Monday, November 30, 2009

Writing sensitively on sexuality

Peter Ould of An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy posts a (long) comment made on the Fulcrum Forum by a man called Ken Petrie. I cannot locate that comment on Fulcrum so the link below is to Peter's posting. I offer the post here (i.e. excerpt and link) not so much to endorse all that is said (though my own sympathies are very much in the direction of what is said) but to offer an example of how one can write sensitively yet directly about a controversial matter.

"Because marriages, like everything else human beings touch, will always bear a certain amount of taint from human sin, it follows that a certain humility is necessary in our approach to this divine institution which we mar through our involvement.

"Sadly, the Church has not been very good in its witness to these two truths. For whatever reason, bishops and clergy are too keen to celebrate marriage only as the good gift of God and to ignore the shortcomings of human beings. Therefore, when it was suggested there might be some penitential element when a marriage was celebrated for a couple, one of whom had a previous spouse still living, the General Synod rejected it. I believe the ordained members felt that if a marriage could be seen as sinful it shouldn’t be happening at all, and to make provision for a flawed marriage was somehow to undermine the ideal itself. But the contrary is true; it is only by acknowledging our failings that we uphold the ideal which, for us, is unattainable.

"I wonder whether this is because the English Church is quietly absorbing the sentimental over-expectation of our host culture, or because it has never been able to grasp the implications of Luther’s slogan, Simil justus et peccator. We live in the tension St Paul decribed in Romans 7.21-25 and it is only through Christ that we can amount to anything worthwhile at all. The warning at the end of verse 25 is also apposite. If we seek to enslave ourselves to God’s law we will only become slaves to sin."

The whole may be accessed here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Is Christian scholarship the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible?

Kierkegaard, Great Dane theologian and philosopher, once said this, as pointed out by Rosemary, in a comment on a post below:

"The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament."

This is an excellent challenge from Kierkegaard; a powerful, undiplomatic charge against Christian scholarship that it functions to obscure the plain truth of the Bible, a truth most believers are scared to live by, and so we welcome the assistance scholarship offers in diluting the demands God makes upon us through his written Word.

This is not, however, the final judgment on Christian scholarship of the Bible (i.e. on hermeneutics). It is an important judgment which we do well to pay attention to because scholarship does have ways of diluting the truth of the Bible. One area in which this frequently takes place, and which is welcomed by most Christians is in the realm of money and possessions: sold all yours lately and given the proceeds away to the poor? If not, why not? The answer is likely to include some hermeneutical moves in respect of the text (it does not apply to every reader; looking at other parts of the gospels we find that not everyone gave up all their possessions and wealth; etc).

But hermeneutics also offers considerable help in discerning the truth of Scripture (for example, shedding some light on the meaning of the Book of Revelation, or enabling people to carefully assess two or more competing arguments for some aspect of Christian living (infant baptism v believer's baptism; marriage v celibacy; predestination v free choice)). As a matter of fact, because I understand Kierkegaard's opposition to be to Christendom rather than Christianity, to the State Church of Denmark rather than to churches faithful to the gospel, I do not think Kierkegaard, himself a prolific scholarly writer, would object to most of the work of hermeneutics.

Interpreters of the Bible - following Kierkegaard - should take care not to obscure the plain meaning of Scripture when indeed it is plain and uncontroversial; but when Scripture is not plain and uncontroversial, when even conservative scholars such as Grudem have to set out a series of qualifying steps for sound reading of the Bible, then we should not follow Kierkegaard and pour scepticism upon the great and noble task of hermeneutics!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Perhaps Scripture is not so clear after all!

Wayne Grudem is a North American scholar with a well earned reputation for scholarship, as well as for influence on the life of the church, through being a productive author and speaker, much referred to by many, because he offers clarity and conviction in what he writes and speaks.

In the latest edition of Themelios you can read a published lecture by Wayne Grudem entitled "The Perspicuity of Scripture". As Wayne says, essentially the doctrine of perspicuity is about 'The Clarity of Scripture' or 'The Understandability of Scripture'. I do not think you will readily find a better or easier to understand lecture on this subject than you will find here.

But what do you think about Grudem's setting out of the matter?

According to this lecture Scripture is understandable if a number of conditions are met. I readily agree that to understand Scripture these conditions need to be met. But that raises a question, for me at least:

Is it appropriate to talk about the clarity of Scripture if a series of conditions need to be met before Scripture is understandable?

There is one other matter which intrigues me in in this lecture. Grudem specifically makes the following point about ...

"4.3. Roman Catholic Teaching

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that the correct interpretation of Scripture must come from the teaching officers of the church:

The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.[footnote 35]

But neither the teachings of Jesus nor the NT epistles give any hint that believing readers need an authoritative interpreter of Scripture such as the Bishop of Rome. Not even in the first century did the apostles suggest that ordinary believers needed an authoritative interpreter in order to understand Scripture rightly. The Scripture remains clear enough that it is able to be understood, now as in all previous ages, by ordinary believers who will take the needed time and effort, employ ordinary means, and rely on the Holy Spirit’s help."

