Plug in ‘the Church’ as an experiment

An interesting way to expose the difference between two things is to take out the subject of great quote and replace it with something else to see if it still works.church-300x199

If your replacement X cannot work in place of the initial Y then you are forced to ask ‘why is this the case?’

Let me give you an example:

(The Church) was there to remind the (society) of what it had flouted: art, pleasure, gender, power, sexuality, language, madness, desire, spirituality, the family, the body, the ecosystem, the unconscious, ethnicity, life-style, hegemony. This, on any estimate, was a sizable slice of human existence.

When I find a great quote or list, I try to plug-in ‘the church’ and see if could be true historically.

I would love to be able to say that the church has been about these things:

  • art
  • pleasure
  • gender
  • power
  • sexuality
  • language
  • madness
  • desire
  • spirituality
  • the family
  • the body
  • the ecosystem
  • the unconscious
  • ethnicity
  • life-style
  • hegemony

If that has not been the case, then, I have to ask “why not?” and it is often that search which is telling.

If the church has not, or is not, about promoting those things then what has it represented? It is that search which is illuminating.

What is keeping that sentence from being true of the church?

 

Here is a second set of examples. All of these quotes are from the same chapter:

(The Church) refuses to identify freedom with any institutional arrangement or fixed system of thought. It questions the hidden assumptions and purposes of competing theories and existing forms of practice. It has little use for what is known as ‘perennial philosophy’. (The Church) insists that thought must respond to new problems and the new possibilities for liberation that arise from changing historical circumstances.

I want the above quote to be true! If it is not, then what is keeping it from being so?

 They investigated the ways in which thinking was being reduced to mechanical notions of what is operative and profitable, ethical reflection was tending to vanish and aesthetic enjoyment was becoming more standardized. (The Church) noted with alarm how interpreting modern society was becoming even more difficult. Alienation and reification [turning people into things] were thus analyzed in terms of how they … robbed the world of meaning and purpose, and turned the individual into a cog in the machine.

The above quote is challenging because it is almost possible.

The next one is just for fun.

(The Church) lost its ability to offer an integrated critique of society, conceptualize a meaningful politics, and project new ideas of liberation. Textual exegesis, cultural preoccupations, and metaphysical disputations increasingly turned (the church) into a victim of its own success. The result has been an enduring identity crisis.

Any guesses as to who this was actually referring ?

  • Textual exegesis
  • cultural preoccupations
  • and metaphysical disputations
  • victim of its own success
  • enduring identity crisis

These 3 quotes are from chapter 1 in Critical Theory a very short introduction. The first quote was from Terry Eagleton. After Theory (Kindle Locations 325-327) in reference to Cultural Theory and the traditional Left.

Why am I attracted to both Cultural and Critical Theory? Maybe it is because they are often about the things I desperately wish being a pastor was about …

I find this experiment helpful in attempting to crack assumptions about what the church is and has been.

I will never tire of reminding people that there is a gap between what many think the church is and what the church can be.

 

What do you think? Does the experiment work? Is it helpful? 
Any quotes that you love we could try it with? 

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Christianity Without A Cross?

On this week’s TNT I introduced an interesting thought experiment: take the cross out of the Jesus story and see what you can still do.cross-150x150

This this thought experiment appeals to me for two reasons:

  1. Modern Protestants have overdone it on the cross
  2. The incarnation and resurrection hold far more interest and power

 

I have started to get some great responses to my assertion that one could still come up with over 90% of Christianity without the cross.

I thought it would be good to give it more form here and open it up for conversation.

Keep in mind what I’m saying and what I am not saying:

  • Just because Jesus’ story went the way it did doesn’t mean that it had to go that way.
  • Just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean that they have to stay this way.
  • Jesus’ resurrection could have followed any death – not just the cross.
  • The incarnation is where the old formulation of divine/human or transcendent/imminent are breached or fused.
  • The Christianity that we have was formed in the aftermath of the cross and resurrection … that is not evidence of the cross’ necessity.
  • Had Jesus died some other way, he still would have died once for all.
  • The satisfaction, propitiation, expiation and reconciliation that so many focus on in atonement theories are still there without the cross.
  • The Christianity that would have emerged would have been slightly different but still largely the same.
  • Jesus’ jewishness, the incarnation, resurrection and Pentecost are the 4 things that still anchor the Christian church.
  • The cross really doesn’t play that important of a role – not like the previous 4 – it’s main purpose is decoration on our buildings, necklaces and t-shirts.

