Prayer – Telling God ‘NO’

Okay, so after a brief (and regrettable) foray through the swamps of sport, I return to some theology. Today, a conundrum of sorts. I think I have an answer, but as always I can be wrong, and am open to suggestions.

Here are the facts. On the one hand there are a number of passages in Scripture which indicate that God never changes his mind. This is the concept of “immutability” that is a key component of many Calvinist teachings. God’s will is permanent, unchanging, and eternal. Consider the following (not an exhaustive list!):

  • Numbers 23:19
  • 1 Samuel 15:29
  • Jeremiah 4:28
  • Ezekiel 24:14
  • Malachi 3:6
  • Romans 11:29
  • Titus 1:2
  • James 1:17

What is striking is that such passages are not isolated nor are they infrequent. There is strong evidence to conclude that God never changes his mind.

**Key interruption here – read these passages in different translations. For example, it is fascinating in the Revised Standard family of translations (RSV, NRSV, ESV) that the RSV uses the word “repent,” the NRSV uses the phrase “change his mind” and the ESV uses the totally unhelpful “relent” in a number of these passages.**

All of this would not be a problem if it were not for the following examples where God clearly does change his mind:

  • Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33) negotiates with God, and even though the end result does not match the negotiations, God does agree to spare Sodom if a mere 10 righteous people can be found.
  • Moses twice (Exodus 32:11-14; Numbers 14:11-19) pleads with God to change his mind regarding the destruction of the rebellious Israelites. God changes his mind.
  • Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-7) is told by Isaiah that he will die, and even before Isaiah can leave the courtyard, Hezekiah manages to change God’s mind and have 15 years added to his life.
  • Jonah 3:9 relates that the King of Nineveh believes that it is possible for God to change his mind, and God does, in fact, change his mind.
  • Amos 7:1-6 relates that Amos twice stands in and negotiates on behalf of the Israelites, and twice God changes his mind.

So, which is it – is God immutable, once God has made up his mind is it beyond variation? Or, does God say one thing one day and do something entirely different the next? Can we trust God’s word to be certain?

The solution (if you want to call it that) that I have resolved in my mind is found in two passages of Scripture: Jeremiah 18:7-11, and Ezekiel 18:23-24, 30-32. Here, in these texts, God himself reveals when and why he will change his mind regarding a previous decision: the change in beliefs and behavior of the subjects of his earlier statements. I want to stress that other explanations may exist, and by no means am I suggesting perfect insight here.

The point, as I see it, is that God has an eternal plan that cannot be altered – and that plan is revealed in hundreds, even thousands, of smaller decisions and judgments. Any of those smaller decisions and judgments can be altered based on one criterium – the heart and behavior of people. God does not want any to die – even the sinner! He is willing, and as the above passages demonstrate, in fact does alter some temporary decisions based on the response of the human subjects.

All of this relates to prayer. If we do not believe that God can, and does, change his mind, why pray? If we believe that our lives are controlled by an immutable and unyielding force that was established before the beginning of time, then why waste our time praying to a God who is incapable of acting in this world?

On the other hand, God is not some whimsical “genie in the bottle” that yields to every fantasy that we might have. While he does respond to genuine repentance, we do not control him like some puppet on a string. As one final thought, Josiah was able to postpone the destruction of Jerusalem, but the sins of Manasseh (his grandfather) were just too great for God to ignore. Eventually, Jerusalem was punished.

As always, your thoughts, comments, objections, and donations of large amounts of cash are appreciated.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Disciples and the Lord’s Prayer

(Spoiler alert: due to the amount of material to cover, today’s post will be longer than normal)

Can a disciple pray the Lord’s Prayer (model prayer) as given in Matthew 6 and Luke 11? While I do not ever remember specifically being told I could not pray the prayer, I have heard many sermons and discussions where the conclusion is that at least with one phrase it is inappropriate to do so. That phrase is “Your kingdom come.” Because within the Churches of Christ the kingdom has been associated with the church, and because the church was established on the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30 (or thereabouts), it is no longer necessary to pray for God to establish his kingdom.

This discussion came up again recently. It got me to thinking – where in the New Testament is the kingdom of God specifically connected to the church? Because that claim is so frequently made, I felt intuitively that there must be some manner in which the two are related. I decided to research the matter and find out myself. So I pulled out my Greek concordance and looked up the word for “kingdom.”

All 157 references. I put my project down and decided that someone else should do the heavy lifting. But, after a while I came back to the question. So, I put on a pot of coffee, pulled out my tablet full of yellow sheets of paper, and started reading and jotting notes.

