Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

These aren’t exactly polished thoughts, but I was wondering if any of you had any insights (or heretical labels) to offer on this. Much of what follows is highly indebted to Robert Jenson’s 2009 Burns Lectures delivered at the University of Otago. They can (and should) be viewed here. (The quotations in this post come from his first lecture, “Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation.”)

The word of God is none other than Jesus Christ. I don’t think this is a controversial claim in Christian circles. Anything else we call “God’s word” must somehow derive this status from Jesus Christ. The question about the word of God, then, can only be framed as a “Who?” question. If our doctrine of the word of God cannot be related to the person of Jesus, then we are off track. So the most appropriate question about God’s word is not, “What is it?” which usually entails the follow up, “What can we point to today and say, ‘That is God’s word’?” The question is, rather, “Who is it?” which entails a more appropriate follow up question, “Where is the concrete form of this One in the world?” Of course, when we ask about the concrete form of Jesus Christ in the world, our first and most obvious answer is: incarnation. But how do we answer this question now, that is, after the resurrection and ascension? Where is the concrete form of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Jesus Christ in the world today? And to what extent can we identify it as the concrete form of God’s word in the world today?

If we identify the word of God as the second person of the Trinity who became incarnate in space and time, then it becomes necessary to posit a direct connection between the divine logos and Jesus’ human body. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The bodily presence of Jesus simply is the presence of God’s word to the world. Thus, to ask how God’s word takes concrete form in the world today is to ask how we can speak of Jesus’ embodied presence today. Considering Paul’s statements about the body of Christ, I think that we need to answer this question ecclesiologically and sacramentally. To skip to the conclusion of these reflections, can we not say that the concrete form of God’s word in the world is the church-community? That the word God speaks in the world today is spoken concretely not only through this community but as this community?

This brings me to the question of the authority of the New Testament in the church. (I must leave aside for the moment the question of the Old Testament, because its place and role in the church has a much different history.) The New Testament canon, as we know it today, did not exist in the earliest days of the church. Yet the church existed, thrived, and grew. What brought about the need to gather and preserve these texts we now know as the New Testament? As Robert Jenson observes, “Any community that intends to be around for more than a moment, that hopes to remain itself through some palpable stretch of yesterday, today, and tomorrow will have to deal with the fragility of a life thus stretched across time.” He offers the following phenomenological description of scripture: “A religious community’s scripture is a body of literature that is fixed in some medium that preserves it—and that may simply be trained memories—and that in that fixity is necessary for the perdurance of the community for its self-identity through time.” Canonical Holy Scripture for the church thus functions as an authoritative set of texts designed to preserve the church-community as church through time.

The basic thesis I’m trying to test out is this: The New Testament is authoritative insofar as it functions to preserve the identity of the church-community through time. (I’m not suggesting that happens automatically or as a result of “applying” the text; it only happens as the Holy Spirit takes up the texts and uses them to enliven and shape the life of the community that the New Testament can function this way.) Thus, it is the church, not scripture, that is the concrete form of God’s word in the world, because it is in the form of this community that Christ’s body lives on earth.

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BonhoefferAs I’ve begun re-tweeting Bonhoeffer tweets (when did he get a Twitter account? Is that an iPad I see in his hand?), I’m wondering how beneficial it is to tweet thoughts of great theologians like him? Is it advantageous to extract from the context and simply post a snippet? Is there a disservice or a re-appropriation which occurs in doing so?

For that matter, is it right to do so with a snippet of Scripture? Do “sound-bytes” do justice to the complexity of thought involved or is there an altogether new sense suggested by extracting statements from their original context?

For me, it is an insight into the quandary of authorial intent and honoring the author with their own sense while still offering (perhaps) a new sense with the abbreviated quote (putting aside for the moment that such “quotes” are actually taken from an English translation of Bonhoeffer or the Bible). What are your thoughts on the tweeting of passages of insight?

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I encountered a fascinating quote by Tertullian today (referring to 1 Cor.11:19):

Unquestionably the Divine writings are more fruitful in affording resources for any kind of subject. Nor do I hesitate to say that the Scriptures themselves were arranged by the will of GOD in such a manner as to afford material for heretics, inasmuch as I read that there must be heresies, which cannot exist without the Scriptures.  – De praescriptione haereticorum [On the Prescription of Heretics] XXXIX, English trans. T.H.Bindley, 1914.

This seems to speak to the intent of God to give people over to their rebellions.  Tertullian apparently regarded the Scriptures as intentionally written in a manner that would be conducive to distortions in order to prove those who would belong to the Lord and those who would not.  A fascinating proposal to say the least.  This would nuance the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture and speak to issues of election and connectedly…to revelation.  What are your thoughts on this?

