Archive for May, 2013

open_secret“The whole issue [universalism] is misunderstood if it is argued in terms of the mathematical completeness of the number of the saved, conceiving them as an unacountable number of individual souls.  The universalism of the Bible will not be understood if we are thinking in terms of a multitude of spiritual monads and asking about the destiny of each one conceived as a separate individual.  The universalism of the Bible consists in this: it shows us that God’s saving purpose is addressed to the whole of his work in creation and to the human person, who has his real being only in his participation in this whole work.  Salvation is a making whole and therefore it concerns the whole.

This means, in terms of my own spiritual life, that I am never permitted to think of my own salvation apart from that of God’s whole family [church] and God’s whole world [mission].” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, p. 80)

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“[The best teachers] have a way of chopping a path through all the brush of hermeneutical debates and academic wrangling about historical criticism [of the Bible] to remind us of a simple but still disconcerting truth: that the point of Scripture is to encounter Jesus.

imagesYou might be tempted to think this is obvious.  Trust me: in many quarters it is not.  In some places, the Bible simply functions as a bookend to uphold the status quo of American civil religion or whatever sort of domesticated spirituality passes for ‘Christianity.’  In a sense, that grotesque dinner table prayer in Will Ferrell’s NASCAR parody, Talladega Nights, ends up functioning as a back-handed Kierkegaardian critique [of the church].  While we purport to be praying to Jesus the Christ, risen and ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father, instead we end up praying to whatever domesticated version of Jesus suits our tastes and preferences.  So everyone around the table starts to share: ‘I like to picture Jesus as…’  This is the preface to all of our idolatries.  And it functions as a debilitating filter when we read the Bible.  The Scriptures are no longer revelation; they are simply a mirror.  Instead of encountering Jesus there, we simply see ourselves.  This is what Kierkegaard liked to call ‘Christendom.’  And in his delicious Danish irony, Kierkegaard warns us: it’s hard to read the Bible in Christendom.

In other quarters, the encounter with Jesus is buffered and deferred in the name of intellectual ‘rigor,’ theological enlightenment, and overcoming ‘naive’ faith.  Too often, Crump points out, an ‘academic’ approach to the Bible–whether ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’–ends up making the Bible something other than the means by which we are existentially encountered by Jesus.  To approach the Bible in this way creates a blast wall that serves to protect us from the explosion of that encounter.” (James K. A. Smith, in the “Foreword” to David Crump, Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: Reading the Bible Critically in Faith)

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bonhoeffer“In his retrieval of Luther, Bonhoeffer found an unexpected ally in the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.  Despite their differences, principally over what Bonhoeffer believed to be an exaggerated individualism in Kierkegaard, he believed that Kierkegaard along of nineteenth-century thinkers had correctly perceived the true dialectic of faith and obedience in Luther’s interpretation of the gospel.  Bonhoeffer’s complaint that Luther’s doctrine of faith alone had been vitiated by a neglect of active obedience echoed Kierkegaard’s own passionate appeal in several of his polemical writings against the bourgeois complacency of Danish Lutheranism for a return to the authentic principles of the Reformation.  Bonhoeffer had even listed Kierkegaard in the line of ‘genuine Christian thinking’ that went from Paul, Augustine, and Luther to Kierkegaard and Barth.  Wondering whether Luther himself would be able to recognize contemporary Christendom, Kierkegaard had written: ‘The misfortune of Christianity is clearly that the dialectical factor has been taken from Luther’s doctrine of faith so that it has become a hiding place for sheer paganism and epicureanism.  People forget that Luther was urging the claims of faith against a fantastically exaggerated asceticism.’…

Luther’s followers turned Luther’s insight into an abstract principle.  This could be called the ‘principle of grace.’  In effect, one has God’s righteousness by merely possessing the principle.  But one does not have to actualize this principle.  Simply holding it and defending it against the counterprinciple of good works was sufficient…In nineteenth-century Danish Lutheranism, understood by Bonhoeffer to be paralleled by German Lutheranism in the 1930’s, Luther’s doctrine became a mere presupposition demanding that Christians refrain from simple obedience, lest they expose themselves to the ironic accusation that they were denying the all-sufficiency of grace.  And so, as the twisted logic went, the Christian simply had to conform to the world.

This is a crucial issue for Bonhoeffer.  Kierkegaard’s analysis of the misguided strategies of latter-day Lutherans enlightened Bonhoeffer to the depth of the distortion against which he was struggling.  When grace becomes a principle of righteousness, rather than the outcome of God’s gift of righteousness, there is no new existence in Jesus Christ, no boundary between the life of sin and the new life of holiness, no need to embrace the cross…This was the cheap grace against which Bonhoeffer inveighed.  His sarcasm in rejecting such thinking is directed as much against the distortion of Luther as against the easy way in which so-called Christians could twist Luther’s teachings to justify their noninvolvement in the urgent, courageous deeds that were needed for that time, such as rejecting the evil core of Nazism and speaking up for the Jews.” (Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, “Editor’s Introduction” to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4, pp. 10-12)

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Allison“What does [perfect] mean?  ‘Be perfect’ can have nothing to do with sinfulness.  For one thing, nothing else in Matthew points to such an idea, and the Lord’s Prayer, in which one asks for daily forgiveness, points directly away from it.  For another, with the words, ‘if you, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children’ (7:11), Matthew’s Jesus displays his concord with Paul and the author of 1 John: there is none that is righteous, and if we say we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves.