Those are some of my thoughts about the variable of the cross.

My final point is not included in the same manner as those above, but to be honest: once the Roman Empire co-opted christianity (the Constantinian Compromise) the cross has mostly been a hood-ornament on the machine of empire. Except for a few places on the periphery and during a few periods of severe oppression and domination … the powerful church has been better, as Tripp says, at building crosses than bearing them.

This point does not prove the thought-experiment, so I don’t want it to distract the conversation, but in the end … I’m not sure how much the cross really does for us.

This is one of the many reasons that I promote being an Incarnational Christian. That is where the power is – incarnation and resurrection!

  • Jesus could have died of sudden-infant-death-syndrome or of old age and still died once for all.
  • Jesus could have been stabbed or beaten to death and it is still the resurrection where God vindicates the victim.

I would go as far as to say what the cross was meant to expose – the scapegoating and victimization mechanism – is still firmly in place and actually still employed by those who sing ‘The wonderful cross’ and ‘on a hill far away’ on Sundays.

 

There ya go! I have tried to make a case with this thought experiment – I would love your feedback, concerns, and questions!

Let’s have some fun with this.

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Z is for Zebra

I was taught to refute evolution. It was a cornerstone to apologetics.Z-Zebra

Zebras and their stripes were a primary example used to refute evolution. If the stripes are for camouflaging a herd of zebras from predators … the first striped offspring would have actually stood out from the heard and thus been an easy target.

This is an example of getting ahead of oneself without fully entering into the school of thought one is trying to combat.
We saw this same problem with Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron’s banana conversation. You can’t simply start with where we are and extrapolate backwards from there.

  • Science has a commitment to the process.
  • Apologetics has a conviction of the conclusions.

We can’t pretend to honestly engage in asking questions if we begin with the assumption of the answers. That will always result in coming out with twisted conclusions.

Admittedly, scientists have been baffled over the zebra’s stripes for a long time. Recently some strong studies has have shown that the stripes are not about camouflaging herds from large predators but about flies. The region where zebras dwell has a breed of flies called tsetse that are legendary in their viciousness. Scientists have historically known that flies have an aversion to landing on striped surfaces. The zebra’s striped pattern acts then as a natural deterrent. This leads to greater health with less blood loss and therefore greater vitality which benefits reproduction – passing on those key genetics to offspring.

It turns out that zebras stripes are not about herds camouflaging from large predators but about individuals deterring small pests. This means that the initial zebra ancestor to have that genetic variation would have benefited and thus that attribute would be more likely to be passed on to the next generation.

So the apologetics argument I learned is flawed and would not refute the point it is intended to.

That is problem #1 with not fully entering into an idea well enough to understand it – there has to be a commitment to the question not just a conviction about the conclusion.
Problem #2 is that much of the suspicion from creationists about evolutionary thought is based on the hard and cold version of survival of the fittest from a century ago. Many don’t know of newer strains of evolutionary thought that incorporate cooperation, mutuality and emergence thought.
Evolution has evolved in the past 30 years but many creation apologists prefer to takes pot-shots at the straw man caricature of darwinian schools of the past.

As we wrap up the ABC’s of Theology series, I wanted to acknowledge that not only has christian belief evolved and adapted over the centuries and encourage you to embrace these historic adjustments. The gospel is itself incarnational and the universe is evolutionary. Those two things go together beautifully. The gospel is good news and is constantly in need to be contextualized to new times and new places. The scriptures are inherently translatable and come into every language and culture. This is one of the unique aspects of the christian religion.

If evolution is true of the universe, christians should have no need to avoid or refute it. We can embrace evolutionary thought wholeheartedly.

Christians should, after all, be people who love truth.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri 

You may also want to check out earlier posts about technology, the Bible and specifically genres within the Bible.