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There is a (seeming) trend in hermeneutics towards a theological interpretation of Scripture (e.g., Daniel Treier, Kevin Vanhoozer, etc.) that seeks to offer a way forward beyond the traditional restraints of the historical-critical methodologies.   Certainly there are many different forms of theological interpretation many of which are niches (such as feminist, liberation, black), but this trend seems to be growing in more traditional evangelical circles.  I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading such works of late as I process just how my Master’s thesis will flow and will be writing a chapter on the “theological meaning and significance of yom in Genesis one”.

I guess my question is what sorts of parameters might you consider necessary for providing direction towards a theological interpretation of Scripture to guard it from degenerating into a free-for-all radical reader-response methodology?  Would you include the intention of the author/s (implied and/or explicit), ‘original’ audience of the text and/or canonically reconstructed reception, parameters for the historical and/or contemporary (?) regula fidei of the Church?  Are there more important and less important measures for judging the adequacy of such a theological interpretation?

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The following is a sermon titled “Saved by Grace” preached by Karl Barth to inmates of the prison at Basel, Switzerland on August 14, 1955.  I thought it appropriate on this Resurrection Sunday and so I give it with prayers included:

O Lord, our God!  Through thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, thou hast made us thy children.  We have heard thy voice and have gathered here to give thee praise, to listen to thy word, to call upon thee and to entrust to thy care our burdens and our needs.  Be thou in our midst and be our teacher–that all anxiety and despair, all vanity and defiance within us, all our unbelief and superstition may diminish and thy greatness and goodness may show forth;

–that our hearts may be open to one another, that we may understand each other, and help one another;

–that this hour may be an hour of light wherein we may catch sight of the open sky and thus of the dawn on this dark earth.

The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.  This is true, and it is true for us, as certainly as thou art in Jesus Christ the Saviour of us all.  But only thou canst truly tell us and show us that this is so.  Speak and show then the truth to us and to all those who pray with us this Sunday morning.  They pray for us.  And we are praying for them.  Grant their requests and ours!  Amen.

My dear brothers and sisters, I now read a passage from the Letter of the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians (2.5): By grace have you been saved.  This, I think is brief enough for it to be remembered by all, for it to impress itself upon you and, if it be God’s will, to be understood.

We are gathered here this Sunday morning to hear this word: By grace you have been saved!  Whatever else we do, praying and singing, is but an answer to this word spoken to us by God himself.  The prophets and apostles wrote a strange book, called the Bible, for the very purpose of testifying to this fact before mankind.  The Bible alone contains this sentence.  We do not read it in Kant or in Schopenhauer, or in any book of natural or secular history, and certainly not in any novel, but in the Bible alone.  In order to hear this word we need what is called the Church–the company of Christians, of human beings called and willing to listen together to the Bible and through it to the word of God.  This is the word of God: By grace you have been saved!

Someone once said to me: ‘I need not go to church.  I need not read the Bible.  I know already what the Church teaches and what the Bible says: “Do what is right and fear no one!” ‘ Let me say this at this point: If this were the message at stake, I would most certainly not have come here.  My time is too precious and so is yours.  To say that, neither prophets nor apostles, neither Bible, Jesus Christ nor God are needed.  Anybody is at liberty to say this to himself.  By the same token this saying is void of any very special or exciting message.  It does not help anyone.  I have never seen a smile on the face of a person reassuring himself with this kind of talk.  As a rule, those who use it are a sad-looking lot, revealing all too easily that this word does not help them, does not comfort them, does not bring them joy.

Let us hear therefore what the Bible says and what we as Christians are called to hear together: By grace you have been saved!  No man can say this to himself.  Neither can he say it to someone else.  This can only be said by God to each one of us.  It takes Jesus Christ to make this saying true.  It takes the apostles to communicate it.  And our gathering here as Christians to spread it among us.  This is why it truly news, and very special news, the most exciting news of all, the most helpful thing also, indeed the only helpful thing.

‘By grace you have been saved!’  How strange to have this message addressed to us!  Who are we, anyway?  Let me tell you quite frankly: we are all together great sinners.  Please understand me: I include myself.  I stand ready to confess being the greatest sinner among you all; yet you may then not exclude yourself from the group!  Sinners are people who in the judgment of God, and perhaps of their own consciences, missed and lost their way, who are not just a little, but totally guilty, hopelessly indebted and lost not only in time, but in eternity.  We are such sinners.  And we are prisoners.   Believe me, there is a captivity much worse than the captivity in this house.  There are walls much thicker and doors much heavier than those closed upon you.  all of us, the people without and you within, are prisoners of our own obstinancy, or our many greeds, of our various anxieties, of our own mistrust and in the last analysis of our unbelief.  We are all sufferers.  Most of all we suffer from ourselves.  We each make life difficult for ourselves and in so doing for our fellowmen.  We suffer in the shadow of death and of eternal judgment toward which we are moving.  We spend our life in the midst of a whole world of sin and captivity and suffering.

