prof chad's blog

Helping prepare future leaders of God's churches

Is the Bible literal?

What does it mean to take the Bible literally? When Jesus said, “I am the door,” isn’t he using a metaphor? We don’t think Jesus is a literal door made of iron or wood with hinges and a handle, do we? We understand that Jesus is similar to a door in that Jesus provides access to God like a door provides access to something beyond it.

What about when Jesus said, “This is my blood,” as he held the cup? Catholics take that pretty literally. They teach that the wine of communion is literally the blood of Christ. We Protestants don’t believe that, so clearly a Catholic could argue that we are not taking the Bible literally. We respond with that clearly Jesus was using an analogy or a metaphor. It’s not literal.

What about the parables. A parable by definition is not a factual state of affairs. It’s not literally the case that God is an unjust judge or that the Kingdom of Heaven is really a mustard seed. We don’t think there was literally a Samaritan beaten and left for dead. Jesus was using a hypothetical situation to make a point. This is in the nature of parables.

Should we literally gouge out our eyes if we lust? If so, then we’d all be blind. Should we literally turn the other cheek? Actually, I’m in favor of taking that literally, but most Evangelical Christians I know are not in favor of taking that literally. Is slavery a divinely ordained social institution? The Bible says so. Should we take that literally?

Are women really saved through childbearing as the Bible says in 1 Timothy 2:15? Doesn’t that mean women are not saved by grace through faith as Ephesians indicates? Are women saved differently than men? What if she or her husband cannot have kids? Is she just out of luck? Sorry, go straight to hell and don’t pass go? What if a woman takes Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7 and remains unmarried in order to devote herself more fully to God? Will she go to hell since she hasn’t born children (or should she bear children out of wedlock in order to be saved)? My point is that if we take the statement in 1 Timothy literally then we cannot take other passages literally. There’s a contradiction at the literal level of the text.

The historical fact is that the Christian tradition has always struggled with how to interpret the Bible. St. Augustine‘s text, On Christian Teaching,
contains some of the best early Christian reflection on this problem. It’s
probably available online.

What that we read in the Bible is literal? What needs to be read as allegory? What is poetry? What is prayer? What is history? What is law? What is a wisdom teaching? What is prophecy?

It’s the case that our modern Western culture takes the claim that truth is that which can be empirically verified far more seriously than any other culture in history. Most Eastern cultures today do not place this same limit on truth. Truth is far more dynamic for them than it is for us. The Hebrews likewise were not nearly as impressed with what could be measured as we are. It wasn’t until circa 1500(ish) that Western culture started to care about science. History wasn’t developed until the 18th century. There were “historians” before this time (e.g. the Roman, Tacitus), but they were writing and commenting on the present, not reconstructing the past to find meaning in it as we think of “history” today.

Science and history are things we value in our culture. They matter so much to us that we identify truth with what is historically and scientifically verifiable. Science and history are the canons of truth–for us. Not for many people in Asia. Not for the ancient Hebrews. Not for the early Christians. Just for us. (It’s hard to recognize something as cultural when it’s part of our own culture! This is where the study of things like anthropology can be very helpful.)

My point is to question whether we are we imposing our own cultural values on the Bible when we demand that it “measure” up (pun intended). I’m not saying that historical facts are not important. I’m asking if we are actually making history and science the judges of scripture rather than allowing scripture to stand over and against these things.

Why should they determine truth for us? Why should we defend the Bible against these standards? Doesn’t the Bible transcend these cultural artifacts?

You see what I’m getting at? When we demand that the Bible be literally true, that it be historically true, that it be scientifically true, we are subordinating the Bible to those cultural values. Haven’t we’ve actually betrayed the Bible at that point? Aren’t we literally worshiping Science and History? Is this not just as idolatrous as the worship of Baal?

Beginnings of Christian Theology

How did Christians do theology before the New Testament? Why did early Christians feel it was important to do theology? How did the Bible come to be in the form we have it today? These are some of the questions addressed in this video presentation that covers the beginnings of Christian theology.