I find this quite extraordinary as a claim about understanding Scripture rightly. Yes, we can readily agree that the NT does not teach that an authoritative teacher such as the Bishop of Rome is required. But can we so readily agree that,

"Not even in the first century did the apostles suggest that ordinary believers needed an authoritative interpreter in order to understand Scripture rightly."?

What was Paul doing in his writings but (often) correcting the misunderstandings of 'ordinary believers'? What were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John doing but offering an authoritative interpretation of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ for 'ordinary believers'?

Then, as if to underline my point above about the conditional clarity of Scripture, we find that Scripture is not 'clear' but 'clear enough' to those who take, time, effort, and rely on the Holy Spirit:

"The Scripture remains clear enough that it is able to be understood, now as in all previous ages, by ordinary believers who will take the needed time and effort, employ ordinary means, and rely on the Holy Spirit’s help."

But these last six words undermine Grudem's approach to denying Rome's approach to understanding Scripture: "rely on the Holy Spirit's help" ... raises questions such as 'how do we know when the Holy Spirit is helping us rather than another spirit?' The point of Rome's catechetical teaching is that an answer is given to this question, namely, the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome. But Grudem gives no answer at this point. Protestantism, as any church history student will tell us, has seriously fudged the issue of knowing when the Holy Spirit is speaking to us and when the Holy Spirit is not - the fudging illustrated countless times with church division and fragmentation over "doctrine".

There is a way forward here. What suggestions do you offer?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Would Luke's Gospel be accepted by critics of the NPP if it were not already in the NT?

Here is a thought arising from my preparation of material for a seminar on Preaching Luke's Gospel ...

It is widely accepted by Lukan scholars that in neither Luke's Gospel nor its sequel is there an articulation of atonement as the reason for the death of Christ on the cross. Jesus dies on the cross because the Messiah must suffer in order for God's plan for humanity to be fulfilled, but not in order that atonement may be made for sins. Naturally this leads to much pondering: how can Luke, for whom Paul is clearly a hero, be so "un-Pauline" in his theology of the cross? Quickly one can arrive at answers such as, Luke (or, maybe 'Luke' because we may have mistaken as to who the actual author of Gospel and Acts was) wrote much later than we think; he was neither a companion of Paul nor a close reader of his writings. In my own reflection built into the material I presented I proposed that Luke's primary audience, Theophilus, a godfearing Gentile, like the centurions of Luke 7 and Acts 10, had no need for certainty about forgiveness of sins, but did have a need for certainty that Gentiles are included in the plan of God; hence omission of atonement, but not for reason of Luke being ignorant or unsympathetic to Paul's theology of the cross.

Here is my thought: given the stridency in the debate between the 'Old Perspective on Paul' and the 'New Perspective on Paul', might we realistically suppose that if Luke's writings had been lost before the New Testament was formed, but then discovered in the last decade, would we welcome its discovery or discard it? My hunch is that some in the debate (i.e. some Old Perspectivers) would discard it on the grounds that it falls short of the standard set in Romans 3-8.

But the fact is: we do have Luke's Gospel and Acts in the canon of the New Testament. Does that say anything to us about the range of views on the cross which are acceptable as orthodoxy grounded in Scripture?

Monday, November 9, 2009

How dare they leave me out!!!!!!

I have just noticed that the Dunedin School has published their assessment of the Three Worst NZ Theologians of all time ... and I am not there. How dare they.

But you want to find out who they are? Don't you. Read here.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The range of the hermeneutical task

Sometimes I think I want hermeneutics to be like searching for oil. There are a range of means of extracting oil from the earth, from the extreme of processing coal-to-oil, through oil from oil sands, to the simplest means of all ... drill a hole in the right place and out it gushes. In other words, I want a method of understanding the Bible, so far elusive, in which any and every part of the Bible yields its meaning upon application of the method, which, naturally, I want to be a simple formula!

But the reality - brought home to me by reading in the second half of Daniel this morning - is that there is no such method for some parts of the Bible are simply opaque!

Fortunately those parts are few, and, relative to understanding salvation, irrelevant.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Read the Bible daily

Bosco Peters on Liturgy draws attention to a wonderful point of common ground between Rome, Canterbury, Geneva, Constantinople and everywhere:

Pope calls for daily meditation on Bible
Published on November 1, 2009 in liturgy and spirituality.

Wednesday’s General Audience to 15,000 people in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict called on Christians to learn from monasticism and set aside time every day to meditate on the Bible, “so that the Word of God will be the lamp that illuminates our daily path on earth.” Monastics “were devoted to the Sacred Scriptures and one of their main activities consisted in lectio divina, that is, a meditative reading of the Bible.” The pope reminded people that the Synod on the Word of God in 2008 recalled the importance of reading the Bible and said such reading must be built on monastic theology.

"As monastic theology is listening to the Word of God, it is necessary to purify one’s heart to welcome it and, above all, one must be full of fervor to encounter the Lord. Theology therefore becomes meditation, prayer, a song of praise, and the impetus for sincere conversion."

I am grateful for this notice from Bosco. The future of Christianity rests with finding common prayer together and common understanding of God's Word.

PS My presentation on Luke's Gospel in Christchurch went well. I hope to post the material on the internet soon.