To cut to the chase (for those who do not want to wade through the following) – yes, I believe that a disciple not only can pray the Lord’s Prayer, but actually should pray the Lord’s prayer – including the debated phrase. To defend my conclusion I offer the following three arguments:

(1)  After reading each of the 157 uses of the word “kingdom,” I could not find a single passage that definitively linked the concept of kingdom to the church. What I did discover is that there is not one single concept that covers every use of the word. In fact, I discovered at least 8: this is purely my own classification and you might find more or fewer. To summarize as briefly as possible –

(a) The use in Jesus’s parables (26 occurrences*, including parallels). Here Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like . . . ” I just could not discover where the word “church” could be interchanged without some serious distortion.

(b) The reign, or rule of God (39 occurrences). Included in this group would be passages such as “seek first the kingdom of God” and Jesus’s teaching that his kingdom is not of this world. While it might be argued that the word church could be interchanged in a couple of these references, the use would be strained at best.

(c)  References to a future “inheriting” of the kingdom (38 occurrences). Illustrative here would be the thief’s request, “remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and Paul’s statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom.” These statements just do not make sense if you insert the word “church” instead of kingdom.

(d)  Of special note are the references to the kingdom being “near” or “at hand” or “among you” (31 occurrences). This is how John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles all started their preaching. Jesus taught on several occasions that children already constitute part of the kingdom, and in the beatitudes he used the present tense, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven/God.”**

(e) and (f)  Two very closely related groups are references to the “gospel” or “good news” of the kingdom (7 occurrences), and the proclamation of the kingdom (11 occurrences). To be honest, I had never really noticed the idea of the “gospel” of the kingdom – but by combining these two groups you get a significant number of references to the kingdom as being the subject of the early church’s preaching and teaching. Once again, it strains the meaning of the word if you insert the word “church” here – Jesus did not preach the good news of the church, nor did Paul preach the church. He specifically told the Corinthians he preached only Christ and him crucified.

(g)  There are a number of references (19 by my count) where the word simply refers to a human, or in a couple of references, Satan’s kingdom. These clearly cannot refer to the church.

(h) And, finally, I discovered 8 occurrences in which the word “church” could be interchanged with “kingdom” and the meaning would not be too seriously changed. Significant here would be Jesus teaching that unless one be born of water and Spirit he/she cannot enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3-5), and Paul telling the Colossian disciples that God has called them from darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son (1:13). I did not find any passage that demanded the equivalency, but these at the very least allowed for it.

(2)  Very closely related to the above argument, the fact is the church is just one very small aspect of the kingdom of God. The church is the body of Christ – of that there can be no argument. But, here again, can the body of Christ on earth be described as the entirety of the kingdom of God? And, is every church (congregation) purely under the reign of God? It could be argued that the congregation in Laodicea was outside of the rule of God – they had nothing of which Christ was pleased. He was outside of the church, seeking admission. If you want to argue that the “kingdom” is the invisible, ethereal concept of the “church” then you are changing the limits of the discussion, and I could just as well argue that the entire universe has always been, is now, and will always be the “kingdom” of God. It does no good to argue speculative concepts when we only have flesh and blood congregations by which to measure the fullness of the “kingdom,” if indeed the words are interchangeable.

(3)  While Jesus gave his “model” prayer while he was still alive (and thus before the establishment of the church), the gospel accounts were not written down for three or so decades after the day of Pentecost, therefore the gospel writers were writing to teach their churches what Jesus wanted them to know. Because prayer is such a significant part of the disciples’ life, they recorded Jesus’s words regarding how to pray. And a major part of that prayer was the request that God’s kingdom be established on earth as well as in heaven. If Matthew and Luke deemed it necessary for the Christians in the first century to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom (long after the day of Pentecost) then I see no compelling reason that disciples today cannot pray the same prayer.

So, if it is perfectly acceptable (and in my opinion, expected) for the disciple to pray for the kingdom of God to come, why was it ever suggested that we cannot pray the model prayer? The best answer that I can come up with is the early Restoration Movement leaders’ utter contempt for the Roman Catholic Church. If there was a practice supported by the Roman Church, and that practice did not have a specific “book, chapter, and verse” to support it, then it was attacked ruthlessly by the early Restoration leaders. One practice that was, and still is, central to the worship of the Catholic Church is the recitation of the Lord’s prayer. By casting aspersion against the phrase invoking the coming of the kingdom of God, the early Restoration leaders could eliminate the recitation of the entire prayer (that, and the claim that doing so was using “vain and repetitious words”). I cannot guarantee that is the reason – but it is the only one that makes sense to me. This is especially significant in light of the fact that there is no passage in the New Testament which clearly equates the church and the kingdom.