How then do we understand 5:48?  The first pertinent observation is that although the verse concludes 5:43ff., it is also the fitting culmination to all of 5:21ff.  Now throughout this section Jesus has asked for a sort of perfection—not the perfection of being without sin but the perfection of what we might call completeness.  He demands that all anger and adulterous thoughts to be eliminated.  He enjoins a comprehensive dedication to the truth that makes oaths otiose.  And he commands a love that is universal in scope.  In each case Jesus orders something that cannot be surpassed.  What more can be done about lust if it has been driven from one’s heart?  And what more can one do about integrity of speech if one always speaks the truth?  And who else is left to love after one has loved the enemy?  Jesus’ call to perfection is a call to completeness, to do certain things utterly.  This is confirmed by 19:16-30, the story of Jesus’ encounter with a rich man [who is exhorted to be ‘perfect’]…Here, as in 5:48, perfection has nothing to do with sinfulness.  Rather, once more the central idea is completeness.” (Dale Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination, pp. 104-05)

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Allison“Throughout [Matthew] 5:38-42 no motive is given for acting in the peculiar manner Jesus desires [i.e., a radical committment to non-retaliation].  This strange fact, which leaves his commands as it were hanging in the air, means that the question of whether or not the world will be transformed by such action is just not addressed…Matthew’s text, however, hints at no pragmatic motive.  It simply demands, without explanation, that those who do Jesus’ bidding will provocatively go the extra mile.  The only reason forthcoming appears in the next paragraph [on loving one’s own enemies], which invokes the imitation of God.  But such imitation is theology, not pragmatism.  We must not forget that the speaker, who embodies his imperatives, ends up on a cross.” (Dale Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination, p. 99)

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Dale Allison’s provocative comments on Jesus’ second beatitude (Matthew 5:4) in the Sermon on the Mount, in light of the clear background of Isaiah 61 for the beatitudes as a whole:

Allison“But what causes the saints to mourn?  Although Augustine suggested that it is because of the earthly things they gave up when they became Christians, the dominant answer in exegetical history is sin.  In Theophylact’s words, believers mourn ‘for their sins, not for things of this life.  Christ said, ‘They mourn,’ that is, they that are mourning incessantly and not just one time; and not only for our own sins, but for those of our neighbor.’

Here, however, the tradition is likely wrong.  The key to mourning is probably to be found in the scriptural allusion…[Matt.] 5:4 draws upon Isa. 61:2: ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God: to comfort all who mourn.’  In the Isaiah passage Israel is oppressed at the hands of its heathen captors; its cities are in ruins; its people know shame and dishonor.  So God’s own are on the bottom, their enemies on top.  Mourning is heard because the righteous suffer, the wicked prosper, and God has not yet righted the situation (cf. Rev. 6:9-11).  It is the same in the Sermon on the Mount.  The kingdom has not yet fully come.  The saints are reviled and persecuted (5:10-12).  The meek have not yet inherited the earth (5:5).  The righteous still have enemies (5:43-48) who misuse them (5:38-42).  In short, God’s will is not yet done on earth as it is in heaven (6:10), and that can only mean mourning for God’s people.  To those who understand the truth about the present age, grief cannot be eliminated.” (Dale Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination, pp. 46-47)

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cs-lewis-sized“It may be asked whether now, when only a minority of Englishmen regard the Bible as a sacred book, we may anticipate an increase of its literary influence.  I think we might if it continued to be widely read.  But this is not very likely.  Our age has, indeed, coined the expression ‘the Bible as literature.’  It is very generally implied that those who have rejected its theological pretensions nevertheless continue to enjoy it as a treasure house of English prose.  It may be so.  There may be people who, not having been forced upon familiarity with it by believing parents, have yet been drawn to it by its literary charms and remained as constant readers.  But I never happen to meet them.  Perhaps it is because I live in the provinces.  But I cannot help suspecting, if I may make an Irish bull, that those who read the Bible as literature do not read the Bible.

It would be strange if they did.  If I am right in thinking that the Bible, apart from its sacred character, appeals most easily to a Romantic taste, we must expect to find it neglected and even disliked in our own age…

I think it very unlikely that the Bible will return as a book unless it returns as a sacred book…Unless the religious claims of the Bible are again acknowledged, its literary claims will, I think, be given only ‘mouth honor’ and that decreasingly.  For it is, through and through, a sacred book.  Most of its component parts were written, and all of them were brought together, for a purely religious purpose.  It contains good literature and bad literature.  But even the good literature is so written that we can seldom disregard its sacred character.  It is easy enough to read Homer while suspending our disbelief in the Greek pantheon; but then the Illiad was not composed chiefly, if at all, to enforce obedience to Zeus and Athena and Poseidon.  The Greek tragedians are more religious than Homer, but even there we have only religious speculation or at least the poet’s personal religious ideas, not dogma.  That is why we can join in.  Neither Aeschylus nor even Virgil tacitly prefaces his poetry with the formula, ‘Thus say the gods.’  But in most parts of the Bible everything is implicitly or explicitly introduced with ‘Thus saith the Lord.’  It is, if you like to put it that way, not merely a sacred book but a book so remorselessly and continuously sacred that it does not invite, it excludes or repels, the merely aesthetic approach.  You can read it as literature only by a tour de force.  You are cutting the wood against the grain, using the tool for a purpose it was not intended to serve.  It demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms: it will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different.  I predict that it will in the future be read, as it always has been read, almost exclusively by Christians…

For the Bible, whether in the Authorized or in any other version, I foresee only two possibilities; either to return as a sacred book or to follow the classics, if not quite into oblivion yet into the ghost-life of the museum and the specialist’s study.  Except, of course, among the believing minority who read it to be instructed and get literary enjoyment as a by-product.” (C. S. Lewis, The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version, pp. 29-34)

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