The Head and the Heart

So far in 2018 I have been posting a flurry of articles, mostly planned and even a few written in the last weeks of 2017. These posts come from a deepening sense of uneasiness both within myself and with what I see transpiring within the brotherhood of Churches of Christ. As I have said repeatedly, the Churches of Christ are my spiritual home, and extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation). There is just one church of Christ, and I want to be a part of that church.

My uneasiness lies in this: for far too long and for far too many of us (myself included!) the focus has been getting the head stuff right. We argue endlessly over issues which are matters of human reason – can we have separate classes for Bible study, how many cups can be used in distributing the Lord’s Supper, can we have an attached “fellowship hall,” if women can pass the communion trays “side to side” why can’t they pass them “front to back,” can we raise our hands in prayer or during a song, can we use the church treasury to send money to an orphan’s home, can we hire a preacher, youth minister, involvement minister – and if we do, what do we call them. The list goes on and on and on. While I would suggest that the answers to those questions vary in degrees of importance, I will flatly say that Jesus did not die for any of those questions. The fact that any of those questions (among the dozens not given) have divided congregations is a huge blot on our fellowship.

What really terrifies me are the passages in the New Testament that should make us ashamed of our petulance. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20). “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matthew 7:22-23). “Woe to you, scribes and  Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15, all references from the ESV).

I never want to discount the head stuff, the rational part of our faith. But I am only too aware of the trap of becoming so locked into our head that we lose sight of the heart. Maybe that is why I am so drawn to the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In them we see time and time and time again how God disciplines the people of Israel for focusing on getting the rules right and completely missing the point of the rules. Was this not the major point of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees?

The “mystics” and contemplative fathers had a saying, or rather an image, that they used, and which I think has great value. They talked about “descending with the head into the heart.” This is illustrated somewhat clumsily in the posture of kneeling for prayer. While kneeling, and with the head bowed, the head is either parallel to, or sometimes below, the heart. It is not a perfect image – but it is still a powerful one.

That is what this blog is intended to be all about. I am, for better or for worse, a head guy. I’m so right-handed and left-brained it is pathetic. But I believe God has blessed me with some profound gifts, and being left-brained is as much a gift as it is a hindrance, and I want to glorify God by using my logic and my reason.

That being said, I just feel a growing sense of dread that God is looking down at all our reason and logic and rationality and is simply furious. Can we not learn, after 2,000 years, that the church is more valuable, and more important, than whether we have pews or chairs, or whether there is a coffee pot in the classroom, or whether we even have a classroom at all?

Lord, have mercy on us, miserable sinners.

I want the church to ascend higher. I want us to attain the calling to which we have been called. I want the church to be the pure bride of Christ who longs for and prepares the way for his coming. In order to do that, however, we are going to have to learn how to descend – descend in to the heart, descend into humility, descend into submission to God and to one another.

Let us ascend lower.

Christ and the Law [Uncertain Inferences Series]

At the outset here let me make some things absolutely clear:

  1. I know I’m going to be misunderstood. I will try to make myself as clear as I possibly can, but I cannot control those who misread or intentionally distort what I write.
  2. I want to state unequivocally that I believe Christians live under the covenant that Christ established on the cross. In no way do I believe that Christians are bound by the ceremonial regulations of the Mosaic code.
  3. I do, however, firmly believe that Christians are just as bound to obey the moral/ethical commandments as given in the Mosaic code, (explained in part by the 10 Commandments) just as the people living before Moses were bound by those same moral/ethical teachings. (Read, for example, Genesis 26:4-5, and ask yourself what laws and commandments Abraham was expected to obey?)

The point I want to make today is that we can be correct in understanding a biblical concept, and be wrong in applying passages of Scripture to defend those correct conclusions. In other words, we can abuse Scripture by incorrectly appealing to proof-texts to defend perfectly legitimate doctrines. I do not want to teach false doctrines, but just as important, I do not want to teach correct doctrines by falsely appealing to the use of unwarranted Scriptures.