Can we, and should we, pray the Lord’s model prayer? Absolutely! There is no scriptural reason against it, and every reason to do so. The church has come – to be sure. But, let us pray, and pray fervently, that God’s reign will be manifest throughout this bent and broken world.

*If you add up all these occurrences you will have a number that exceeds 157. That is because many occurrences can fit into more than one category. This is not a scientific study – it is just me trying to get a grasp on a very large and complex subject.

**In Matthew the phrase is almost always “kingdom of heaven.” Matthew accounts for one-third of the references to the kingdom (54 out of 157), and there are only 5 times where he uses the phrase “kingdom of God.” This is usually explained as his Jewish reluctance to use the word “God” for fear of using God’s name inappropriately. For whatever reason, it is obvious that he prefers the word “heaven” to speak of God’s reign and dominion.

The Gordian Knot of Hermeneutics

I have been pondering something so much lately I have a headache. Mind you, my mental capacity could never be described as excessive, and it is dwindling by the year – but still, I have a couple of synapses that are still firing.

My conundrum is this: how can people who hold to virtually the same concept of the inspiration and trustworthiness of Scripture come to such varied, and sometimes even diametrically opposed, interpretations of some passages of that Scripture? I get it that classic liberals and hard-core fundamentalists should be at each others’ throats. But what disturbs me is that I have acquaintances who, at least on a surface level, agree that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God, and they and I are so far apart on some issues that we cannot even worship together.

As Ricky would say to Lucy, “‘Splain me.”

What I have decided is that the problem is not one’s view of inspiration (although, at one level it might certainly be). It is certainly not one’s love for the Bible, or for Jesus, or for his church. The problem, as I see it, is the issue of hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is one of those words for which there are probably as many definitions as there are individuals who use it. For me there is a very simple definition, although some might find it lacking: hermeneutics is the process by which we apply, or interpret, Scripture. It is differentiated from exegesis in that exegesis is the process by which we determine what the passage meant in its original, historic context. Therefore, while some disagreements are narrowly focused on matters of exegesis (meanings of words, aspects of grammar, specific details of historical setting), I am growing more convinced that it is actually the process by which we selectively apply Scripture that is the cause of most problems.

As honestly as I can say it, we are all hermeneutical sinners. We all violate certain hermeneutical principles that we demand others obey. None of us are entirely, perfectly consistent. All of us selectively use or dismiss passages that support or challenge our interpretation. All of us come to the Bible with preconceptions (even believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God is a preconception!) None of us are entirely successful in removing, or bracketing out, those preconceptions. Some are certainly better than others, but the minute you declare perfection you have just violated the principle of approaching the Scripture in humility.

In other words, in the immortal  words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

I reflect on this as I consider an interview conducted with Ken Ham, he of the Noah’s Ark museum and a staunch believer in “young earth” (approximately 6,000 years old) creationism. He said in so many words that if Christians challenge the “literalness” of Genesis, they have no means of supporting their doctrine.

Well, I hate to burst Ken Ham’s bubble, but I am one of the committed believers in the divine and authoritative inspiration of Scripture, and I cannot now, nor will I in the foreseeable future, ever accept the conclusion that the Bible scientifically proves the earth to be not much older than 6,000 years. It may, in absolute fact, only be that old. That is not my main disagreement with Ham. What I object to, in the most emphatic of ways possible, is the proposition that we can use the Bible as some sort of a chronological textbook to ascertain the age of the earth. This number was first arrived at through the prodigious effort of Church of Ireland Archbishop James Ussher (d. 1656), who determined that the earth was created on October 23, 4004 B.C. (I have seen the book which documents Ussher’s work – it is ponderous!) The problem with this, and many other efforts to date the age of the earth, is that you have to depend on genealogical lists that were compiled, not as literal, physical lines of lineage, but for specific political and/or theological reasons. That, and then you have to work with some incredibly difficult comparisons and computations of ancient calendars (which, if I remember correctly, comprises the bulk of Ussher’s work).

