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Archive for April, 2012

“Paul’s gospel was eschatological not because of what he still hoped would happen, but because of what he believed had already happened.” (James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 465)

Exactly.  We read the crucifixion accounts in the Gospels wrongly if we do not perceive this to be the only true interpretation of the death of Jesus.  What else are the the darkened sun, the earthquake, the dead rising from their tombs, and the rent temple veil there for?  The cross is the end of the world–and the resurrection the beginning of the new creation.  Without this perspective on the world, we have not yet understood the gospel.

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Here are Barth’s searing, searching comments on the revelation of God’s wrath, a process described in Romans 1:18-32:

“The confusion [of the Creator with the creation] avenges itself and becomes its own punishment.  The forgetting of the true God is already itself the breaking loose of His wrath against those who forget Him (1:18).  The enterprise of setting up the ‘No-God’ is avenged by its success…Our conduct becomes governed precisely by what we desire.  By a strict inevitability we reach the goal we have set before us.  The images and likenesses, whose meaning we have failed to perceive, become themselves purpose and content and end.  And now men have really become slaves and puppets of things…And now there is no higher power to protect them from what they have set on high.

And, moreover, the uncleanness of their relation to God submerges their lives also in uncleanness.  When God has been deprived of His glory, men are also deprived of theirs.  Desecrated within in their souls, they are desecrated also without in their bodies, for men are one.  The concreteness of the creaturelinessof their lives becomes now dishonor; and lust–sexuality both in the narrower and in the wider sense of the word–becomes, as the primary motive-power of their whole desire and striving, altogether questionable and open to suspicion…In their separation from God they must continue to give it ever new birth.  They have wished to experience the known god of this world: well!  They have experienced him…When…God and the world have become confused with one another, there comes into prominence a further confusion…These two confusions stand altogether on one line, they belong together and cohere together…Everything then becomes Libido: life becomes totally erotic.  When the frontier between God and man, the last inexorable barrier and obstacle, is not closed, the barrier between what is normal and what is perverse is opened.” (Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., pp. 51-53)

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“Modern Christians are now almost entirely non-Jewish in background.  This creates a strong tendency to see in Jesus’ interaction with the Judaisms of his day a critique of the content of their scriptures rather than an argument over scripture’s true governing center.  This critical attitude of Jesus is then identified with the New Testament as such.  This Second Testament becomes the developmental culmination of and correction of the Old Testament, its religion, its ethic, its God.  In other words, what began as a struggle between differing sorts of Jews over what constitutes the governing heart of the only scriptures they know has become for a church now Gentile a warrant for reading two Testaments developmentally and indpendently.

But the most serious problem involves the Christian understanding of God himself.  It is not just that the Old Testament has become someone else’s religion en route to Christianity; rather, a criticism of Jewish appropriation of the scriptures, made by one within their own frame of reference, has become a criticism of God himself as depicted there, to be pitted against ‘the God revealed in Christ.’  The results are striking.  We have a New Testament focused on Jesus but not on God, a Jesus who reveals a new religion if not a new divinity, and an Old Testament with only historical, descriptive, or background–but not theological or normative or abiding–contours.  Instead of being a correlative expression, ‘He is risen’ replaces ‘the God of Israel raised him from the dead.’  Jesus relates not to the God of the scriptures, with an identity provided there, but to a private God, known somehow else.  And so Christians struggle at present to give this God a name: Godself, Creator, Mother/Father, Mother.  Ironically, what became an unutterable name in Israel out of reverence has become unutterable in the New Israel because the One who raised Jesus from the dead no longer seems to be riveted to the scriptures the church inherited as a gift.  The gift has proven awkward: a bad tie from a close relative at Christmas.” (Christopher R. Seitz,Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness, pp. 4-5)

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“Our self-consciously historical time accepts the limitations of the historical point of view with a sense of constraint and an air of resignation.  In this situation, however, we do well to remind ourselves that the Christian community has usually–and particularly in times of its greatest vigor–used an historical method.  Apparently it felt that to speak in confessional terms about the events that had happened to it in its history was not a burdensome necessity but rather an advantage and that the acceptance of an historical point of view was not confining but liberating.  The preaching of the early Christian church was not an argument for the existence of God nor an admonition to follow the dictates of some common human conscience, unhistorical and super-social in character.  It was primarily a simple recital of the great events connected with the historical appearance of Jesus Christ and a confession of what had happened to the community of disciples.  Whatever it was that the church meant to say, whatever was revealed or manifested to it, could be indicated only in connection with an historical person and events in the life of his community.  The confession referred to history and was consciously made in history…

The sermons of Peter and Stephen as reported or reconstructed in the book of Acts were recitals of the great events in Christian and Israelite history.  Christian evangelism in general, as indicated by the preservation of its material in the synoptic Gospels, began directly with Jesus and told in more or less narrative fashion about those things ‘which are most surely believed among us of all that Jesus began both to do and to teach.’  We may remind ourselves also of the fact that despite many efforts to set forth Christian faith in metaphysical and ethical terms of great generality the only creed which has been able to maintain itself in the church with any approach to universality consists for the most part of statements about events.

