah, but actually quotes Malachi, then goes on to quote Isaiah after Malachi.]

Evangelical Commentary: God’s inerrant Word is revealed through the social convention of its day, and in that day it was common practice to combine quotations and label the combined quote with only the primary prophet’s name. So this is an example of inerrancy, yet within a first-century standard. (That, or a number of other explanations as to why these are not examples of mistakes.)

Anabaptist Commentary: Here Matthew combines Scriptures because he felt the freedom to promote the meaning and message of God’s Word rather than be bound by the precise words of one passage. And Mark makes a simple and understandable mistake. Mark knew he was going to eventually quote Isaiah and forgot to credit Malachi along the way. Big deal. Happens to all of us. We can again see how God’s inspired written revelation bears the evidence of God working precisely through the imprecise styles of human authors in such a way that the main point of the text remains clear and intact.

EXAMPLE #3: PAUL’S SLANDER

One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith.
(Titus 1:12-13)

Evangelical Commentary: Paul is teaching Titus a general truth about people who are lazy and how to respond to them by using a popular quote of his day. And in one theological sense, this quote is true. Apart from Christ, all people are unregenerate and totally depraved, bound over to sin and unable to please God. We are all, in this sense, liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons. The fact Paul points this out in one nationality of people without mentioning how it is also true of all other people is inconsequential.

Anabaptist Commentary: God is teaching us all something perfect through Paul’s far from perfect advice. As Paul says elsewhere, all Scripture is useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), and this passage is no exception. Paul’s morally problematic slip has been providentially included as part of the process by which God teaches, rebukes, corrects, and trains us. (In his book What’s So Confusing About Grace?, Randal Rauser makes this same point with respect to what are known as “the imprecatory psalms” – those psalms that vent anger and pray for calamity and pronounce curses on enemies.) God is showing us a picture of his own strength and the writer’s weakness in the same verses. So, while we should rebuke laziness and lying, we should not get caught up in culturally popular racist judgments about particular groups of people being lazy liars without exception. Paul is also caught up in a logical paradox: he quotes and affirms the truth a Cretan poet (Epimenides) who say that Cretans are ALWAYS liars. If Cretans are ALWAYS liars, then the Cretan statement that Cretans are always liars is itself a lie. But Paul not only quotes this Cretan, he says this statement is true. Perhaps Paul is being intentionally cheeky. Perhaps he is having a bad day. Either way, God is showing us through this inspired text that God uses imperfect leaders to point to his perfect gospel: a gospel that opens the doors to a new world where, as Paul tells us elsewhere:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
(Galatians 3:28)

WRAPPING UP

As an Anabaptist, I care less about converting a fellow Christian away from the doctrine of inerrancy than I care about all Christians holding up Christ as the centre of Scripture and Lord of our lives. If that’s where you’re at – Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox or Anabaptist – then Jesus makes us family. Whether you end up sounding more like an Evangelical or an Anabaptist, either way, neither approach is officially “orthodox” and the other “heretical”. They are different ways that different groups of God-honouring, Bible-loving, Jesus-following Christians talk about the Bible.

It’s true, the Protestants used to burn the Radicals for being heretics and false teachers, and the Radicals assumed Protestants must be wolves in sheep’s clothing for departing so far from the nonviolent, enemy-loving, peace-making way of Jesus. Today I hope that both groups have matured, in faith, in love, and in a wholehearted willingness to fight for unity, despite our disagreements. In the end, if the cross of Christ is powerful enough to bring Jews and Gentiles together into one new body of believers (Ephesians 2:14-16), surely it can bring together Evangelicals and Anabaptists as family on mission together.

Anabaptists and Evangelicals (and other Christians) may disagree about how we talk about the Bible, but if we listen closely to each other, look past the rhetoric, and try not to kill each other, we’ll see brothers and sisters with a similar heart to honour God’s Word.

Peace,

 

NEXT POST – READ PART 3…
Radical Christians & the Word of God (part 3 of 3): Application

PS: Don’t forget to sign up for email updates!

 

read more
AnabaptismBibleJesusTheology

radical christians & the word of god (part 1 of 3): authority

Bible gun

We believe in the authoritative, inerrant, infallible Word of God – and his name is Jesus.