The correct doctrine that I want to point out in this article is the New Testament teaching that the covenant established by Christ has superseded the Sinai covenant described in the books of Exodus-Deuteronomy. In order to defend this doctrine, overly zealous preachers have gone beyond the biblical teaching and have used phrases such as “Christ abolished the Old Testament” or “Christ nailed the 10 Commandments to the cross.” To support their claims reference is frequently made to two passages of Scripture. One passage supports the idea that the cross does indeed invalidate certain aspects of the Mosaic covenant, but in a context that is completely incompatible with the manner in which it is used today. The other passage simply does not support the teaching that Christ has “abolished” law of Moses. A third passage of Scripture flatly rejects the teaching that Jesus abolished the law. Let’s examine these in reverse order.

First, Jesus himself plainly rejects the idea that he came to abolish the law of Moses – Matthew 5:17. Any preacher or teacher who suggests otherwise MUST explain this passage, in context, can be ignored or refuted.

Second, appeal is made to Colossians 2:14, which states (in the King James Version), “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” The “handwriting of ordinances” is usually inferred to be the Old Testament, or the Mosaic law at the very least. But, note, if that was Paul’s intent, he could have used the word “law” here. He did not. He chose a unique expression (used only here in the New Testament) to make clear he was NOT talking about the Mosaic law. Note how more recent translators have worked to translate that phrase:

New Living Translation – “record of charges against us”
NET Bible – “certificate of indebtedness”
Common English Bible – “record of the debt”
God’s Word Translation – “charges brought against us” (by the written laws God had established)
Holman Christian Standard Bible – “certificate of debt with its obligations”
English Standard Version – “record of debt”
The Message (Eugene Peterson) – “old arrest warrant”

It is obvious that these committee translations (Peterson’s work is a paraphrase, not a translation) all want to convey that what Paul is talking about here is not the law of Moses in and of itself. The subject is the debt, or the charges made against us, because of humanity’s inability to obey the law (which the God’s Word translation makes clear through its next explanatory phrase, which is not in the Greek). Part of the difficulty in translating this section is determining the referent to the pronoun “he.” The ESV makes the issue fairly clear by providing God as the subject, but the word “God” is not in the Greek text. To me it makes the most sense, as Jesus did not nail anything to the cross – he was nailed to the cross!

I just do not see any way forward by using this text to argue that Jesus abolished the Old Law, the Old Testament, and certainly not the 10 Commandments.

Third, the passage that does teach that Christ abolished the certain aspects of the law, but which has been taken completely out of its original context to teach something it does not teach, is Ephesians 2:15, “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” In this text we see how a passage which teaches one thing can be wrested out of its context to teach something entirely foreign to the author, and would not have been considered by the original audience.

Read in the immediate context of chapter 2 and the larger context of the Ephesian letter, Paul is refuting the idea that there can be two bodies, two “churches” of Christ. There is no “Jewish” church and “Gentile” church. There is ONE body – and Jews cannot claim superiority and Gentiles cannot thumb their noses at Jewish practices. Through the cross God (and Christ) have “abolished” or “broken down” the barrier, or the dividing wall of hostility that was crystalized in the ceremonial aspects of the law of Moses – Paul elsewhere points to circumcision, certain dietary laws, and specific days of worship.

Paul’s understanding of the law of Moses is multi-faceted.  On the one hand he can say, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good,” (Rom. 7:12); but he also knows that, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). In his letter to the Ephesians Paul is not giving his readers a finely tuned, carefully crafted explication of the old covenant versus the new covenant. He is emphatically telling both Jew and Gentile that neither side can use the law of Moses as a battering ram to bludgeon the opposing side. The cross has nullified the one single barrier that stood as a point of division between Jew and Gentile, and that was the ceremonial, or nationalistic, components of the law of Moses.

