Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#14)

If I have not made clear by now, I need to emphasize something – these Undeniable Truths are NOT something that I have mastered. I struggle to live out all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, every day or week or month. They are not mountain peaks that I have conquered, but rather signposts to (hopefully) keep me on the straight and narrow path.

So, please do not think that I offer #14 as some kind of “do what I say and what I do” kind of moralism. Rather, #14 in given because I believe we all struggle with the intersection of doctrine and discipleship, of orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxy (right action).

14.  Theology cannot be separated from morality and ethics. Healthy, genuine theology demands action. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy.

I have heard it said that right action can lead to right thinking. I disagree – at least on the level of principle. I do not want to suggest that right behavior can never lead us to right thinking, but in my experience what passes for behavior leading to doctrine is simple eisegesis, the practice of coming to a conclusion and then searching for an acceptable proof text. Let me illustrate:

In a textbook that I was given to read for my doctoral studies, the author used an incident in the life of the seminary in which he was working as proof that behavior can lead to a positive change in doctrine. It seems the faculty of this seminary was confronted with a crisis – young women were demanding to receive the same ordination for ministry as young men. Many women had been taking the courses leading to ordination, but could not be ordained because of denominational practices. It was decided to change the policy and procedures and to ordain the females. A fervent search was then made to justify the decision on the basis of biblical precedent, and, lo and behold! The precedent was discovered after thousands of years of mysteriously being hidden in the bowels of a male dominated, patriarchal church. The author was emphatic that, had it not been for the change in practice, the change in the doctrinal position would never have been made. His point was that orthopraxy (at least, in his mind) can effect a change in orthodoxy.

As I said, I am not going to categorically deny that this can occur, but as the above case study suggests, the change in the doctrinal position had much more to do with political correctness and the financial stability of the seminary than in any guiding of the Holy Spirit. This, in my mind, was as blatant a case of eisegesis, of a decision in search of a proof-text, as I have ever seen or read.

No! Right action, right behavior, faithful discipleship comes as a result of right thinking – of proper doctrine. A change in circumstance might drive us to re-read and re-study Scripture – in fact it should. But we must never change our behavior or re-structure our discipleship and then go rummaging through the crevices of Scripture looking for a piton upon which to hang our conclusions.

I believe my Undeniable Truth #14 can be beautifully illustrated by the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Early in his youth he was as nationalistic a German as a young boy coming to age during World War I could have been. In his early sermons he clearly taught that wars could be fought and killing could be justified if one’s nation or family was at risk. Years later, as he witnessed the developing violence of the National Socialists (the Nazis), he realized the gospel taught another truth: no wars should ever be fought and no killing can ever be justified. But Bonhoeffer did not become a pacifist or conscientious objector and then look for a Scriptural blessing. He was driven into his pacifist convictions through a long and painful study of Scripture, primarily the Sermon on the Mount.

[Technical aside here. Much has been made of Bonhoeffer’s compliance with, and some would say promotion of, the attempted murder of Adolf Hitler. At this point in my study, and I believe with adequate justification, I do not believe Bonhoeffer would have attempted a biblical justification of Hitler’s assassination. He would have justified it on the grounds that it was necessary to end the war and to save thousands, if not millions, of lives, but I am not sure he would have done so on a purely theological basis. He wrote frequently enough about the guilt that the conspirators were acquiring to convince me that he would have confessed that the assassins (and conspirators) were clearly guilty of murder, but that God’s grace was sufficient to cover their guilt, and the value of saving innocent lives was worth the death of one “tyrannical despiser of humanity.”]

Right doctrine, without faithful discipleship, is meaningless. We can have all the “i”s dotted and all the “t”s crossed and all the jots and tittles in their right places, but if all those teachings do not result in changed lives, what good do they do?

I think we need to spend more time thinking about the eternal consequences of passages such as Isaiah 58:1-1-8, Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13 (and 12:7), Matthew 23:23-24, and James 1:27 (among many others).

Let us not be guilty of becoming theologically perfect, and practically useless.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#s 12 and 13)

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection, numbers 12 and 13, probably came from a time when I was really struggling to express how the two biblical concepts of grace and faithful response to that grace relate to each another. This relationship has posed problems for the church from its very earliest days, and I do not consider my feeble attempts at dissecting it to be the last word in the discussion. However, phrasing it the way I have has helped me understand the correlation of the two subjects. Hopefully it will help you . . . and if not maybe it will spur your thinking to create an understanding that is first of all biblical, and applicable as well.

12.  Grace always precedes covenant. This is illustrated by the covenants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Likewise, covenant always follows grace.
13.  The practical work that flows from theology, then, must follow this pattern. We are drawn to God by his grace, but in order to thrive in a relationship with God we must be bound by God’s covenant.

The theological problem, and therefore the practical problem, that arises from this discussion relates to the elevation of either one of these two concepts above the other. For example, most evangelical theologians emphasize grace over faithful response. In fact, some will even go so far as to say that grace eliminates the need for faithful response. The thinking is thus: if God wills you to be saved, and if God’s will cannot be defeated, and if God’s grace is efficacious (and who would argue otherwise?), then you will be saved and nothing you do or do not do will change that verdict. This is Calvinism in the extreme, and is increasingly being promoted by a young and vociferous cadre of Calvinist theologians.

On the other end of the continuum are the radical Arminians, those who believe that Christians have to put a chair on top of a table, and then put a ladder on top of the chair, and then we have to climb to the top rung of the ladder, and then we have to stretch out our hand to God, and then, and only then, will he condescend to reach down and offer his grace. They do not deny grace, but grace is only extended when man has bathed himself in the sweat of climbing Jacob’s ladder.