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U is for Universalism (and Ultimate Concern)

I used to joke with people that you had to be careful attending churches that had a ‘U’ in them. United, Universal, Unitarian, Unity, etc. They seemed either to believe in almost everything or in not much of anything. U-Universalism

It was much funnier back then… but there is something to it.
Theological words are much the same. ‘U’ words tend to be big and sweeping in their scope. Much like the ‘I’ words seem to embody a certain period and concern, the ‘U’ words are large and consequential.

We will tackle Universalism first and then look at Ultimate Concern.

Grenz defines it this way – but pay attention to how he does so:

Universalism. Known historically as apokatastasis, the belief that all persons will be saved. Hence universalism involves the affirmation of universal *salvation and the denial of eternal punishment. Universalists believe that ultimately all humans are somehow in union with Christ and that in the fullness of time they will gain release from the penalty of sin and be restored to God. Twentieth-century universalism often rejects the deity of Jesus and explores the “universal” bases of all religions.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1325-1327). Kindle Edition.

Did you see it? By presenting the concept as a historical concept with some biblical precedent, there is put forward some credibility. Then modern versions are handled in one sentence and in a way that rejects the deity of Jesus.
This is not a mistake, nor is it an accident.

Universalism is an old idea. The version that emerged in the 20th century is a different animal. In a globalized context where religions, traditions and world-views bump up against each other everyday,  the conversation changes immensely.

There are really 2 distinct universalisms:

  • Classic christian universalism relates to the belief that salvation is for everyone. A couple of years ago Rob Bell’s Love Wins was accused of being universalist. Karl Rahner’s notion of ‘anonymous christians’ is another expression of this impulse.

If you think that the christian God loves everyone and that ultimately (another U word) God’s work is for everyone and that basically everyone will end up with God, that would be a type of universalism.

  • Contemporary universalism is more about world religions. It is a type of pluralism. Contemporary universalism is concerned with the validity of any – or all – approaches to religion. Many look to figures like John Hick or use the ‘many paths up the same mountain’ analogy.

Contemporary universalism is as different from classic universalism as lighting is from a lighting bug.

Classic universalism is concerned with with work of Christ for every-one [thus Grenz’s concern for Jesus’ divinity]. Contemporary universalism is not about Christ’s effectiveness so much as the inherent validity of traditions and religions.
Both of these notions are beautiful attempts at something grand but are warped deeply by the legacy of colonialism.

I could write (and have written) massive papers on contemporary approaches to universalism – specifically within the context of inter-religious dialogue and postmodern approaches to pluralism.

The globalized world of the 21st century means that religious conversations and convictions are perhaps the most important conversation happening in our lifetime. Unless Jesus’ return is soon, we are going to have to learn to live on this planet together.

Which leads us to another important U word.

Ultimate Concern: The idea arising from Paul Tillich that everyone has something that is of highest importance to him or her. Tillich suggested that persons’ ultimate concern, or “what concerns ultimately,” is their God. In this sense, everyone is inherently religious.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1318-1320). Kindle Edition.

Tillich presented several innovative concepts* that reframe the whole theological enterprise. This notion of Ultimate Concern is the perfect addition to the Classic/Contemporary address of Universalism and Pluralism.

 

Thoughts? Concerns? Questions?

 

Below is a short bibliography of resources I find helpful.
*If I were not in the field of Practical Theology, I would write on Tillich. His notion of correlation and his approach to ‘the ground of being’ fascinate me. If it were not for the linguist turn that happened in continental philosophy after his time, I think that he would have been the most significant theologian of the 20th century. Alas, the world changed.

McLaren’s christian take

Prothero’s innovative non-academic take

famous John Hick

Knitter’s Theologies of Religion

a christian take on multiple versions of ‘salvations’

Catherine Cornille on the impossibility of this whole thing

the best new work on the subject

classic work on Pluralism

the invention of world religions (a must read)

 

 

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7th Inning Stretch for the ABC’s of Theology

I was out of town this week on a youth service trip and want to thank Micky and Callid for taking S and T in our ABC’s of Theology series.A-Atonement

You can also hear Callid and Kristina Keefe-Perry chat about M N and O on a little TNT podcast. I wanted to take this opportunity to clarify a couple of things before we make the turn toward the final series of letters.