But now listen.  Into the depth of our predicament the word is spoken from on high: By grace you have been saved!  To be saved does not just mean to be a little encouraged, a little comforted, a little relieved.  It means to be pulled out like a log from a burning fire.  You have been saved!  We are not told: you may be saved sometimes, or a little bit.  No, you have been saved, totally for all times.  You?  Yes, we!  Not just any other people, more pious and better than we are, no we, each one of us.

This is so because Jesus Christ is our brother and, through his life and death, has become our Saviour who has wrought our salvation.  He is the word of God for us.  And this word is: By grace you have been saved!

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it.  When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down, horrified.  This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved!  In such a moment we are like that terrified rider.  When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger!  What did I do?  The most foolish thing I ever attempted!  What happened?  I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe!  You ask: ‘Do we really live in such danger?’  Yes, we live on the brink of death.  But we have been saved.  Look at our Saviour and at our salvation!  Look at Jesus Christ on the cross, accused, sentenced and punished instead of us!  Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there?  For our sake–because of our sin–sharing our captivity–burdened with our suffering!  He nails our life to the cross.  This is how God had to deal with us.  From this darkness he has saved us.  He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: By grace you have been saved!

But more important than the fear of sudden death is the knowledge of life imparted to us: ‘By grace you have been saved!’  Therefore, we have reached the shore, the Lake of Constance is behind us, we may breathe freely, even though we still are in the grip of panic, and rightly so.  This panic is but an aftermath.  By virtue of the good news the sky truly opens and the earth is bright.  What a glorious relief to be told that there I was, in that darkness, over that abyss, on the brink of death, but there I am no longer.  Through this folly I lived, but I cannot and I will not do it again, never again.  This happened, but it must not and it will not happen again.  My sin, my captivity, my suffering are yesterday’s reality, not today’s.  They are things of my past, not of the present nor of the future.  I have been saved!  Is this really so, is this the truth?  Look once again to Jesus Christ in his death upon the cross.  Look and try to understand that what he did and suffered he did and suffered for you, for me, for us all.  He carried our sin, our captivity and our suffering, and did not carry it in vain.  He carried it away.  He acted as the captain of us all.  He broke through the ranks of our enemies.  He has already won the battle, our battle.  All we have to do is to follow him, to be victorious with him.  Through him, in him we are saved.  Our sin has no longer any power over us.  Our prison door is open.  Our suffering has come to an end.  This is a great word indeed.  The word of God is indeed a great word.  And we would deny him, we would deny the Lord Jesus Christ, were we to deny the greatness of this word: He sets us free.  When he, the Son of God, sets us free, we are truly free.

Because we are saved by no other than Jesus Christ, we are saved by grace.  This means that we did not deserve to be saved.  What we deserved would be quite different.  We cannot secure salvation for ourselves.  Did you read the newspapers the other day that man will soon be able to produce an artificial moon?  But we cannot produce our salvation.  No one can be proud of being saved.  Each one can only fold his hands in great lowliness of heart and be thankful like a child.  Consequently we shall never possess salvation as our property.  We may only receive it as a gift over and over again, with hands outstretched.  ‘By grace you have been saved!’  This means constantly to look away from ourselves to God and to the man on the cross where this truth is revealed.  This truth is ever anew to be believed and to be grasped by faith.  To believe means to look to Jesus Christ and to God and to trust that there is the truth for us, for our lives, for the life of all men.

Is it not a pity that we rebel against this very truth in the depths of our hearts?  Indeed, we dislike hearing that we are saved by grace and by grace alone.  We do not appreciate that God does not owe us anything, that we are bound to live for his goodness alone, that we are left with nothing but the great humility, the thankfulness of a child presented with many gifts.  For we do not like at all to look away from ourselves.  To put it bluntly: we do not like to believe.  And yet grace and therefore faith as I just described it is the beginning of love of God and neighbour, of great and assured hope!  And yet grace and faith would make things so very simple in our lives!

Dear brothers and sisters, where do we stand now?  One things is certain: the bright day has dawned, the sun of God does shine into our dark lives, even though we may close our eyes to its radiance.  His voice does call us from heaven, even though we may obstruct our ears.  The bread of life is offered to us, even though we are inclined to clench our fists instead of opening our hands to take the bread and eat it.  The door of our prison is open, even though, strangely enough, we prefer to remain within.  God has put the house in order, even though we like to mess it up all over again.  By grace you have been saved!–this is true, even though we may not believe it, may not accept it as valid for ourselves and unfortunately in so doing may forego its benefits.  Why should we want to forego the benefits?  Why should we not want to believe?  Why do we not go out through the open door?  Why do we not open our clenched fists?  Why do we obstruct our ears?  Why are we blindfolded?  Honestly, why?