For evidence, I offer two genealogies. One, the lineage of Zadok, found in 1 Chronicles 6:1-15 and in a much abbreviated form in 1 Chronicles 9:11, and in Ezra 7:1-5. The genealogy in Ezra has a six generation gap – which is interesting in and of itself, but is even more interesting if it is true that the author of the books of the Chronicles was Ezra himself, as many scholars believe. Now, if you want to argue that the list in 1 Chronicles 6 is the full and complete list, go ahead. But here is the problem: the list in Ezra 7 is just as inspired, and just as authoritative, and just as theologically important for Ezra’s readers as the list in 1 Chronicles was for those original readers, and the two lists are significantly different! You cannot elevate the Chronicles list as being more historically accurate without denigrating the historical accuracy of the Ezra list. Yet, if you accept that both lists are inspired and accurate for the purpose for which the author’s intended, you have just accepted my premise – you cannot use the biblical genealogies as scientifically perfect specimens of biological lineage. (Critical exegetical note here: the word “father” in ancient Semitic languages can mean anything from one’s own specific human father to a grandfather, or even more remote male relative. Here is where exegesis can, and should, inform hermeneutics).

The second genealogy is far better known – that of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. Even a cursory glance reveals significant differences between the two lists. These differences have been summarily dismissed as the result of the Matthean genealogy being that of Joseph, and the Lukan genealogy as being that of Mary. I will wager a year’s salary to anyone who can prove to me from Scripture that Luke intends his genealogy to be through Mary and not Joseph! It cannot be done, and I have tried every which way from Tuesday to do it. The only way you can arrive at that conclusion is to assume it from the beginning – and as I compare the two lists that is just not a valid assumption, for while they have significant differences, they share a remarkable level of agreement.

But, let’s say I am wrong (and that would not be the first, or the last time), so let’s look at Mathew’s genealogy more closely: he has arranged it in three groups of 14. This in itself lends toward a theological, and not purely historical, arrangement. But look even more closely: in the first two sections there are 14 generations, the first beginning with Abraham, the second beginning with Solomon. But the only way you can come up with 14 in the third set is to count Jeconiah twice – once as the last generation in the second section and once as the first generation of the third set. (David is not so counted in the second group). I’m not making this up – you can count for yourself and, besides, it has been documented and discussed thoroughly in critical commentaries. So – are the lists false? Did Matthew not know his history or his theology? NO! and NO! But he did create his “genealogy” with a specific purpose in mind, and if we are going to stand under Scripture instead of standing over Scripture, we must first accept Matthew’s listing as being different from Luke’s, and then proceed to attempt to determine the historical and theological reasons for the discrepancies.

Artificially harmonizing differing accounts in Scripture in order to prove a debatable theory is dishonest. To do so, and then to demand that everyone accept your conclusion, is even more than dishonest. Those who do so to gain a following do great damage to the cause of seeking the truth.

So, how are we going to untie the “Gordian Knot” of hermeneutics? I’m afraid that solution is beyond my limited mental capacity. There is one thing about which I am absolutely convinced, however: no Christian should be afraid of seeking the truth of any matter. God has nothing to fear from human inquiry.

Let us begin with a proper posture before the text, however, and remember we stand under it, not over it!

Luke 22:35-38

In the seemingly never-ending debate over guns and gun ownership and how to curb gun violence, one passage of Scripture keeps showing up. There are some remarkable aspects to this passage, and I have been working for some time on how to properly interpret and apply the passage. I have come to the conclusion that there is one interpretation that I emphatically reject, one interpretation that makes sense on one level, but which I ultimately conclude is not satisfactory, and then I have my own tentative (as much as I can be tentative) interpretation.

To begin, let us put the passage before us:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered wit the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment. And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:35-38, ESV)

Let me begin with the interpretation that I flatly reject. It has been suggested that this passage provides clear support for the concept of arming oneself to the teeth for the purpose of self-protection. I simply cannot accept that interpretation for this passage. I have a number of reasons for making that statement.

  1. This teaching of Jesus is only found in one gospel, and in only one place. I am exceedingly nervous about single-text theology, and anytime anyone wants to build a huge platform on one single text I get suspicious – even if I am leaning toward accepting the conclusion of what is being discussed.
  2. In regard to the above point, when single-text interpretation is necessary, a person must always ask, “Is there (or are there) any text(s) that teach the opposite of what I believe this text is teaching?” In this case I believe there is not just one, but actually a number, of texts that refute the above interpretation. (1) Matthew 5:39, which the ESV translates as “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil…” That phrase is better translated, “Do not resist by evil means*.” Jesus clearly resisted evil people! The apostles resisted evil people, and Christians of all generations have resisted evil people in their world. But Jesus never used the evil tactics of the individuals he was resisting – same with the disciples. Using a sword to defeat a sword would be in clear violation of Matthew 5:39. (2)  Matthew 26:52 – “Those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” If Jesus wanted his disciples to be armed, he certainly prohibited the use of those weapons. (3) John 18:36 – “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.” Swords are weapons to defend worldly kingdoms – either personal or national. Jesus repudiated the idea that his kingdom was this-worldly. So there are actually a number of passages that contradict the interpretation that Jesus was condoning the use of weapons for self-protection.
  3. The book of Acts, the letters of Paul, James, and Peter, and subsequent church history demonstrate the dozens, if not hundreds, of ways in which the disciples of Christ submitted to abuse and even martyrdom rather than defend themselves with offensive weapons.