  • Respond to questions about the Book of Revelation
  • Flesh out my answer in Micky’s video about Salvation
  • Explain why I went with ‘theopoetics’ instead of other (more famous) T words

I will do this in reverse order. Callid (and a few FB friends) were questioning the selection of ‘theopoetics’ over words like trinity, theosis and theodicy. We covered trinitarian matters in P is for Perichoresis. While I love the Eastern notion of theosis (becoming like God), this series is really focused on concepts that we need to engage going forward in the 21st century.

I am a big fan of theosis and love those who embrace/reclaim this ancient notion. They are often paired with both mystic appreciation and a commitment to spiritual disciplines.

Theodicy (the problem of evil) is a big one. After the events of the 20th Century – specifically WWII – there can be no doubt about the centrality of evil and human nature to any theological consideration.

  • Where is god in all of this?
  • Why is our experience so different than the ancients?
  • Is it technology?
  • It is society?
  • Has the world changed?
  • Has God changed?
  • Has our understanding of God changed?
  • Is the world no longer enchanted?

I try to cover this when I talk about The World Come of Age (Bonhoeffer) or what others call The World Transformed (Hunt) or what Kaufman calls The Nuclear Age.

The simple fact is that the 20th Century – between technology and war – changed the world and radically altered what we call society. The reality of living in the 21st century are very different than they were in the 12th – let alone the 2nd. The questions of the 21st century are not answered by repeating inherited answers or by parroting ancient thought.

Farming, hygiene, reading, telephones, banks, travel (airplanes) …. there are thousands of examples of how different our existence is from those in previous centuries. Even the way was imagine our self (identity) and community (belonging) has changed.

So theodicy is a major issue, but I wanted to add something to our theological tool-belt that will help us going forward. Theopoetics is one of the most important ideas – and one of the most vibrant contemporary conversations – that we can engage in. It impacts everything from how we read Genesis and Revelation to how we approach the ancient creeds and how we conceptualize our god-thoughts and convey ourselves in god-talk. That was the thinking behind selecting theopoetics for T.

 

Salvation:  In S is for Salvation Micky shared her video. I provide the opening response and folks had several questions about it.

What we are talking about in salvation happens at 3 levels:

  1. The Life of the Ages. Jesus talked about it and unfortunately it gets translated into English as ‘eternal life’ which people think happens after death and then have to try and explains how it impacts life here. Some say it starts here and carries on and is intensified after you die. The whole thing is much clearer and more powerful if you call it ‘the life of the ages.’
  2. Reversal-Restoration-Reconcilation from Eden. The story of Eden shows us three fractures – from God, from each other and from the Earth. Salvation is a process of reconnection and participation in right relationship and the community of creation. Shalom is the word. 
  3. The Jewish notion of Tekkun Olam. This is the restoration of all things. NT Wright has a famous version of this bringing all things to right.

Salvation therefore impacts everyone and everything. It is not only about a tiny part of you (your soul) after it leaves your body. It is about your body and the earth that it comes from … and every other body on that earth.

 

Revelation: Folks liked my take on the book of Revelation … but then wanted to know what to do with it. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Enjoy it. Don’t be scared by it. Look into the 2nd century imagery and learn how apocalyptic works as a genre.
  2. Then take that knowledge and examine Jesus’ statements in the Gospels as well as the second half of Daniel.
  3. Mess with your friends who have been sold a Left Behind version of faith with historical perspective.
  4. Give our artists, poets, film-makers and dreamers permission to create political critiques of the 21st century like the author of Revelation did for first two.

Once you are relieved of the notion that Revelation is about the future, you can get down to the series task of examining, critiquing and challenging  the existing structures and systems of our day. Tripp and I chat about this stuff for the last 20 min of this week’s TNT.

Later today the podcast for P Q & R will come out.