One remark in reply must suffice.  All this is so because perhaps we failed to pray fervently enough for a change within ourselves, on our part.  That God is God, not only almighty, but merciful and good, that he wills and does what is best for us, that Jesus Christ died for us to set us free, that by grace, in him, we have been saved–all this need not be a concern of our prayers.  All these things are true apart from our own deeds and prayers.  But to believe, to accept, to let it be true for us, to begin to live with this truth, to believe it not only with our minds and with our lips, but also with our hearts and with all our life, so that our fellowmen may sense it and finally to let our total existence be immersed in the great divine truth, by grace you have been saved, this is to be the concern of our prayers.  No human being has ever prayed for this in vain.  If anyone asks for this, the answer is already being given and faith begins.  And because no one has ever asked for this in vain, no one may omit praying like a little child for the assurance that God’s truth, this terrible, this glorious truth, is shining even today, a small, yet increasingly bright light.  By grace you have been saved.  Ask that you may believe this and it will be given you; seek this, and you will find it; knock on this door, and it will be opened to you.

This, my dear friends, is what I have been privileged and empowered to tell you of the good news as the word of God today.  Amen.

O Lord, our God!  Thou seest and hearest us.  Thou knowest each one of us far better than we know ourselves.  Thou lovest us without our deserving it.  Thou hast helped us and dost help us still, although are ever again inclined to spoil thy work by wanting to help ourselves.  Thou art the Judge, but thou art also the Saviour of the poor and perplexed human race.  For this we give thee thanks.  For this we praise thee.  We rejoice in the prospect of seeing with our own eyes on thy great day what we already now may believe if thou makest us free to do so.

Make us free to believe!  Give us the true, honest and active faith in thee and in thy truth!  Give it to many!  Give it to all men!  Give it to the peoples and their governments, to the rich and to the poor, to the healthy and to the sick, to the prisoners and to those who think they are free, to the old and to the young, to the joyful and to the sorrowful, to the heavy-laden and to the light-minded!  There is no one who does not stand in need of faith, no one to whom the promise of faith is denied.  Tell all our people, ourselves included, that thou art their merciful God and Father and ours!  This we ask thee in the name of Jesus Christ who commanded us to pray: ‘Our Father…”

* Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (New York, Harper & Brothers SCM Press, 1961), 35-42.

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My first recollection of Barth being mentioned: as a young man–possibly in Bible college, but I’m not sure–my dad told me that Barth was “a liberal”, which to my ears meant that he was very, very bad and mustn’t be read or listened to. The problem, as I recall, was that my dad thought that Barth didn’t think that the Bible was the word of God. Given the little I know about my dad’s theological and doctrinal leanings, he wasn’t likely to have read much Barth himself, taking second-hand information as fact.

Of course, I’m currently in that situation as well–most of my Barth knowledge is second-hand.

My dad’s claim came to mind again last year during one of Chris Holmes’ “Theological Foundations” classes. In one of the first classes of semester, we discussed the “threefold form of the Word,” which he took from Barth (who in turn took it from Calvin).  It looks like this, in order of importance:

  1. The Incarnate Word (that is, Jesus Christ himself)
  2. The written word (scripture)
  3. The proclaimed word (probably the broadest of the three, in that it includes the tradition and proclamation of the church and its people throughout history)*

This came up in a discussion of theological norms, and I take it that “theological norms” have to do with what is authoritative. If this is right, I can understand how, from my dad’s perspective, Barth might have a suspicious view of scripture. That is, from a fundamentalist/conservative** point of view, which seems to take the notion of sola scriptura much farther than originally intended, scripture is our only authority on matters of faith and doctrine. Bumping the written word to second place in a list delineating authority would understandably seem suspect.

I am, of course, sympathetic to this, because having Jesus as the ultimate authority gets a bit philosophically sticky, since the only representatives of Christ’s authority we have are scripture and the Holy Spirit, and the history of the church is evidence of the fact that Christians often don’t hear either representative very well. (Perhaps Barth will address this in CD.)

Nevertheless, the Christocentrism of Barth/Calvin’s view hit me like a ton of bricks. Even in its mystery and philosophical stickiness, it made a great deal of sense to someone like me, who was (is?) still working his way out of a very “Biblocentric” (as opposed to Christocentric) point of view.

I am only just beginning to understand the influence that Barth has had on the theological and pastoral world. And if his theology is indeed as Christocentric as it appears, well…wonderful!


* According to my notes, this is from volume 1 of CD, so we should run across it relatively soon. (Relatively.)

** To be fair, I think my dad is fundamentalist/conservative only so far as a European can be.

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