Dawn

Click the image to launch the video

The video is available here. You can download an mp3 or smartphone video as well.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and feedback about the video.

Picture Credit

“Cologne, Germany,” by Martin Boose

John Wesley’s Theological Method

When we talk about our theological method we’re talking about things like the sources we’re using, our goals, and the values that influence our priorities and decisions. We’re also talking about resources we might appropriate from other disciplines like history, sociology, or science.

Click the image to launch the video

I recently created an online video presentation for a course I teach that explores aspects of John Wesley’s theological method. It is somewhat broader than that. It raises questions about our own method. The video is available here. You can download an mp3 or smartphone video as well.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and feedback about the video.

Critical Thinking

John Wesley put a lot of emphasis on the role of reason in the Christian life. He himself was taught to begin with clear distinctions, followed with careful organization, and then completed with plain argumentation (Maddox 1994, 41). So when we today emphasize the importance of critical thinking, we’re following in the heart of the Wesleyan tradition (recognizing that Wesley was himself following a pre-existing tradition in logic).

I recently came across a guide for developing critical thinking and I wanted to reproduce part of that guide here. Critical thinking involves:

    • Clarity: Be clear about our ideas and how we express them.
    • Consistency: Be consistent in behavior and thinking.
    • Evaluation: Go beyond the surface. Evaluate, analyze, synthesize.
    • Specificity: Be specific and focused in our communications.
    • Flexibility: Be open to new ideas.
    • Courageous: Be willing to take risks.

(Palloff and Platt 2003, 150).

Notice how this list connects so readily with the basic principles followed by John Wesley. Read through some of Wesley’s sermons (available online here) and see if you can detect these principles of critical thinking in his reflections on the Bible and the Christian life.

Bibliography

Maddox, Randy. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994.

Palloff, Rena M. and Keith Pratt. The Virtual Student: A Profile and Guide to Working with Online Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Women in Christianity

Anytime we talk about Christian views of women we should remember what our tradition has said about women. This video should raise some very pertinent questions for us, not least of which is, why have we not confessed the sins our tradition has perpetrated against women? Can we be absolved from sins we have not confessed? What is the legacy of these sins for our sons and daughters today?

We might also consider the very pertinent question raised in the video: “Why were we–evangelical Christians–losing the brightest women in the culture to alternative spiritualities and secularism?” (Lilian Calles Barger).

Karl Barth (1886-1968)

Occasionally I’d like to introduce people to some of the more important and influential theological figures. One of the most important is Karl Barth.

Karl Barth is widely regarded as the most important theologian of the 20th century, and by many as at least the most important theologian since Martin Luther–perhaps since Thomas Aquinas. Both Evangelicals and Liberals find many resources in his work. (That’s quite an accomplishment!) Many serious theologians consider him on par with the Church Fathers.

Karl Barth

Image via Wikipedia

His early work, The Epistle to the Romans, is a theological commentary on Romans. Barth scholars like to say that it “fell like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians.” It really was earth-shattering at the time and launched Barth’s career. He wrote it while he was the pastor of a tiny, country church in Switzerland. This book put him on the theological radar and, quickly, onto the world stage.

His life’s work is called the Church Dogmatics. There are 13 volumes. The last one (13th) was not completed before he died. It is a massive, massive–ridiculously massive–endeavor. It’s also an enormously important theological contribution.

He wrote several influential essays including The Humanity of God, The Strange New World of the Bible, and
God in Action. So many doctoral dissertations have been written on him that most of the German universities will no longer accept any additional ones.

He’s theologically conservative (criticized by liberals for his christocentrism) yet noticeably proto-postmodern (and thus criticized by evangelicals). He was one of the first to condemn the German war effort in WW1 (when many of his former teachers embraced it) and was a leader of the Confessing Church movement during WW2 (helping to author the Barmen Declaration).

If you’re interested in picking up some of his works for some “light reading”, other than The Strange New World of the Bible, and the Romans commentary, something that students of theology might like is his book called
Evangelical Theology. (In Germany, much of Protestant theology is called Evangelical theology–so it’s not quite what you think.) His
Dogmatics is actually an amazing resource for preachers because so much of it is a direct exegesis with theological commentary of important scriptural passages. Preparing a tough sermon? Go read where Barth unpacks the passage you’re preaching on.