___________________
You can catch up on the whole series below:

A is for Atonement

B is for Baptism 

C is for Christology 

ABC Podcast (TNT)

D is for Deconstruction 

E is for Empire 

F is for Fideism 

DEF Podcast (TNT)

G is for Genre

H is the Hermeneutics 

I is for Infallible, Inerrant, Impassible, Immutable 

GHI Podcast (TNT)

J is for Justification

K is for Kenosis (and Kingdom) 

L is for Liberation (and Logos) 

Podcast for J K L (TNT)

M is for Metaphor (and metaphysics)

N is for Neoplatonism

O is for Open & Relational 

Podcast for M N O (TNT)

P is for Perichoresis

Q is for Quest for the Historical Jesus 

R is for Revelation and the Book of Revelation

Podcast for P Q R (TNT)

S is for Salvation

T is for Theopoetics 

U is for Universalism (and Ultimate Concern)

Podcast for S T U (TNT)

V is for Vatican II

W is for the Word of God

X is for X-ray 

Y is for Y2K 

Z is for Zebra 

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P is for Perichoresis

Perichoresis is the most beautiful and elegant picture of the Christian godhead that many Christians may be completly unaware of.P-Perichoresis

The easiest way to break down the word is:

  • Peri – as in perimeter
  • Choresis – as in choreograph (from the Greek word to ‘give away’ or ‘make room’)

It is the dance of the godhead. The picture is of movement and inter-relatedness. It is the constant exchange of moving around the edge – always providing space in the center. The concept is also known as cicumincession or interpenetration.

Circumincession: The theological concept, also referred to as perichoresis, affirming that the divine *essence is shared by each of the three persons of the *Trinity in a manner that avoids blurring the distinctions among them. By extension, this idea suggests that any essential characteristic that belongs to one of the three is shared by the others. Circumincession also affirms that the action of one of the persons of the Trinity is also fully the action of the other two persons.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 254-256). Kindle Edition.

In the gospels God points to Jesus and says “this is son in whom I am well pleased”. Jesus says “I do only that which I see the father doing”. The spirit anoints Jesus and empowers him to point people to God. Jesus leaves and sends/is replaced by the presence of Holy Spirit. This Paraclete leads into all truth and reminds us of what Jesus said (John 14:26).

Admittedly, talk about the Trinity gets complicated quickly. This is why so much contention surrounded the early churches’ councils and creeds. The filioque clause caused a schism between Easter and Western branches of the church in the 11th century.

Modern arguments abound regarding the hierarchy of Father-Son-Spirit. Contemporary conflicts multiply about the gendered language of trinitarian thought and moving toward formulations such as Creator-Redeemer-Comforter.

In fact, the list of early century heresies and modern attempts to revive or reformulate theories about the Trinity can make ones head spin. It takes upper level philosophy and vocabulary to explain how 3 can be 1 or how a monotheistic religion has 3 persons in the godhead. It gets even more complicated when one has to explain exactly what happened on the cross and where exactly ‘god’ was.
It can be done but it is sticky and messy to say the least.

Then there is the whole matter of the ‘economic’ trinity and the ‘ontological’ trinity. That is for another time. Suffice to say that examination and exploration of trinitarian theories are deep.

One sure thing is that we have a beautiful legacy in this perichoretic picture of the inner-life and dance of god from the 3rd century.

 

Artwork for the series provided by Jesse Turri

* another complicated distinction many may not know is that when speaking of the Trinity use of the phrase ‘person’ does not , in any way, conotate the modern/contemporary understudying of personhood. God is not a person in that sense. Theologians use it as a ‘super-category’ – almost like a place holder that they know needs to be defined, clarified and expanded later. 

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O is for Open & Relational

One of the most vibrant developments in Christian theology has happened in the past 50 years. The conversation is diverse and includes everyone from Process friendly Mainliners to Vatican II Catholics, from Emergent types to progressive Evangelicals – and plenty of others.O-OpenRelational

These diverse perspectives come under a canopy called “Open and Relational Theologies”. The name itself is instructive and helpful in this case. Here is the easiest way to think about the name:

  • Open addresses the nature of the future.
  • Relational addresses the nature of power.

The Open crew often hale from more evangelical camps who question the common held belief (in their circles) that the future is determined. Questions of human free will, God’s intervention and nature of certainty when interpreting things like biblical prophecy, salvation, and world history.
The Relational crew is more concerned with assumptions of God’s character and power and thus question common held beliefs about things like omnipotence and intervention. This camp looks at world history and says, ‘We know how God’s activity has been framed and thought of in the past but is that really how the world works?’ Challenges to the other famous ‘O’ words are seriously undertaken: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence.