We can imagine that early preachers were often asked to explain what they meant with their talk about God, salvation, and revelation, and when they were hard pressed, when all their parables or references to the unknown God and to the Logos had succeeded  only in confusing their hearers, they turned at last to the story of their life, saying, ‘What we mean is this event which happened among us and to us.’  They followed in this respect the prophets who had spoken of God before them and the Jewish community which had also talked of revelation.  These, too, always spoke of history, of what had happened to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of a deliverance from Egypt, of the covenant of Sinai, of mighty acts of God.  Even their private visions were dated, as ‘in the year that King Uzziah died,’ even the moral law was anchored to an historical event, and even God was defined less by his metaphysical and moral character than by his historical relations, as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….Yet what prompted Christians in the past to confess their faith by telling the story of their life was more than a need for vivid illustration or for analogical reasoning.  Their story was not a parable which could be replaced by another; it was irreplaceable and untranslatable.  An internal compulsion rather than free choice led them to speak of what they knew by telling about Jesus Christ and their relation to God through him.

Today we think and speak under the same compulsion.  We find that we must travel the road which has been taken by our predecessors in the Christian community, though our recognition of the fact is first of all only a consequence of the obstruction of all other ways.  We must do what has been done because we have discovered with Professor Whitehead that ‘religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in dogmas.  The inspiration of religion lies in the history of religion.’  Whether this be true of other faiths than Christianity we may not be sure, but it seems very true of our faith.  Metaphysical systems have not been able to maintain the intellectual life of our community and abstract systems of morality have not conveyed devotion and the power of obedience with their ideals and imperatives.  Idealistic and realistic metaphysics, perfectionistic and hedonistic ethics have been poor substitutes for the New Testament, and churches which feed on such nourishment seem subject to spiritual rickets.  Yet it is not the necessity of staying alive which forces our community to speak in historical terms.  It is not a self-evident truth that the church ought to live; neither the historical nor the confessional standpoint can accept self-preservation as the first law of life, since in history we know that death is the law of even the best life and in faith we understand that to seek life is to lose it.  The church’s compulsion arises out of its need–since it is a living church–to say truly what it stands for, and out of its inability to do so otherwise than by telling the story of its life.

The preachers and theologians of the modern church must do what New Testament evangelists did because their situation permits no other method…We are in history as the fish is in water and what we mean by the revelation of God can be indicated only as we point through the medium in which we live…Religious experience and moral sense are to be found in many different settings and can be interpreted from many different points of view.  The sense of the numinous accompanies many strange acts of worship; it may have been far stronger when human sacrifice was offered to pagan deities than it has ever been in Christianity.  High moral devotion and a keen sense of duty point many men today to domestic and tribal gods.  What the unconquerable movements of the human heart toward worship and devotion really mean, how their errors may be distinguished from their truths and how they are to be checked, cannot be known save as they are experienced and disciplined in a community with a history.  Obedience to moral imperatives, worship, and prayer are indispensable from the listening for God’s word.  But what they mean, what their content must be, and to what ends they ought to be directed we cannot understand save as we bring to bear upon them our remembrance of an obedience unto death, of the imperatives which have come to us through history, of the Lord’s prayers in the garden and on the mount, and of a worship in a temple whose inner sanctuary was empty.  Religious and moral experience are always in some history and in some social setting that derives from the past.  They also offer us no way of avoiding the use of our history in saying what we mean…Christian faith cannot escape partnership with history, however many other partners it may choose.  With this it has been mated and to this its loyalty belongs; the union is as indestructible as that of reason and sense experience in the natural sciences.” (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 43ff)

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Here’s a sermon on God’s designs for marriage that I recently gave at Aletheia Church in Cambridge, focusing on Genesis 2:18-25:

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/aletheia-sermon-vodcast/sex-love-and-war-part-2-6106908%5D

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“It is not alien to the biblical texts themselves, read as a cumulative whole, to seek a unitary story that encompasses the whole.  For warrant to do this, we do not need to rely solely on the mere existence of the canon or the church’s tradition of reading it, nor need we make a simply arbitrary decision to read Scripture in this way, but we can appeal to significant features of the texts in themselves.” (Richard Bauckham, “Reading Scripture as a Coherent Story,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, eds. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, p. 42)

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Some gems excerpted from Stephen Crites’ famous essay:

“The formal quality of experience through time is inherently narrative.” (Stephen Crites, “The Narrative Quality of Experience,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39 (1971), p. 291)

“Stories, and the symbolic worlds they project, are not like monuments that men behold, but like dwelling-places.  People live in them.” (p. 295)

“Stories give qualitative substance to the form of experience because it [experience] is itself an incipient story.” (p. 297)

“Even when it is largely implicit, not vividly self-conscious, our sense of ourselves is at every moment to some extent integrated into a single story.” (p. 302)

“The stories people hear and tell, the dramas they see performed, not to speak of the sacred stories that are absorbed without being directly heard or seen, shape in the most profound way the inner story of experience.  We imbibe a sense of the meaning of our own baffling dramas from these stories, and this sense of its meaning in turn affects the form of a man’s experience and the style of his action…Stories, in particular, infuse the incipient drama of experience with a  definite sense of the way its scenes are connected.  They reveal to people the kind of drama in which they are engaged, and perhaps its larger meaning.” (pp. 304-05)

“Ethical authority is always a function of a common narrative coherence of life.” (p. 310)

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