This is the first of three blog posts on the authority, inerrancy, and application of the Word of God from an Anabaptist Christian perspective. Anabaptism is a 500 year old movement that primarily formed on the heels of the Protestant Reformation, and became known as the Radical Reformation. “Radical” is a good word to describe Anabaptists, since it comes from the Latin, radix, which means “root”. The Radical Reformers were and still are about getting Christians back to our roots as Jesus followers. If the Protestant Reformation was about getting Christians to rally around the Bible, the Radical Reformation was a further call for Christians to rally around the Jesus they read about in the Bible. (For more on the Radical Reformation, see our teaching series here.)

When Radicals (or, Anabaptists) hear or use the phrase “the Word of God”, we tend to think of three things in descending order:

  1. Jesus
  2. The message of God contained in the Bible
  3. The Bible

When Reformers (or, Protestants) hear or use the phrase “the Word of God”, they typically think of similar things as Radicals, but in reverse order:

  1. The Bible
  2. The message of God contained in the Bible
  3. Jesus

Ever since the 16th century, when the Protestant Reformers and Radical Reformers were differentiating from one another as alternative Christian expressions, this simple shift in emphasis showed itself to have significant, real world ramifications.

One critique that Radicals sometimes make of Reformers is that Protestants tend to talk about the Bible in ways that Christians should really talk about Jesus. Many Protestant Christians say things like “We follow the Bible”, or will talk about the “authority of the Bible”, or say that Scripture is “inerrant”. As a Radical Christian, these are things I would tend to say about Jesus first and foremost. I follow Jesus. Jesus holds all authority. And Jesus is the perfect one, without error.

Most Anabaptists combined a tremendous love for Scripture with a refusal to place it above or even alongside Christ as the Word of God.
~ Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition

Sometimes when Protestants find out that Anabaptists don’t tend to use the word “inerrant” to refer to Scripture, they assume we must be theological liberals (where “liberal” is one of the worst things you can say about a fellow Christian). In their minds, there are only two camps: 1) theological conservatives who uphold the inerrancy of Scripture, and 2) theological liberals who demean Christian Scripture in order to import progressive (i.e., worldly) ideas into the Christian faith apart from biblical support. For many Protestants, it never occurs to them that there might be a third option: a group of deeply committed Christians who hold the Bible in very high regard as God’s inspired gift to the Church, but who also hold Jesus in even higher regard than Scripture and who use their language intentionally to reflect this. Maybe you’ve been part of this way of thinking. If so, I can relate.

This was me when I first heard about the Anabaptist denomination I am now a part of – Be In Christ Canada (formerly, the Brethren In Christ). I was an Evangelical with Reformed/Calvinist theology at the time I heard about the BIC. As a Baptist pastor, I had been slowly questioning some basic Evangelical assumptions, especially the role Jesus should play in how we interpret, understand, and apply everything in the Bible. It seemed to me that a Jesus-centred reading of Scripture should lead Christ-followers to fully embrace, among other things, the nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. So when the leadership of the BIC invited me to dialogue with them, I was excited to learn about this 200 year old denomination, and to know that it was part of a 500 year old movement of Christians who prioritized precisely that – the nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. But even though I was thrilled with what might become my new denominational home, as a transitioning Evangelical I remember being suspicious when I couldn’t find the word “inerrant” in the BIC’s statement of faith. “I knew they were too good to be true!” I remember thinking to myself. Inerrancy, I had been taught, was the litmus test of orthodoxy. Look for a clear and bold proclamation of the inerrancy of Scripture and you can be more assured that a church was preaching the true gospel. Today I’m so glad I didn’t run away from the issue or suppress my questions, but leaned into Scripture and the ongoing conversation around Scripture with my new Anabaptist family.

I learned that Radical Christians were far from theological liberals, but in fact the early Anabaptists would have considered the Protestants to be the liberal side of the divide, because they dismissed, disregarded, or otherwise excused themselves from following the most obvious aspects of Jesus’ teaching and example. Protestants were just as violent as Catholics at the time of the Protestant Reformation and the Radical Reformation, and they rationalized their violence by appealing to the Bible! Repeatedly, Protestants found biblical justification for violence which they used to overrule the clear nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus.