Both groups have many positive assertions even though they often grow out of a negative critique of established or institutional assumption regarding God’s character and work in the world.

There is much overlap between the two schools and thus they often work together and can be grouped at partners.
There are, however, three significant differences:

  1. Open thinkers often come from an evangelical background and thus are heavily Bible focused. They question the nature of the future and of God’s power but are unwilling to come all the way over to Process thoughts or to convert to a different metaphysic.
  2. Relational folks may be more likely to engage liberal brands of biblical scholarship and to shed antiquated our outdated notions by integrating scientific discoveries and new models (and better explanations) of reality.
  3. Open thinkers also hold that God could be coercive and interventionist, but willing holds back (or relinquished this) in love and for human free-will. Relational thinkers may be more willing to go all the way and say ‘no – this is just not the nature of God or God’s character. It is not that God could if God wanted to … it is simply not the way that things work.’

I came to O&R through Emergence thought. Emergent explanations of science and society make far more sense than former top-down and authoritarian (coercive) models of God and the world.
Emergence thought focus on the inter-related nature of existence and how higher forms of organization emerged from simpler and smaller  elements (or entities) within the organization or eco-system.

Many of the models we have inherited from church history are either based in hierarchy (like King-Caesar thought) or are mechanical (from the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment on). Those mechanistic explanations of God’s power and God’s work become problematic and seem entirely outdated (and unprovable) in a world come of age.

Open & Relational schools of thought provide a much better model of reality (nature) and human experience than antiquated explanations based in the 3-tiered Universe and ancient metaphysics.

Here is a bullet point list of themes from a previous post by Tripp Fuller:

  • God’s primary characteristic is love.
  • Theology involves humble speculation about who God truly is and what God really does.
  • Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.
  • God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others.
  • Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships.
  • God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging.
  • God created all nondivine things.
  • God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling.
  • Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place.
  • The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.
  • God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions.
  • Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time.

You can listen to HBC episode 107 with Thomas J. Oord for more.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri 

 

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I is for Infallible, Inerrant, Impassible and Immutable

Note: all relevant ‘I’ words will be placed in italics.I-Inerrant

It is an unfortunate quirk in the English language that leads negatives – or negations – to begin with the letter ‘I’.

The resulting effect is that some of the most problematic and even disturbing words in the theological tool-shed begin with ‘I’.

  • Infallible
  • Inerrant 
  • Impassible
  • Immutable 

These are just a sample, but are the 4 that we will focus on today.

These four ‘I’ words are just a sample of the kinds of words that lay-people can find both intimidating and infuriating about theology. Some have even lost their faith over these ‘I’ words.

Don’t even get me started on irresistible grace and infralapsarian – two concepts that hard-core Calvinists will bring up.

I say this in all seriousness. There is something about ‘I’ words which exhibit the most intense aspect of the difficulties when delving into theology. Many people point to words like these as an example of exactly why they are not interested in theology.

I have named 6 problematic ‘I’ words so far – but I will offer 2 more (inspiration and incarnation) as examples of ‘keeping it simple’ as an antidote to becoming disillusioned.

Let’s deal with the Bible first and then with God.

We live in a unique time of history where those who claim to believe the Bible the most attempt to place two words not found in scripture upon the Bible:

Inerrancy: The idea that Scripture is completely free from error. It is generally agreed by all theologians who use the term that inerrancy at least refers to the trustworthy and authoritative nature of Scripture as God’s Word, which informs humankind of the need for and the way to *salvation. Some theologians, however, affirm that the Bible is also completely accurate in whatever it teaches about other subjects, such as science and history.

This is admittedly a tough line to hold. The more that one learns about Biblical scholarship or historical criticism the tougher it gets. Inerrancy is an outside idea imposed upon the Bible that the Bible itself and thus has a tough time living up to its claim. It does not, however, mean that the Bible is not trustworthy!! This is my point! One can trust the Biblical narrative without having to elevate it to the level of inerrant.