So, I return to my opening thoughts. Has the covenant of Christ established on the cross superseded the covenant established on Sinai? Absolutely. Did Jesus “nail” the Old Testament to the cross? No. Are Christians today still bound by the moral/ethical demands of the law? In my opinion, yes. Nowhere in the New Testament are such demands nullified, voided, abolished, or superseded. I believe such moral demands were in place long before Moses ascended Mt. Sinai, and I believe such demands are still in place. If you doubt me, please consider Genesis 26:4-5, as well as Matthew 5:17, and the numerous moral/ethical catalogs given by Paul, Peter, James and John in the New Testament letters.

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (3) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Stated plainly, I do not believe that God teaches we are to forgive people unconditionally. I do not believe God does so, and I do not believe we can justify doing so from the Bible. I wrote in my last post that I believe there is a very selfish reason why we hold so firmly to the idea of “unconditional forgiveness.” We just do not want to be confronted by our own failure, and so in order to excuse our own weakness we simply choose to “forgive” everyone else and defend our actions with a very pious sounding argument.

There is yet another reason why we are so firmly attached to the idea of unconditional forgiveness. We simply do not understand the depth of the consequences of human sin. If we really took the time to reflect on our sinfulness and rebellion, I just do not think that we would be so cavalier in our dismissal of the biblical teachings regarding forgiveness.

Ponder for a moment the God’s reaction to sin in the book of Genesis. Consider Isaiah 64:6, and if need be, research the meaning of “filthy rags” or “polluted garment.” Ask yourself what Paul was trying to communicate in Romans 1. Think about why he warned the Thessalonian Christians about the coming “day of wrath.”

Read Jeremiah 6:14-15, 8:10-12, and Ezekiel 13:1-16. Could it be that when we blithely and sanctimoniously “forgive” we are actually repeating the actions of those whom the prophets so soundly condemn? Are we not coming dangerously close to fulfilling the words of Isaiah 5:20-24?

Why did Jesus have to die if God can, and indeed does, forgive unconditionally? It seems to me that the most obscene injustice this world has ever seen would have been the cross on Golgotha if God simply looks down on our little peccadilloes and wipes the slate clean with a brush of his divine eraser.

Others have written far more eloquently describing this false forgiveness. I offer just one example:

Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. . . The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be set free. Cheap grace is, thus, a denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God. . . Cheap grace means justification of the sin, but not of the sinner. . . Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 43-44.)

I mentioned in my first article that those who believe this myth have not committed some serious theological crime. In one sense maybe that might be true, but in another sense maybe I myself was being too glib, too forgiving. The myth of unconditional forgiveness is itself rather innocuous, but it leads to a denial of the gospel. If we are forgiven unconditionally, then Jesus’s death itself becomes, as I said above, obscene.

Although I am not a psychologist, I also believe there are some serious psychological repercussions when we buy into this myth. When we suggest that we are forgiving unconditionally, we are attempting to perform spiritual gymnastics that only result in the short-circuiting of a process that God had instilled deep within the human soul. We humans are designed for community, for relationship. Our first relationship is with God, and second with other humans. When we expect God to forgive unconditionally we are telling him that our sins do not matter – he just needs to “get on with life” and wipe the slate clean. When we do not expect, or demand, that others acknowledge their sins agains us, we are denying them the opportunity to unburden their soul – to admit their own failure. This is a critical point so often overlooked – we as humans have a very deep need to be able to admit we are wrong, and to be forgiven of that wrong, so that our relationships can be healed. “Unconditional forgiveness” sounds so wonderful, but in reality it actually prevents what it is supposedly designed to do.

So, what do we do in the very real world where many of those who hurt us have no intention of asking for our forgiveness, or who have died and therefore cannot ask for our forgiveness? Can we forgive them?