Anabaptists, on the other hand, had been willing to die at the hands of fellow Christians for generations because they refused to bear the sword in self defense or national defense. Their kingdom was the Kingdom of God, the war they waged was not against flesh and blood, but against a spiritual enemy (Ephesians 6:12), and their only king was King Jesus. Anabaptists believed that Jesus was God’s ultimate self-disclosure (John 1:18) and that all of Scripture should be relentlessly interpreted through the Jesus lens.  I realized that, whether or not I would come to agree with Anabaptist theology on every issue, mistaking them as theological liberals would be insulting to this branch of the Christian family tree.


Well, that’s my introduction. (Thanks for making it this far!) Now let’s talk now about the issue of AUTHORITY…


 

Anabaptists have a high regard for the Scriptures and an even higher regard for Jesus. Jesus, even more than the Bible, is our final authority.
~ Palmer Becker, Anabaptist Essentials

Anabaptists (Radical Reformers) read the Bible, study the Bible, memorize and meditate on the Bible. And yet, we don’t think in terms of following the Bible – we follow Jesus.  Why do I think this distinction matters? Because I want to align my language with Jesus, as recorded in the Bible. Let’s flesh this out a bit more in three ways…

Firstly, Jesus-following is our identity as disciples of Christ. We are Christ-ians, not Bible-ians (Acts 11:26). This aligns with what Jesus himself said – “follow me” (Matthew 4:19). It seems to me that this should be Christianity 101 and not at all a controversial idea.

Come to ME, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take MY yoke upon you and learn from ME, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For MY yoke is easy and MY burden is light.
~ Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30)

Secondly, Jesus said clearly, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). He then went on to base his Great Commission to his disciples on this one tremendous truth, when he said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). Jesus then goes on to say that the process of making disciples includes “teaching them to obey everything *I* have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). This doesn’t mean we just read the red letters of the Bible, but it does mean we read the entire Bible differently, as a pointer to Jesus, the one who holds all authority over our lives. Radical Christians believe that, as disciples of Jesus, our central commitment is to learn from JESUS as his apprentices. And, catch this, what we learn about Jesus from the Bible should inform how we read everything else in the Bible.

Thirdly, in the Bible we see examples of Jesus taking authority over the Bible. Consider the six-antitheses in Matthew 5 (where Jesus six times uses the pattern of “You have heard it said… but I tell you…”). Also notice the reaction of the crowd at the end of the Sermon on the Mount – that Jesus taught with authority, unlike other religious readers (Matthew 7:29; also see Mark 1:22, 27; Luke 4:32, 36). Or consider Jesus’ statement that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24), which he does apart from the sacrificial system mandated in the Bible. Or consider Jesus’ authority to singlehandedly reverse the dietary laws of Moses in Mark 7:19. Or consider Jesus overruling Moses’ teaching on divorce and remarriage in his discussion with the religious leaders in Matthew 19:8-9. Or consider Jesus’ self-alignment with the authority of God who lives above the law in John 5, rather than see himself as merely a man who must submit to and live under the authority of the law.

So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. … And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. (John 5:16-18, 27)

Later in this same chapter, Jesus challenges the religious leaders who loved and learned and studied and memorized and followed the Bible…

And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37-40)

This is serious. Jesus says it is possible to follow the Bible, love the Bible, study the Bible – and never hear the voice of God. Furthermore, it is possible to memorize and meditate on the Bible, and never have God’s “word dwell in you”. Let this sink in. Unless we use the Bible as a pointer to Jesus, and then come to JESUS for our life, we are misusing the Bible.

As a Christ-follower, when I open my Bible I don’t ask “God, what are you saying to me through the Bible?”, but “God, what are you saying to me through Jesus in the Bible?” This simple distinction means that I read everything from Genesis to Revelation differently.

A PROTESTANT OBJECTION…

It’s worth pointing out that those who identify as Protestant are not monolithic on this issue. For instance, on the issue of biblical authority, NT Wright sounds as Anabaptist as he does Anglican. Still, some Protestants object: “Wait a minute! You Radicals are using the Bible to establish the authority of Jesus! Doesn’t that mean you treat the Bible as authoritative?”  Now let me be as clear as I can. In the category of written documents, the Bible is uniquely and absolutely authoritative (as our BIC statement of faith asserts). But remember, as Christians, no written document is our absolute authority – Jesus is! Because the Bible is uniquely breathed out by God we trust it and use it, as Paul recommends in 2 Timothy 3:16. So yes, as far as written documents go, the Bible is authoritative – as far as written documents go. But we have a relationship with more than a written document. No written document, including the Bible itself, created the heavens and the earth and entered into our human condition and lived the perfect life and died the loving death that brought us salvation, and rose again as Lord of our lives. The Bible says, “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9).