So, if Jesus was not condoning the use of weapons for self-defense, what was he doing? I now turn to the interpretation that at least on one level makes sense, but on further reflection just does not convince me. That is that Jesus was making sure there was at least one sword among the eleven remaining disciples so that the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 could be fulfilled. After all, isn’t this the interpretation that Jesus himself provided? Well, yes and no.

First, there is no indication anywhere in any of the gospels – especially Luke – that the disciples were included in the arrest or trial of Jesus. How could he be “numbered with the transgressors” if the disciples were not considered to be “transgressors”? Second, consider the context of the saying – it was well after dark on the night of one of the highest feast days of the Jews. Where in the world would any of them be able to “sell his cloak and buy a sword?” But if the saying was meant to be in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12 it would have to be fulfilled that night – Jesus could hardly be considered to be “numbered with the transgressors” if his disciples went out and bought a bunch of swords weeks or even days after his death. And, just to carry that thought one step further – where exactly were they supposed to by such swords? The Romans? Jewish zealots? The local pawn shop? Third, the events of the evening flatly contradict the idea that Jesus was arrested for insurrection. No charge of armed rebellion was brought against Jesus – treason yes (before Pilate), but armed rebellion, no. In fact, the attempt to do so strikes me like that of a Monty Python skit:

Accuser – “This man is an anarchist. His slave chopped off the ear of your servant!”
Chief Priest (examining the ear of his servant) – “He did?”
Accuser – “. . . well, yes, . . . but then this terrorist put it back on .”
Chief Priest – “Thanks a lot!”

It just seems to me that Luke is far too precise an author to make these kinds of factual, and even theological, mistakes. So, while I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus was reminding his disciples of the prophecy of Isaiah 53, I just do not think he was using his disciples as the “transgressors” to which the prophecy referred. So, if not option number two, is there a third choice? I believe there is.

I believe that this exchange between Jesus and his disciples was recorded by Luke to demonstrate (1) Jesus’s acceptance of his immediate fate, and (2) the disciples continued misunderstanding of not only Old Covenant prophecy, but Jesus’s own explicit teaching.

I have already said that I do not believe Jesus was somehow surrendering his disciples to use the weapons of the world to defend themselves. In point of fact, in John 15-16 Jesus makes it clear that when the Holy Spirit would be given to the disciples, they would be better armed and protected than even when he, Jesus, was present with them. I reject the idea that the “transgressors” with whom Jesus was to be numbered were the disciples – I believe that the two thieves/robbers with whom Jesus was crucified fulfilled Isaiah 53. If those two options are removed, and if we grant that Luke was a precise and deliberate author (guided by the Holy Spirit, no less) then we have to explore the idea that what Luke recorded in 22:35-38 was an ironic conversation, one that the disciples utterly, completely, misunderstood.

As one last, but I believe significant, bit of evidence, I suggest that Jesus’s response – “It is enough” has enough biblical background to support this interpretation. Consider Genesis 45:28, Deuteronomy 3:26, 1 Kings 19:4, 1 Chronicles 21:15. In these texts the expression is used as a command to stop the conversation – a point of absurdity had been reached and there was no sense in continuing any further. The disciples response, “Looky here, Jesus, we have two swords!” demonstrated their lack of understanding. Jesus just put a stop to the conversation. It was as if saying, “I give up. I’m not even going to try to explain.”

There are many passages of Scripture that we want to turn to as a “proof text” to defend what we already want to believe. When that occurs we must be extraordinarily careful that we slow down, apply all of our tools of exegesis and hermeneutics, and especially consider if there are other passages that suggest an alternate interpretation. I believe Luke 22:35-38 provides such an example. I freely admit my interpretation may be in error, and so in conclusion I would simply suggest that it is far better in the long run to say, “I do not know” what a passage means, and be absolutely correct, than to defend interpretations that are absolutely wrong.

*I am indebted to Glen Stassen for this insight. See Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, p. 137-138, 186.

Definitions – Theology

In my thought world nothing is as important as theology. In my spiritual family, nothing is as ridiculed and dismissed as theology. Which makes for some interesting self-talk. Some might question why I spend so much time doing something that no one believes is important. In providing an answer I return to my mantra for this series – it is all in how you define – and understand – the meaning of a word.