In a word, no. As I said in a past post – we do have the ability to surrender the will to get even. We do have the ability to pray to God, to surrender our hurt feelings, to not let the sun go down on our anger. I believe in the practice of writing letters to be placed inside caskets letting go of the hurt and anger. I believe in punching pillows or sweating our frustrations out. I also believe very firmly in the ability to pray the imprecatory Psalms – the Psalms that ask God to exact revenge on those of our enemies who refuse our efforts to make peace. But we must remember to allow God to exact that revenge.

This is NOT forgiveness, however, and in no manner, shape, or form should we disguise it as such. Forgiveness is two individuals, or groups, that have be separated by a real disruption of relationship, who come together for the purpose of healing that relationship. The offended party offers peace, the offending party acknowledges guilt and asks for forgiveness. The offended party accepts the apology and extends the forgiveness, and the two parties reaffirm their love and acceptance of each other. This is biblical – from Genesis to Revelation. This is putting the words of Jesus into practice. This is the act of ascending higher by climbing lower. Anything less is just not biblical.

It is a myth.

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (2) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

I would like to move on and discuss the theological aspects of the idea of unconditional forgiveness, but before I do that I want to examine one other critical question – why is the myth of unconditional forgiveness so entrenched in our beliefs? If there is such little (or, in my opinion, zero) scriptural support for the idea, and so much scriptural evidence against the teaching, why is it so tenaciously defended?

In a sentence: because we ourselves are utterly terrified to consider the prospect that we might stand before God as unforgiven sinners. The logic is that if we can impose upon God the concept that forgiveness must be unconditional, then we ourselves do not have to repent, we do not have to change, we do not have to turn from our idolatrous practices and yet we can stand wholly and totally forgiven. Therefore, we create this unbiblical, yet psychologically appealing, model by which we are to “forgive” others whether they ask for it or not, simply to smooth over our rebellious defiance of God’s pleas for a “broken and contrite heart.” (Psalm 51)

For evidence all I have to do is to point out the difference in worship hymns written before the twentieth century and contemporary worship songs composed in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. While there are many older hymns that highlight God’s love and forgiveness, as you scan the majority of these hymns you see another central component – a confession of man’s sinfulness and complete dependence upon the God of love. “Amazing Grace” is meaningless without an acknowledgement that I am a “wretch” that needs saving. The light of God’s grace can only be seen through the reality of a very dark world of sin.

I will also admit that there are phrases in today’s contemporary worship music that use the word “sin,” but the overwhelming majority of songs heard on Christian radio stations (and increasingly used in worship services) only talk about the love of God, about how Jesus is our “lover” or “brother” and how we as Christians can bask in the glow of God’s presence. In short, there is very little “wretch” in these songs. The message these songs give us is, “We’re forgiven, God loves us, get over all that unhealthy guilt stuff.”

But, I say again, we cannot repent of something that does not exist. If we as Christians are forgiven “unconditionally” and without our even asking for forgiveness, then there is simply no reason to pray for forgiveness (as Jesus and the apostles plainly teach us to do) because we dwell in a perpetual state of being unconditionally forgiven.

I know the concept that God might expect, or even demand, conditions before forgiveness can be extended sounds harsh, repressive, and even un-biblical. But as I stated earlier, I think it is because we as Christians in the industrialized, capitalistic, and democratic societies in the West have lost a critical understanding of the meaning of the word “sin.” It is to that subject that we must turn if we are going to ever regain what it means to be truly “forgiven.”

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (1) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Have you heard of “urban myths”? These are the stories and timeless truths that are just simply not true. Pearls of wisdom like, “Don’t go swimming within an hour after eating” would qualify. Some can also be considered conspiracy theories – such as “the astronauts never landed on the moon.” Urban myths never die because in some respects they are believable, and also because for those who believe in them, circular logic dictates that the number of the arguments against the myths is just further proof that they must be true, otherwise so many people would not be arguing against them.