Image of God

The image is distorted.One of the most important loci of theological anthropology is the image of God. There have been some fascinating developments in this doctrine in the past century. One of these developments is that theologians and biblical scholars have begun to take the grammar of Genesis more seriously when it says that we are created in the image of God. Up until that point it had been common to think of the image of God as something in us. But Genesis doesn’t say that God created the image in us, rather it says that God created us in the image.

If you think about it, there are some radical ramifications of that shift of perspective. What if the image isn’t something inside us that we possess but something in which we are created to be? Does this make the image a relational concept rather than a substantialist/metaphysical concept? What if sin disrupted that relationship so that we are no longer in the image?

Another of these developments is the increased attention to the NT declaration that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). If we are created in the image and that image is Jesus then we are created to be in Jesus. We are created to be in the fellowship of the Triune God. The incarnation of the Son, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, along with the sending of the Spirit all work towards this purpose: participation in the life of God.

How might it change our embedded theologies to reflect deliberately on these interpretations of this classic doctrine? Previously theologians argued that the image of God was things like the human ability of language, our capacity for reason, our free will, the soul, or even our ability to walk upright. On what grounds were the previous interpretation of this doctrine justified? Are these reasons sufficient?

Theologically speaking, does this create a more coherent theological position by integrating more closely what we say about creation, what we say about Christ, and what we say about salvation/sanctification? Does it move us beyond some of the unprofitable arguments that have grown up around the traditional understanding of this doctrine?

How might it change the way we do ministry if we think of the image of God in this light? How might it change our prayers? These sorts of ministerial or spiritual concerns should be an important part of our theological methodologies.

Bibliography

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Vol. III. The Doctrine of Creation. Part 1. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. New York: T&T Clark International, 2004. (see pgs. 197-205)

Keen, Craig. “Homo Precarius: Prayer in the Image and Likeness of God.” Wesleyan Theological Journal. Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring, 1998): 128-150.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Translated by John J. Scullion. Minneapolis: Aubsburg Publishing House, 1984.

Belief and Virtue

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann once wrote that “The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act” (Brueggemann 2001, 1). If he is right, and I think he is, that the enculturation to a particular ethos conditions our ability to believe and to act then this raises questions about one of the basic assumptions of many Evangelical Christians. Namely it suggests that the primary source of human behavior is not our beliefs.

It often appears as if human beings have a tremendous capacity to believe one thing and do other things. We may believe that performing a certain act will get us into trouble and we do it regardless. Our desire for the act is greater than our belief about the consequences or the moral rightness of the act.

Additionally we seem to have the capacity to hold a great many conflicting beliefs at the same time. Perhaps we believe we cannot change another person but we also believe this case is special. We believe we can change the other person in this situation.

Our beliefs are apparently not the primary cause of our actions, choices, or behaviors. Something else is more fundamental. Brueggemann names enculturation as one of the primary causes both of beliefs and of acts. He suggests that the ethos of our society is one of the ways this happens.

This raises important questions for theological studies. If to some extent doctrines are a codification of our beliefs, are they shaped by this enculturation process? Do they reflect certain social commitments? Much of the theological literature from the twentieth century has argued that, indeed, this is the case.

Brueggemann’s solution is that we need to find ways to live within “God’s imagination.” We might consider this to be an explanation of what Ephesians means when it prays that “the eyes of our heart would be enlightened” (Eph. 1:18). Imagination here isn’t make-believe. It is seeing the world as God does–which is through the image of Jesus Christ.

If the ethos of our culture–consumerism–is part of the problem, then maybe the way we can enter into God’s imagination is through the Christian virtues of humility, submission, mercy, and poverty. If consumerism shapes our beliefs and actions, then these virtues must also have this same potential to shape our beliefs and actions.

In the final analysis then it is not our beliefs that are most important but our virtues. We can believe rightly and act wrongly. It is harder, though perhaps not impossible, to have developed the Christian virtues and to act wrongly.