In the history of the Churches of Christ, no word is as abused as the word theology. Virtually every promoter of the American Restoration Movement dismissed it, and it would be very difficult to find any prominent leader who would embrace it. The first college associated with the Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell’s Bethany College) included a specific clause that prohibited the establishment of a professor of theology. Theology, to many early Restoration leaders, was anathema. Their hatred of the practice, and even of the word, has had lasting influence. In my university training we did not have courses in theology – we took courses in The Religious Teaching of the Old Testament, but nary a word about Old Testament theology.

This dismissal of a perfectly good and useful word is one of the great mistakes of these spiritual giants. I will defend Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Moses Lard, Walter Scott, David Lipscomb, et. al., even when I disagree with them, but in this instance they just made a horrible mistake. The huge irony with their mistake is that they were all – every bloomin’ one of them – exquisite theologians. They wrote, and preached, some of the best theology this world has read and heard.

The fact is that any time God, Jesus, the Bible, or any topic mentioned therein, is under discussion, there is theology. Everyone who says or thinks about God or the Bible is practicing theology. If you say God created the world, you are making a theological statement. If you say that baptism is necessary for salvation you are practicing theology. If you make a comment in Bible class that you believe the book of Revelation describes what happens after the day of judgement, you are making a theological judgment.  You just cannot be a student of the Bible and avoid being a student of theology.

As with so many other disciplines, there are a number of sub-groups within the larger field of theology, and here is where Campbell (and his co-workers) made their big mistake. They were reacting against one sub-set of theology, but they “threw the baby out with the bathwater” as the old saying goes, when they dismissed the entire discipline because of the abuse of one small part of it. Theology in its largest sense is made up of a bewildering number of smaller subjects – just a few of which are:

  • Christology – the study of Jesus.
  • Pneumatology – the study of the Holy Spirit.
  • Eschatology – the study of the “last days.”
  • Ecclesiology – the study of the church.
  • Soteriology – the study of salvation.

To expand the horizon ever further, there is the formal study of Old Testament theology, New Testament theology, Biblical theology, the study of human sin, of grace, of prayer, and even of ethics. In fact, the study of theology is truly extensive. To continue to expand the horizon, each and every one of these smaller segments of theology can be performed on a number of different levels – from the coffee shop table, to the preacher’s study, all the way to the academician’s ivory tower, and a number of stops along the way.

To return to the early leaders of the Restoration Movement – what they were objecting to can be described as dogmatic theology, as opposed to systematic theology. They were all engaged in systematic theology – Campbell and Lipscomb both wrote volumes that could be called systematic theologies. Campbell even called his book The Christian System! So don’t try to argue with me that these leaders were not theologians.

So, what were these pioneers objecting to? While some use the words dogmatic theology and systematic theology synonymously, there is in the most specific usage a significant difference. Dogmatic theology is written for a specific religious group, it is authoritative, and those who are given the power to promote and defend that group are not allowed to stray from it. It is basically creedal in form – “This is what we believe, and if you do not accept this teaching, you cannot be a part of this church.” Thus you have Catholic dogmatic theologians, Lutheran dogmatic theologians, Anglican dogmatic theologians, etc. What Campbell, et.al., recognized was that dogmatic theology is divisive theology. They believed, correctly, I would agree, that the only authoritative word is the Word of God. We might opine on any number of subjects, but we cannot demand that anyone bow their knee to our understanding – only to the inspired Word of God.

Systematic theology, on the other hand, is more general, and does not purport to be authoritative, although it does attempt to be thorough. Systematic theologians say, in effect, “This is what the Bible says about “X” subject, and while I have attempted to be complete, there may be more to be said on this subject.” Campbell, Stone, Lipscomb and many others were consummate systematic theologians. Every preacher who has ever delivered a sermon is a systematic theologian. Every Christian who has ever had a conversation about God, Jesus, the church, sin, salvation, the Holy Spirit, prayer, or the meaning of the parables is a systematic theologian – just in varying degrees of expertise.

Let us be done with our rejection of the word theology. It is a great word, and an even greater discipline. Let us be wary of being dogmatic, but let us never weary of promoting the proper and necessary study of the Word of God.

**For those who are interested, there is a marvelous little book devoted to this subject entitled, Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, published by InterVarsity Press, 1996. It is perhaps one of the finest books introducing theology that I have read. I have some other resources that you might be interested in – if you are curious just comment here and I will provide those titles as well.

Definitions – Scripture

I love words – a gift I gratefully acknowledge that came from my father. If a lover of books can be called a bibliophile, then I am a logophile. I love words for the power that they have, for the humor that many contain, and for the manner in which we use them. I also find it both amusing and frustrating that, especially in religious conversations, we cannot come to a common understanding about what words should mean.