Would you also believe there are theological urban myths? These are statements and opinions that appear to be beyond question as to their correctness, but upon further investigation simply are not true. I want to explore some of these myths – as dangerous as that might be – and in so doing challenge us to read and study the Bible in a healthier manner.

I guess I should say at the outset that if you happen to hold to one of these myths I am not accusing you of some ghastly theological crime. For the most part these myths are not dangerous (although, wrongly applied, they might be). They are just not true, and because they are not true, they are not healthy teachings to hold or to defend. With that caveat understood, let us proceed.

The myth I want to expose over the next few posts is the myth that Christians are commanded to forgive all who injure them, in any manner real or imagined, unconditionally. That is to say a Christian must forgive whether the enemy wants the forgiveness (or can even ask for the forgiveness) or not. It sounds so authentic – so, well, Christian.

The only problem is, its just not true. It’s a myth. A myth with very good intentions, I grant; but it is still a myth.

I could start with some smaller points of evidence and work up to the biggest, but why make you suffer? Here is why unconditional forgiveness is a myth – not even God himself forgives unconditionally. I’ve read the Bible through many times and I can find many, many passages that teach that divine forgiveness is conditional – but I cannot find one single verse that teaches that God forgives outside of some verifiable condition.

We find in the Levitical code that animal sacrifices are the outward evidence of a repentant heart, and that upon their presentation the sinner would be forgiven. We find in the Psalms numerous references to God seeking and accepting a repentant, broken heart. The prophetic books are replete with God pleading for the people of Israel to return to him with broken and penitent hearts, as verified by their actions. The parables of Jesus stress the actions of a penitent heart. The conversion stories in Acts demonstrate how God’s forgiveness follows the actions of a repentant heart. James and John both teach that forgiveness follows upon the confession of sin. It is in the Bible from cover to cover – God seeks for, God yearns for, God pleads for, his people to turn to him so he can forgive them and restore a broken relationship.

But – nowhere from Genesis to Revelation is it ever recorded where God says, “Okay, everyone is forgiven, I’ll just turn my back and ignore the sin that separates me from you. We’re all good now.”

Please understand me – I am not saying that sinners earn God’s grace. As my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #12 clearly states, God’s grace is always primary (first), God’s law follows after that grace. However, our sin violates the relationship we have with God (as sin also violates the relationships between humans), and the Bible teaches that human repentance necessarily precedes the provision of divine forgiveness.

The two passages most frequently referred to as defending the command for unconditional forgiveness – read in context – actually teach the opposite. The first is Matthew 6:9-15, the model prayer. In these verses Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness as we have forgiven others. The usual  interpretation is that forgiveness must be unconditional. Hence, whether they seek it or not, we must forgive all who sin against us.

The context of the prayer, however, is that of a penitent sinner seeking forgiveness from God. Praying this prayer is, in effect, saying, “God, I know I have sinned against you. I beg you, forgive me as I have demonstrated my own repentance by forgiving those who have hurt me.” Not clearly stated but understood is the idea that these individuals have also requested forgiveness. The phrase, “as we have forgiven others” is positively meaningless if God forgives unconditionally. If God forgives unconditionally, then even the simple act of asking for forgiveness is ridiculous – it has already been granted!

The other passage is Luke 23:34, the statement from Jesus on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” If this is an argument for unconditional forgiveness, then it follows logically that it is also the ultimate defense for the idea of universal salvation. Jesus prayed for unconditional forgiveness/salvation – and that’s it. God has forgiven everyone, case closed.

Or, is it? In his sermon on the day of Pentecost Peter commanded his audience to “repent.” Now, unless you are willing to believe that none of those hearing Peter were also in the crowd that heard Jesus’s words of forgiveness, you have to accept that Peter was calling on the very same people to repent and then to be baptized, “for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:38). Once again, if God’s forgiveness is unconditional, and based entirely on Jesus’s words, Peter’s command was frivolous. The people had already been forgiven – of what were they supposed to repent?