Bibliography

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Second Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Experience

When we discuss the proofs for the existence of God, or perhaps when we discuss apologetics or evangelism, I often hear people say something like, “The greatest proof of the existence of God is my experience of God, which no one can contest.” The question I want to pose here is whether that is the case.Experiencing God in Worship

Intuitively it seems clear that if I have a personal experience of something then it must be true. After all, my experiences are not based on concepts, ideas, arguments, or anything external to me. My experiences are immediate. If I experience God then God must be causing the experience. But it is not clear that this is actually the case.

In postliberal theology one of the core teachings is that our communities shape our experience of things. For example, while it is expected that some Catholics in Latin America will see visions of the Blessed Virgin in waterfalls, no one expects Southern Baptists to do so. The idea is that something about Catholicism conditions people to see the Virgin in everyday objects. We could also note that while it is expected that some Nazarenes will experience entire sanctification, no one expects this of Lutherans. While Pentecostals might experience the gift of tongues, High Church Anglicans are not expected to do so. Our experiences are, to some extent, productions of our expectations and these expectations are shaped by our communities.

This is one major objection to the idea that my experience of God proves God’s existence. The other major objection is slightly different. If we grant, for the sake of argument, that my experience of God proves God’s existence, must we also say the same thing for other religions? Does a Hindu’s experience of Ganesh prove Ganesh’s existence? Based on our argument we would have to say it does. Does the Muslim’s vision of the Prophet prove the validity of Islam? In these cases most Evangelical Christians would want to deny the proof based on the experience. But to do so we would seemingly have to deny our own proof of God based on experience. This is a counterexample that we should take seriously.

Two more quick points. First, if we reflect carefully upon our own religious experiences, many of us will acknowledge that our experiences of God change throughout the course of our lives. We experience God differently as we come to know God differently–or, as our expectations of God change.

Second, if we based God’s existence on our experience of God then our experience becomes authoritative for us, not God. If we consider the consequences of subverting God’s authority with our own many of us would become uncomfortable with it.

My point isn’t to try to undermine our belief in God but rather to encourage us to think more carefully about how we talk about God and to cause us to depend more fully on God rather than on ourselves.

Some Do’s and Don’ts of Good Writing

Here are some basic guidelines for good writing:

Don’t write without a plan. Do tell your reader what you want them to take away from your paper (i.e. your thesis statement).

Don’t write without structure. Do include your thesis statement in your first paragraph.

Don’t hope your reader will be able to figure out what you’re saying. Do write clearly with your reader in mind.

Don’t throw paragraphs together haphazardly. Do begin each paragraph with the topic sentence for that paragraph.

Don’t use the text to support your own opinions. Do explain the relevant opinions of the author.

Don’t write autobiographically. Do include your opinions through careful critique of the text.

Don’t relegate your thesis statement to the first and the final paragraph. Do refer to it and develop it as you discuss each point.

Don’t use worship as an excuse to avoid the hard work of scholarship. Do worship with your mind through rigorous intellectual engagement.

Don’t quote commonly known passages of scripture to take up space and avoid your own writing. Do reference the Bible through chapter and verse citations where appropriate.

Don’t wait to start reading the text. Do begin now (really, right now—well, after you finish reading the instructions). Good writing begins with good reading.

Don’t rush through the assignment. Do work at it over many days allowing your subconscious to deeply process this information.

Don’t spend so much space on one point to the exclusion of others. Do budget your space so you can work adequately through each point.

Don’t use direct quotations when you can avoid it. Do put the author’s ideas into your own words and provide an appropriate page reference.

Don’t ignore something because it is hard or confusing. Do read difficult passages multiple times and slowly to understand what the author is saying. Do ask others if you still don’t understand.

Don’t read quickly through the book. Do take careful, organized notes as you read.

Don’t ignore correct formatting rules. Do familiarize yourself with the MLA/Turabian Handbook and follow correct formatting procedures in your writing.

Don’t use exclusive language. Do use inclusive language.

Don’t plagiarize. Do give others appropriate credit for their idea.

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