I have previously discussed the word baptism. Today I take my pitchfork to the word scripture to see if I can sift out anything concerning that word. Spoiler alert – not much of a chance. Just like baptism, the meaning of the word scripture is totally in the eye of the beholder, but maybe I can cause us to think more deeply about what we mean when we use the word.

I begin by noting that there are a number of ways in which we differ when we use the word scripture. For some it is a matter of ecclesial, of church, dogmatics. For example, in the Roman Catholic church, many books are considered as part of Scripture that are not included in the Bibles used by Protestants. These books are identified by Roman Catholics as deuterocanonical (added second to the canon) or by Protestants as apocryphal (hidden). Thus, which branch of Christianity you claim to follow can have a bearing on what you consider to be scripture.

There is another manner in which a person can identify scripture, and that is purely utilitarian. In this process one sifts the wheat from the chaff by deciding if the book, or passage, in question actually works in real life. Thus, for an increasing number of egalitarians and feminists, much of what Paul wrote is simply not scripture because it is outdated, patriarchal, and sexist. Great swaths of the Old Testament are removed for the same reason, or because God is pictured as being a warrior, or for his seemingly unquenchable desire for ethnic cleansing. Although it would not be defined in quite so bluntly, this method of identifying scripture can be labeled, “It’s not scripture if I disagree with it.”

Then there is the paring down of the totality of scripture through either ignorance or avoidance. In his category I place many “New Testament” Christians, who avoid much or all of the Old Testament because it is unfamiliar, or because it challenges them too severely (very similar to the utilitarian approach discussed above). Genesis is okay, because there are some really cool stories written therein, but the rest of the Pentateuch (Exodus – Deuteronomy) is verboten – too much law and not enough gospel. Heaven forbid any sermon or class come from the prophets – especially those pesky (and incriminating) minor prophets. So, while they are technically included in the canon of scripture, these books are carefully and intentionally excised in order to preserve a level of safety and comfort.

So, how do you determine Scripture? (and I now return to the practice I believe is proper, that of capitalizing the word when used to refer to the entire and normative Word of God.) In my opinion, we can only stand under Scripture when we confess that there are many teachings within that canon with which we are going to disagree, and therefore we are faced with a decision. We can either allow those passages to be normative, or we will use some other point of reference to decide what is Scripture and what is not. If we use some other point of reference, we are no longer standing under Scripture, but we are standing over it – the as-yet-unidentified point of reference then becomes normative, and Scripture becomes its servant. For some that point of reference is their gender, or their understanding of gender. For some it is their idolatrous understanding of who and what God should be (idol in the sense of something created that is less than God). For some it is their wealth, which has displaced God. For some it is their nationalism, their racism, their philosophy of economics, or any one of a dozen more issues which compete with a person’s view of Scripture.

I will admit I am biased in certain directions. I just do not understand how we can appeal to Paul for his powerful exposition of God’s grace and at the same time utterly dismiss his directives for congregational polity. I do not understand how we can fawn over Jesus’s words of love and forgiveness and blithely reject his commands regarding justice. How can we adoringly quote from 1 Corinthians 13 and just completely disregard Amos?

I will also admit to being imperfect in applying my hermeneutic of Scripture – which is why I am all the more adamant that Scripture remain normative. If I get to decide what is Scripture and what is not, I have, in the immortal words of Pogo, become my own enemy. I will further admit that it is not always easy to determine what is normative for all time and across all cultures, and what was recorded because it was normative (or simply descriptive) of one time and in one culture. I think we can have those conversations, but only if we first agree that the words of the Bible must be their own judge, and not any aspect of our temporally limited understanding of such.

So, just as with baptism, the issue remains clear – as mud. I believe with all my being that there is a way forward – but it can only be successful if we first agree to ascend lower in our search for the meaning of Scripture.

Reading the Bible Through Fresh Eyes

I am experiencing some wonderful things in my Bible reading this year, and as a result I believe I am doing some of the best work of my life in terms of Bible study. If you have seen my daily Bible reading plan, you know that I try to read the Bible through twice every year. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, but this year just seems to be different.

This year I am trying to approach my daily Bible reading through what I have come to call “fresh” eyes. Some people speak of reading the Bible “as if they have never read it before,” but that is really impossible. Our brains just do not work like that. Once we have read something, especially if we have spent any time studying it, our initial conclusions will always affect our subsequent reading. But, I think it is possible to hold those first thoughts and conclusions and still approach the text through eyes that are “fresh” (or perhaps “refreshed” might be the better term.) We do not seek to erase those prior conclusions; rather, we hold them close, but realizing their presence, we read the text again, looking to see if those first (and often powerful) impressions are indeed the most beneficial.