You see, the concept of “unconditional forgiveness” just sounds so good, so Christian, so divine. But it simply cannot be defended from Scripture. So why is it taught and believed so fervently?

For one, I do not think we truly understand the concept of sin, and so we cannot understand the idea of forgiveness. I think the primary understanding of “forgiveness” today is that we just “get on with life.” If I understand the Bible correctly, that is not biblical forgiveness. If we misunderstand the concept, it is also easy to falsify the process by which forgiveness can be extended and received.

Second, I think there is a genuine, and powerful, reality that follows our ability to “surrender the will to get even” (as my good friend Dale Frazier once put it). We are commanded to go and to ask for forgiveness of those we have injured, and to even confront those who have hurt us. We are commanded to release our anger before the ending of the day. Psychologically we live healthier lives if we can simply surrender the need to constantly be a victim of every perceived injury. I think that is what most people understand by the word “forgiveness.” We can extend that benefit to others, and to ourselves, unconditionally.

But that is not forgiveness as taught and described in the Bible!

Apples are not oranges just because both are fruit that grow on trees. Biblical forgiveness is one fruit, the surrendering of the will for revenge or of the need to remain a victim is another fruit. To confuse the two leads to some very real, and some very unhealthy, results.

I’ll step in that quicksand next.

 

Proposing a New, Really Old, Hermeneutic

Okay, so I can’t count. This is really the fourth in a series of four. Maybe I will stop here – who knows. I’m kind of having fun.

In my last installment I critiqued the hermeneutic that a vast number of members of the Churches of Christ grew up with – and many still defend with the tenacity of a pit bull terrier. That hermeneutic is “Command, Example and Necessary Inference” (hereafter CENI). If you did not read that post, I can sum it up by saying there are some serious issues with that method of interpretation, especially with the “necessary inference” part, but I also see the strength of the hermeneutic and I believe that many Christians work around the problems intuitively, not necessarily consciously.

I also said there was a need for a healthier hermeneutic, and that I believed one was available. I believe it is practiced by more individuals than actually know it’s source (or sources). I think many younger preachers and teachers believe that this “new” hermeneutic is vastly superior to anything those hayseed Restoration leaders could ever think up. And so I give to you one of the most well reasoned, modern, and “spiritual” methods of interpreting the Bible constructed by — Alexander Campbell.

In his magnum opus, The Christian System, Alexander Campbell listed seven “rules” by which the Bible must be translated and interpreted. [As an aside here, this work really needs to be read and studied in its entirety by all ministers and teachers in the church. They will be amazed by the theological depth and breadth demonstrated by Campbell, and they will be embarrassed by their off-handed dismissals of his education, or supposed lack thereof.] I give them here, somewhat abbreviated, with explanations provided in brackets with my initials inside – [PAS]

  1.  On opening any book in the Sacred Scriptures, consider first the historical circumstances of the book. These are the order, the title, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion of it.
  2. In examining the contents of any book as respects precepts, promises, exhortations, &c., observe who it is that speaks, and under what dispensation he officiates . . . Consider also the persons addressed, their prejudices, characters and religious relations.
  3. To understand the meaning of what is commanded, promised, taught, &c., the same philological principles deduced from the nature of language, or the same laws of interpretation which are applied to the language of other books, are to be applied to the language of the Bible.
  4. Common usage, which can only be ascertained by testimony, must always decide the meaning of any word which has but one signification; but when words have, according to testimony (i.e. the Dictionary,) more meanings than one, whether literal or figurative, the scope, the context, or parallel passages must decide the meaning: for if common usage, the design of the writer, the context, and parallel passages fail, there can be no certainty in the interpretation of language.
  5. In all tropical language [poetic language- PAS] ascertain the point of resemblance, and judge of the nature of the trope, and its kind, from the point of resemblance.
  6. In the interpretation of symbols, types, allegories and parables, this rule is supreme: – Ascertain the point to be illustrated; for comparison is never to be extended beyond that point – to all the attributes, qualities, or circumstances of the symbol, type, allegory, or parable.
  7. For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God, the following rule is indispensable: – We must come within the understanding distance . . . Every one, then, who opens the Book of God with one aim, with one ardent desire – intent only to know the will of God, – to such a person the knowledge of God is easy; for the Bible is framed to illuminate such, and only such, with the salutary knowledge of things celestial and divine . . . He, then, that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. (Alexander Campbell, The Christian System in Reference to the Union of Christians and Restoration of Primitive Christianity as Plead by the Current Reformation, [St. Louis: Christian Publishing CO., N.D.] p. 16-18, italics in the original)