The Bible does not give us Jesus; Jesus gives us the Bible; and the Bible then points us directly to Jesus. The Bible is not a Christian’s ultimate authority, but our penultimate authority, pointing to Jesus as our ultimate authority.

The Bible is to us what the star was to the wise men.
~ Thomas Adams

This relationship between Jesus and the Bible is similar to the relationship between Jesus and the star that led the magi to Jesus. Or, to use another analogy, the relationship between Jesus and the Bible is similar to the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he pointed and cried out…

Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ (John 1:29-30)

John didn’t give us Jesus; Jesus gave us John, and then John pointed people to Jesus. Again we read…

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. (John 1:35-37)

Because John’s disciples listened to him and followed Jesus, this doesn’t mean they saw John’s authority as absolute. They simply trusted John enough to listen to his insight and turn to follow Jesus as their absolute authority. Because they trusted John, they submitted to Jesus. And that’s what we do every time we read the Bible and follow Jesus.

When John the Baptist told his disciples to follow Jesus, no one played the word game of saying, “But if we listen to John’s word and we follow Jesus, aren’t we just following John? Doesn’t that mean John has equal authority to Jesus if we’re listening to his instruction to follow Jesus’ authority? So let’s just say we are equally followers of Jesus AND followers of John.” No. Please no. This is silly. Because they listened to John and trusted John and believed what John said, they followed Jesus as the authority of their lives. And yet today many Protestants make the same objection. When Radical Christians say, “Jesus is our sole authority” some Christians respond, “But you only know about Jesus from the Bible! So the Bible must equally be your authority!” No. We trust the Bible, like John’s disciples trusted him, and we do what the Bible instructs us to do – submit to the authority of Jesus.

SO WHAT?

So why is this way of thinking important? Is it all just word games and academic exercise? I wish it were. I love word puzzles, and academic exercise is the only kind of exercise I like. But this discussion is more important than that. History has shown us that when a group of Christians champion the idea of the “authority of Scripture” as did the Protestant Reformers, they get no closer to following Jesus on some very important issues, like the issue of the nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. During the 16th Century, we might explain Catholic violence by appealing to the influence of the Pope, who represented (or should I say, misrepresented) the authority of Christ in the Church. The Protestants, however, rejected Papal authority and clung to sola scriptura, meaning “Scripture alone”. This is a real world case study. With the Pope’s influence out of the way and with Scripture as their sole authority, what became of Protestants? More unity? No, more division (there are now thousands of different Protestant denominations). More Christ-like enemy love? No, more violence (wars, witch-hunts, and heretic burnings were not abandoned by Protestants). The Protestant Reformers missed such central teaching of Jesus because they balanced it with every other teaching in the Bible as a way of maintaining their commitment to “the authority of Scripture”.

I recently heard a well known Protestant Christian pastor preach on the Sermon on the Mount. He expounded on the radical nonviolent, enemy loving, peace making way of Jesus. I was impressed. Then he made this maneuver – he said, “Now, we know this isn’t an absolute mandate for all Christians at all times, since we can see that God gave very different instructions to his people through Moses and David and other Old Testament saints.” Then he went on to talk about Old Testament examples of violence as justification for Christian participation in violence today. Why was this pastor trying to balance the teaching of Jesus with other teaching in the Bible? Because he was following the Bible, rather than allowing every teaching of the Bible to point him to Jesus. And today, if Christians are to truly repent of our religious violence, our national violence, and our verbal and attitudinal violence, we will need to go beyond just following the Bible and zero in on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

Dear Christians, we are not “People of the Book”. This phrase is an Islamic designation of Christians and we are not constrained to adopt a Muslim misunderstanding as our identity. No, we are not “People of the Book” as much as we are “People of the Person”. We are not (or at least, should not be) a bookish faith, lived out primarily by reading. This approach to spirituality favours the academically and economically privileged around the world and throughout history. Yes, “to whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48), and so those of us who can read and can afford our own Bibles should make much of that privilege. And while we read the Bible, may it always lead us to Jesus, the living, active, and authoritative Word of God.