Infallibility: The characteristic of being incapable of failing to accomplish a predetermined purpose. In Protestant theology infallibility is usually associated with Scripture. The Bible will not fail in its ultimate purpose of revealing God and the way of *salvation to humans. In Roman Catholic theology infallibility is also extended to the teaching of the church (“*magisterium” or “*dogma”) under the authority of the pope as the chief teacher and earthly head of the body of Christ.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 726-731). Kindle Edition.

Infallibility is better than inerrancy. Infallible can simply mean that the Bible will accomplish that which it is meant to accomplish. That seems fair enough on the surface.

Here is my contention: Why do we need to assert that it is guaranteed to accomplish the task? Where does that need for certainty come from?
Why isn’t it enough to say that the Bible is ‘inspired’ and leave it at that?

Inspiration: A term used by many theologians to designate the work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the human authors of the Bible to record what God desired to have written in the Scriptures. Theories explaining how God “superintended” the process of Scripture formation vary from dictation (the human authors wrote as secretaries, recording word for word what God said) to ecstatic writing (the human authors wrote at the peak of their human creativity). Most *evangelical theories of inspiration maintain that the Holy Spirit divinely guided the writing of Scripture, while at the same time allowing elements of the authors’ culture and historical context to come through, at least in matters of style, grammar and choice of words.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 731-736). Kindle Edition.

2 Timothy 3:16 talks about scripture being ‘god breathed’ . I think that should suffice and that attempts to impose external expectations upon the scriptures are futile (impotent?).  Whenever someone wants to talk about the ‘original’ texts, one only has to ask about them to see this folly.

It’s like calling the Bible ‘the Word of God’. The problem is that the New Testament refers to Jesus as the Word of God. Christians rightly refer to the testimony about Jesus as the scriptures. In this sense, they are words about the Word.
The problem starts when we want to upgrade the concept beyond its capability to sustain that we which we are attempting to assert upon it.
I would love if Christians would simply be satisfied with believing that the Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit and not attempt to make a claim on it that it can not sustain.

Now let’s talk about God.

The God that is revealed in Christ is, for the Christian, both informative and formative. It both sets a precedent and provides an interpretive lens.
As with the Bible (above) it is disastrous when we import foreign concepts of God (in this instance from Greek ideals) and impose them upon the revealed nature of Christ seen in the incarnation.

Immutability: The characteristic of not experiencing change or development. Certain understandings of God posit the divine reality as incapable of experiencing change in any way. Some theologians, however, assert that this concept owes more to Greek philosophical influence than to explicit biblical teaching. Many contemporary theologians distinguish between God’s eternally unchanging, faithful character and God’s ability to respond in different ways to changing human beings in their temporal, earthly situation.

Impassibility: The characteristic, usually associated with God, of being unaffected by earthly, temporal circumstances, particularly the experience of suffering and its effects. Many contemporary theologians reject the idea of divine impassibility, suggesting that it reflects Greek philosophical, rather than biblical, concerns. However, the Bible clearly teaches that God cannot be swayed in any way to be unfaithful to what God has promised. Still, it is seemingly impossible to associate pure impassibility with God in light of the fact that Jesus Christ, as the fullest manifestation of God, experienced suffering on the cross.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 704-709). Kindle Edition.

You can see why these concepts are contentious. They are imported from somewhere else and then imposed upon the narrative of Scripture. In my opinion they are incompatible and thus unsustainable.

Our great hope is found in the in-carnate god. We will return to this concept in two days with the letter ‘K’ for kenosis.

I would love to hear your thoughts, concerns, questions and comments.

 

BIG thanks to Jesse Turri for providing the artwork for each letter!

If you are interested you can see the early post about reading the Bible according to Genre or check out the art of Hermeneutics (interoperation).   You may also want to look into the temptation of Fideism.

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F is for Fideism or Why What We Believe Really Matters

Fideism is one of the most alluring, and thus, potentially dangerous developments on the theological landscape in our lifetime.

Fideism: The view that matters of religious and theological truth must be accepted by faith apart from the exercise of reason. In its extreme, fideism suggests that the use of reason is misleading. Less extreme fideists suggest that reason is not so much misleading as it is simply unable to lead to truths about the nature of God and *salvation.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 552-554). Kindle Edition.