The language is early 19th century flowery, but any student in a present-day course on hermeneutics would immediately recognize the scope of what  Campbell proposed – identify the type of literature, pay careful attention to the historical circumstances of the author and original readers, and do not press metaphorical language beyond it’s intended purpose. Wow. And Campbell wrote this in 1834-35. Of particular significance to me is Campbell’s use of the phrase, “understanding distance.” That sounds like it came straight out of the textbook I used in the Principles of Interpretation course I taught at Eastern New Mexico University.

Those who dismiss the theological acumen of Alexander Campbell are aghast at the soundness of this outline. Those who defend the hermeneutic of CENI are aghast that a Restoration leader would promote a “new hermeneutic” way back in 1835. The fact is, however, that if you truly follow what Campbell proposed, the hermeneutic of CENI is pretty toothless.

Are these seven rules of Campbell perfect? Are they to be equated with the words of the Bible itself? Are we to make of these seven rules what many have made of CENI? No, no, and no. I recognize these rules as one person’s contribution to the problem of biblical interpretation, and an early 19th century contribution at that. I know that our knowledge of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages, and our knowledge of ancient literature, has progressed significantly since Campbell’s day. I personally do not ascribe to Campbell’s dispensationalism, discussed in rule #2, and which he more fully expounds later in the book. So, I would tweak Campbell’s rules a little here and there. That having been said and duly noted, I find it quite amazing that so much of what Campbell wrote is still useable and valuable today.

I want to close this post with the words I selected as the final sentence above: “He, then, that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night.”

Amen, bro. Campbell, amen.

So, Why Study History?

(Third of three in a series)

So, why do we study theology and history, especially our very real and human religious history? In a sentence, we study these not just to learn the what, but also to understand the why, and hopefully avoid making the same mistakes as our ancestors. In this installment I turn my attention to another misunderstood aspect of the Restoration Movement, that of our primary hermeneutic, or how we interpret the Bible.

If you have been a member of the Church of Christ for any length of time you have probably heard the slogan, “We do not interpret the Bible, we only obey the Bible.” Whether you have heard that or not, you have no doubt been influenced by the very real manner in which we do interpret the Bible – that of Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (hereafter abbreviated CENI). Stated as simply as I can, we interpret the Bible by identifying and obeying specific commands, by imitating certain examples, and by drawing inferences or deductions that (at least to certain individuals) are inescapable. Never mind that at each point the hermeneutic is fraught with problems, I would wager that very, very few members of the Churches of Christ understand how that method of interpretation came to have such a powerful influence on the Restoration Movement.

The language, and certainly the thought, comes primarily from Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address (first published in 1809). In his third proposition, Campbell wrote:

That in order to do this, nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God. Nor ought anything to be admitted, as of Divine obligation, in their Church constitution and managements, but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament Church; either in express terms or by approved precedent.

That paragraph gives us the “command and example” part of how we interpret Scripture. If there is a command given to a disciple or to a church, we obey it. If there is a behavior or practice that is “approved” in Scripture, we promote it. Once again, there are problems here, but we can see how the principle was taught. The problem comes with the addition of the “necessary inference” part of the hermeneutic. I doubt that many members of the church are even remotely familiar with Thomas Campbell’s sixth proposition, which states in part:

That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God . . . Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession.