Maybe you are or aren’t Anabaptist, but maybe you are “Anabaptish” – a growing Radical Christian who sees Jesus at the centre of it all. If so, I would love to hear from you. Comment away!

Peace,

 

 

 

NEXT POST – READ PART 2…
Radical Christians & the Word of God (part 2 of 3): Inerrancy

read more
Bible

a handmaid’s tale

woman-at-the-well-watanabe-slider

Why is humankind in such a mess?

A common Christian theory goes something like this: When Eve was tempted by the serpent, Adam stayed passive and listened to his wife rather than take charge of the situation. The lesson? When men don’t lead, in the home and in the church, God’s people suffer.

I think this approach to the story of Genesis 3 is, well, rubbish. So I was disappointed to come across this argument again recently when researching the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael in Genesis 16. Remember the story? Here’s a refresher…

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. (Genesis 16:1-4)

Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, the patriarch of the Arab people, a bloodline that does not get along with the bloodline of Isaac, the Jewish people. As some commentators tell the story, here is the beginning of the Middle East crisis: Abraham is passive, listens to his wife, Ishmael is born, and there’s been no peace in the Middle East ever since.

Again, this belongs in the dung pile for a couple of reasons:

First, the birth of Ishmael is not the source of the Middle East crisis – sin is, both then and now. The reason for this discord between Arabs and Jews is not so much found in Genesis 16 as it is in Genesis 3. People are sinners. Sin (Greek, hamartia) means to separate (see page 100-101 in Reunion). Sin is that anti-love, anti-unity, anti-relationship force that corrodes the connections of relationship between individual people and groups of people. Read the story closely and you’ll see it is the way Abraham and Sarah and Hagar all treat each other that is the problem – not the birth of Ishmael. It makes me imagine what history might have been like if Abraham and Sarah and Hagar related to one another in pure love, rather than out of their insecurity and fear.

What if Abraham had chased after his mistress and firstborn son, begged Sarah to forgive his betrayal, and urged Hagar to forgive Sarah’s jealousy, so that they might raise their sons together? Would we be any better at living in peace?
~ Charlotte Gordon

Bottom line: Arabs are not the problem. Jews are not the problem. Sin is the problem, and we all carry the virus.

Secondly (and now we’re back on our main theme for this post), while male passivity is a real issue deserving rebuke, there is no reason to see the solution as male power. We can reject this binary choice and go for what’s behind door #3: the solution is neither male passivity nor male power, but mutual partnership. The antidote to husbands who are passively disengaged is not to rally them into taking charge and asserting their headship in terms of authority, but to invite them into engaged and active partnership with their wives. This is the beautiful ideal of marriage. And this is also a beautiful goal for church leadership.

Back to Genesis 16, here is my favourite part. When Hagar runs away, God pursues her, finds her alone near a well, calls her by name, and blesses her and her as yet unborn son. God reveals himself to Hagar much like Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4. Both in Genesis 16 and John 4, the scene is exceedingly intimate. In fact, God names Ishmael (typically the role of the husband in that culture), which means “God has heard.” Now every time Hagar calls her son’s name, she will be reminded of God’s care and partnership. And in return, Hagar names God with a kind of pet-name just between the two of them, as though he is her partner, her lover, her friend, her husband. She calls him, El Roi, which means, “the God who sees me.” In a world where Hagar was used only as a sexual slave, with no one to be her partner, she knows God has given her love in the form of his focused attention.

The most desired gift of love is not diamonds or roses or chocolate. It’s focused attention.
~ Rick Warren

If you’re feeling alone and unnoticed, spend time with the God of Jesus, who is “the God who sees me.” God cares about the outcasts, the bit players, the disposable “mistakes” in any story. Whether your sense of esteem today is high or low, may it be rooted in and informed by this truth: God wants to be your partner. Take a deep breath, open your eyes, and look for ways to change the world around you together.

Peace,

 

 

 

PS: I recently taught on this passage at The Meeting House – go here to hear it.

read more
X