Anyway, this has been a particularly fruitful couple of weeks. I will illustrate with two examples, one from each Testament.

I am teaching the book of Revelation again, so I have been reading and thinking about that great book in preparation for my classes. So, as I was in the book of Genesis for my daily Bible reading I was struck by the phrases in Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31. These verses all speak of the sons of Noah, their sons, and in particular their lands, languages, clans and nations. A light bulb went off in my mind, “Boing!” (My light bulbs go “boing” when they light up). That is remarkably similar to John’s language in the book of Revelation as he speaks of “tribe, language, people and nation” (see 5:9; 7:9; 11:9; 13:7; 10:11; 14:6 and 17:15). I have an idea about why John is using that phraseology, but never mind. Back to Genesis, I immediately thought, “wait, up until the confusion of languages at Babel there was only one human language.” Bingo! Chapter 11 describes the confusion of languages at Babel. You see, the author of Genesis (Moses in my way of thinking) introduces some events, and then backs up to explain in greater detail how, and sometimes why, those events occurred. Now, I have studied Genesis academically and read it dozens of times, yet this year for some reason this passage jumped out at me (a lot of it had to do with my preparation for the book of Revelation, I admit).

Could it be, in fact is it not highly probable, that Moses does exactly the same thing with the creation narrative in chapters 1 and 2? Even a cursory reading shows some differences in the two accounts. I know many try to “harmonize” the two chapters, but to me that seems to be Scripture twisting in the worst possible way. Why not allow Moses’s style to lead us to accept the two chapters as different, but equally instructive, ways to understand God’s creation? Why do we have to make them the same?

Hence, I turn to the New Testament. On Sunday nights I am teaching the gospel of John. This past week we studied chapter 12. John says that “six days before the Passover” Jesus went to Bethany where a feast was provided, and Mary anointed his feet with a costly perfume. A quick check of Matthew and Mark, however, reveals that this same event took place two days before the Passover, and that the unnamed woman anoints his head. (Matthew 26:1-13; Mark 14:1-9). Now, there are some ways to attempt to “harmonize” the accounts. You could say that John is reporting that Jesus went to Bethany six days before the Passover, but is not specifically saying the feast took place six days before the Passover. That works until you get to v. 12, when John describes the triumphal entry on “the next day.” If you use Matthew’s and Mark’s chronology, that would place the “triumphal entry” the day before the Passover (unless, of course, you want to argue for more than one “triumphal entry.”) Another attempt to harmonize the accounts is to suggest there were two feasts four days apart, with two women basically doing the same anointing, with the same response by the apostles, and with the same rebuke by Jesus. Possible? Yes; but realistically? Would not the apostles recognize the value of the second anointing and praise the sacrifice?

Or, is John trying to tell us something different using this story? John appears to be using chronological markers (days, feasts) in a different way than what we expect chronological markers to be used. Once again, because of my daily Bible reading, I was drawn back to Genesis. What happened on the sixth day of creation? It was on the sixth day that God finished his work. What is the last statement of Jesus on the cross in the gospel of John? “It is finished.” (John 19:30) Jesus rested on the seventh day, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation. Jesus’s resurrection begins a new week, “on the first day of the week” Mary went to the tomb, while it was still dark.

I am not suggesting that this is the only way to read John 12, nor is it necessarily the best way to read John 12. I am suggesting it is a possible way to understand John 12, and one that opens fresh ways to understand the entire gospel (why, for example, John places the cleansing of the temple early in the ministry of Jesus, while the synoptics place it in the final week of Jesus’s life).

You see, if we are desperate to make the gospel accounts “harmonize,” we are faced with a discrepancy – six days or two days before the Passover, anointing the feet or the head. Some differences in parallel passages can be easily harmonized. With others it appears we have to resort to using crow-bars and a can of axle grease to make the separate accounts “agree” with each other.

I have a better solution: let’s let the text speak exactly as the author intended, not as we think the author should have intended based on some other text we find in the Bible. That means occasionally we have to deal with some ambiguity, as there are passages where we cannot crawl into the author’s mind and know for certain what he intended.

As I said, we cannot read the Bible every time “as if we had never read it before.” But we can read it through fresh eyes – eyes open to discover new truths, and to re-discover new light in old truths. We need to read the Bible expectantly, not with the intent to justify our previous conclusions, but to challenge us and to draw us closer to the one who gave it to us in the first place.

What an amazing book – and what an amazing God who gave it to us!