Fideism has been around for a long time but it has taken on a new tenacity recently.F-Fideism

The 19th Century was a tough one for ‘reasoned faith’. Those bastions that survived into the 20th Century were not left unaltered. In fact, since WWII the effect of those descended from who Paul Ricoeur dubbed ‘The Master of Suspicion’ – Freud, Nietzsche, Marx … and some add Darwin – has grown and intensified.*

Part of ‘reasoned faith’ is that it had to adjust and modify. It had to account for new data (scientific and sociological) and, more importantly, it had to stop playing by its own rules.

The rules of engagement changed. Faith no longer got a free pass. The ‘church’ was no longer running the uni-versity. Fields like science had grown up since the Copernican revolution was no longer afraid of the church and began to act like the were running the show now.

Modern christianity had to choose whether to

  • Flee
  • Fight
  • or Adjust-Adapt-Evolve

I have written about this as modern christianity’s temptations.

A subtle form of this impulse toward fideism is simply to speak of ‘Non-Overlapping Magisterium”. Science and reason take care of their areas and faith takes care of its area.

Those who take this impulse further retreat into what Wittgenstein would call ‘private language games’. They take on a formal defense of the given-ness of faith say that faith doesn’t have to be reasonable. Those two things are just speaking different languages and that science of reason doesn’t even have the ability to understand what faith is doing. That is why neither can even provide a critique let alone a correction. Religion is thus except from an investigation-integration from outside.

I would argue that what we believe in private has massive implication for how we participate in the public arena.

We can see this battle line in the recent Hobby Lobby decision from the Supreme Court.

Let me give an example from history – courtesy of another ‘F’ word in our pocket dictionary: filioque. A Latin term literally meaning “and the Son,”

The addition of this phrase by the Western (Latin) branch of the church in the in the 6th to the 4th Century creeds – without the permission of the Eastern churches – would eventually lead to the schism of the two groups in the 11th Century.
This schism is notable enough but 500 years later, in what would become colonial missions by western europeans, the issue had real consequences. As both Catholic and Protestant missionaries sailed around the world to convert native populations, the filioque clause would answer a significant question.
Could the Spirit of God be at work ahead of the missionaries arrival? The answer was a resounding ‘no’. The Spirit proceeded not just from the Father (and thus potentially outside of the work of the Son) but ‘from the Son also’. It was believed then that the work of the Spirit followed (proceeded not preceded) the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

There were minority schools (some Jesuits) who disagreed – but they were subsequently reprimanded.

Some may hear about the filioque clause and think “how would we even know who proceeded when? And how exactly are three people ‘one God’ anyway? This is all just speculation and minutia – like angels dancing on the head of the needle!”

Speculation it might be. But both in history and in our present societal unrest what folks believe in private really does impact how that participate in public.

This is why we have to care about fideism. I understand the desire to preserve the past and stake out ones territory for the given-ness of the tradition. It is a way of protecting what is deeply valued and – let’s be honest – in grave danger.

Those who are attracted to fideism look at the evolution of their religion and the disappearance of treasured practices and think “I don’t even recognize this contemporary mutation as the same thing that we inherited from those who came before!”

… and that might be true. But , as I am arguing in the series, we live in a world come of age and The Faith both needs to and is bound to change.
* another way of saying this is to list the fields of psychology, philosophy, sociology, and science.

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From Jesus’ Parables to Parables of God with John Dominic Crossan

That's Elgin & I over 5 years ago! It was his 1st hangout w/ a legendary nerd.

That’s Elgin & I over 5 years ago! It was his 1st hangout w/ a legendary nerd.

John Dominic Crossan is back on the podcast.  Crossan is a legendary New Testament scholar, Jesus Seminar provocateur, and popular lecturer all across the progressive church. We will discuss the last 30 years of historical Jesus research, its role in the academy, the growing audience in the public square, changes in the church and his two most recent books The Power of ParableThe Greatest Prayer.

We recently re-published Crossan’s first visit to the podcast over 5 plus years ago on the new Barrel Aged podcast stream.  Go check out his discussion of God and Empire which remains my favorite book of his.

 

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