I opine that both extremes are equally wrong, and pernicious. I believe that while grace is prior to a faithful response, it in no way precludes the necessity of a faithful response.

Without listing numerous passages (I have listed examples of grace preceding covenant, and covenant following grace above), I believe the consistent message of Scripture is that God always bestows his grace on mankind first, but that grace always contains an element of covenant, whether is it explicitly stated or not. The explicit covenants are numerous enough. God blesses first; but God always expects a faithful response.

Where “the rubber meets the road” for many people is the debate over the importance of baptism. I believe I can say with some measure of confidence that the prevailing attitude among evangelical writers and preachers is that individuals are saved when they “believe” or “accept Jesus in their hearts as their personal savior.” Some would ascribe the repetition of the “sinner’s prayer,” but even that is not a universal stipulation. Baptism, then, might be an appropriate response to one’s salvation, but is by no means necessary, and is believed by many to be a “mere” human work that does nothing other than signify the person’s willingness to become a member of a church.

Biblically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth! Baptism is NOT a human work. Baptism is always (and I repeat always) referred to as a passive act in the New Testament. Baptism is a submission to a command, that is true, but it is far more – it is a submission to a person, it is a submission to God’s act of grace demonstrated by Jesus’s death on the cross. We submit to baptism, we do not baptize (or save!) ourselves!

God’s grace is that Jesus died for our sins. God’s covenant with the believer begins with his or her submission to that death in the waters of baptism.

If you do not enter the covenant, how can you be covered by the grace?

We do not put a chair on the table, and a ladder on the chair, and reach up helplessly hoping God will somehow take notice of us. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8, if you are curious), but the same author stressed that the only way we can come into contact with that grace is by participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through the waters of baptism (Romans 6:1-11, if you are curious).

Let us put aside Calvin and Arminius and focus on the Bible. So much rancor and division could be ended if we could all agree to ascend – by bowing lower.

Formal or Dynamic; Word-for-Word or Thought-for-Thought?

Sorry for the egg-head stuff here. This post is the result of a rabbit that I was chasing while preparing my sermon for last week. In a recent post explaining my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection (#9) I discussed two major translation theories, formal (or literal) and dynamic (or thought-for-thought). This post is an interesting (at least to me) example of the significance of these two theories.

Our test passages are Acts 9:7 and 22:9. These verses are embedded in the accounts of Saul of Tarsus’s conversion. The first is told in the third person by Luke, the second is Saul’s (now Paul’s) first, first-hand recounting of that event (Paul would repeat the story again in chapter 26). Reading the two verses in the Revised Standard Version, one is struck with an immediate contradiction: in Acts 9:7 the traveling companions of Saul hear the voice that was speaking to Saul; and in Acts 22:9 they do not hear the voice.

Now, if you do not know Greek, but you have an idea about what might be happening, you might think two different words are being used for the English word, “hear.” Nice try, but no, its not true. In 9:7 the companions hear (from the word we get our English acoustics) the voice (from the word we get our English phonetics); in 22:9 they do not hear the voice. So, being the translation nerd that I am, I set off to see how other translations handled the two statements.

I checked a baker’s dozen translations. In 9:7 every single one had some form of the word “hear,” either as a verb or as a participle. Where it got interesting was in the translation of the same word in 22:9. Here is how they broke down:

Some form of the verb “hear” – King James Version, New King James Version, Revised Standard Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible, Common English Bible, The Message, and the American Standard Version. I have to admit, seeing the CEB and The Message in this column really surprised me. I really did not expect them to use the word “hear.”

The word “understand” or equivalent – English Standard Version, New International Version (1984 edition), Gods Word Bible, the NET Bible, and the New Living Translation. Those I sort of predicted. However, the one that really surprised me in this column – the New American Standard Bible! That’s right – one translation that claims to be among the most formal, or literal, actually chooses a more dynamic translation word here.

So, there you have it. Out of my 13 different translations, seven kept the same meaning in both verses for the word “hear.” Six had the more common translation for the Greek word in the first occurrence, but in the second verse they realized that if they kept the translation identical, there would be an inherent contradiction with 9:7. That is, you cannot have the companions hearing and not hearing at the same time. That makes either Luke or Paul ignorant of what was going on.

However, one legitimate (although less common) connotation of the word used in both verses is “understand, comprehend.” So, taking the context of the two verses into mind, the translators of the ESV, NASB, NIV, God’s Word, NET, and NLT all realized that the companions heard the words that were spoken to Paul, but they did not understand, or comprehend them. The two passages are not in contradiction – they make perfect sense. Only if you insist on a overly rigid translation principle is there a problem.

[By the way, here is where the preacher in me comes out. I think Paul is making a subtle point here as he speaks to his Jewish adversaries. Just because you hear some words does not mean that you understand them. It takes a willing heart – Jesus called it “ears to hear” – to take the words of Jesus and to accept them. The Jews to whom Paul was speaking in Acts 22 had no doubt heard Jesus and the apostles, but just like his companions on the road to Damascus, were unwilling to comprehend them. They heard, without hearing. End of sermon]

Here is the moral to the story: if you insist on a direct 1:1 translation theory, arguing that “a literal word-for-word” translation is always best, sometimes you can get yourself in a interpretational bog. By accepting that sometimes you need to look past a strict 1:1 equivalency, you can actually create a far better translation, one that conveys the actual sense of a passage.

By the way, as I stated in my earlier post, I really do like the RSV. But, it is not always perfect, and in this situation I do not like that they stayed with the same English word for the Greek word used. Using just the RSV, someone with no understanding of translation theories could, and most probably would, come away with a belief that Acts 9:7 and 22:9 contradict each other. That is unfortunate, and our translators owe us a more carefully nuanced product.