You may want to re-read that paragraph. Thomas Campbell made it abundantly clear that where there are unambiguous commands or examples in Scripture, those teachings must be followed by disciples of Christ. Where human reason has to fill in any blanks, those deductions and inferences may indeed be correct, but those inferences and deductions cannot be bound on anyone who does not see the “obvious” nature of the deduction. Campbell’s wording is profound – a person’s faith must not lie in the wisdom of another person’s brilliant deduction, but only in the “veracity of God.”

Let’s first tackle the problems of “command and example.” It goes without saying that there are a number of dominical and apostolic commands that all disciples of Christ must strive to obey. “Love on another,” “Obey my commands,” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength,” “Love your neighbor as yourself,” are just a few. I do not think there are many Christians who would disagree with the thrust of those commands.

But what about Matthew 5:27-30? Either there are no Christians who sin with their eyes or with their hands, or we are simply not obeying a direct command by Jesus. Or what about Romans 16:16? How many kisses do you see shared by ushers every Sunday morning? I especially like the manner in which we passionately obey 1 Timothy 5:23.

And what about the example part? Have you noticed that every time the Lord’s supper is described in the New Testament it is being celebrated at night in an upper room? We are told we are to “lay by in store” every first day of the week, as was the practice of the Corinthian church, but do we send that which is received to the church in Jerusalem? Do we wash each other’s feet before every pot-luck lunch?

The point is that there is a certain amount of “cherry picking” that we do even with the “express terms” and “approved precedents.” That discrepancy is multiplied by the tens when it comes to necessary inferences. How many divisions have plagued the Lord’s church just because someone made a “necessary inference” and then demanded that everyone else bow to their conclusion?

Where did we get our dependence on the “necessary inference” part of CENI if not from the Campbells? It was from the pen of Moses Lard, first a disciple of, and then a co-worker of, Alexander Campbell. Within the first generation of leaders the abhorrence of Thomas Campbell to the binding of inferences and deductions had already begun to wane. By the second and subsequent generations the addition of “necessary inference” was firmly entrenched, and has been a thorn in our attempts at unity ever since.

I want to return to a point I made at the beginning of yesterday’s post. Thomas and Alexander Campbell were disaffected Presbyterians. They were reacting against the inferences and deductions that had become church law in the Presbyterian Church. After all, a creed is nothing more than an institutionalized inference or deduction from Scripture. Thomas Campbell saw that when an inference or deduction was promoted, someone else either could not follow the logic, or could come up with a different inference or deduction. He allowed that some inferences and deductions could indeed be considered Scriptural truth, but they could not be bound on the conscience of another Christian!

I do not want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” as the old saying goes. While I can identify problems with CENI, I also want to admit to its strengths. At the very least, it is an attempt to follow the doctrines of the Bible as they are taught in Scripture. It is a human construct, to be sure, but the motive of Thomas and Alexander Campbell (as well as their spiritual descendants) was commendable. Yes, mistakes have been made, but let us not go to the extreme that we utterly dismiss the love of Scripture and the love of the church that was demonstrated by these early Restoration leaders.

I believe there is a healthier manner to interpret Scripture than CENI. I am also convinced that we practice a better form of interpretation than we sometimes preach (i.e., we do not amputate hands nor do we gouge out eyes. We recognize those “commands” are metaphorical, and we do not consume wine to the exclusion of water because we recognize that Paul was addressing Timothy’s intestinal problems). My biggest issue is obviously with the “necessary inference” component of CENI, and I believe that is where the need for a healthier hermeneutic is most clearly demonstrated.

How many divisions could be healed, if we simply admitted to ourselves and to others that we have certain inferences and deductions that we hold to be dear, but that we willingly refuse to demand obedience by other faithful Christians?

May we all learn the art of ascending to the heights of what is possible by descending into what is necessary.