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I read up on Barth’s doctrine of Scripture so you didn’t have to! Here are some of things I found possibly relevant. I have provided comment here and there to put the quotes in context.

Two places in the Church Dogmatics that Barth makes extended comment on the doctrine of Scripture are I/1, §4 and I/2, §19. The bulk of CD I/1 is devoted to the doctrine of revelation, which also provides the context for Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity. That is because the doctrine of the Trinity is an answer to the question “Who is God in his revelation?” (297). Before this, though, Barth provides a preliminary comment on the doctrine of Scripture. He will treat this more extensively in CD I/2, on which I will write a separate post, only after he has detailed the doctrine of the Trinity. Traditionally, Protestant dogmatics addresses the doctrine of Scripture before the doctrine of the Trinity. However,

“The reason why we diverge from this custom is this. It is hard to see how in relation to Holy Scripture we can say what is distinctive for the holiness of this Scripture if first we do not make it clear (naturally from Holy Scripture itself) who the God is whose revelation makes Scripture holy” (300).

“The doctrine of the Trinity itself is threatened by the same danger, the danger of irrelevant speculation, if we state it only at a later stage and do not give it the first word as that which gives us information on the concrete and decisive question: Who is God?” (301).

Barth begins CD I/1 with sections on the task of dogmatics and the prolegomena (§§1-2). He then addresses proclamation of the gospel, the central calling of the church:

“Proclamation is human speech in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald, and which is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks, and therefore heard and accepted in faith as divine decision concerning life and death, as divine judgment and pardon, eternal Law and eternal Gospel both together” (52; cf. 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Cor 2:17; 1 Pet 4:11).

Nonetheless, proclamation is not made proclamation by virtue of human beings proclaiming. God does not even need proclamation, though he chooses to use this. Proclamation is an act of obedience to the commission of God and where he chooses he makes it his own in such a way that speaks to people’s hearts:

“It is always and always will be man’s word. It is also something more than this and quite different. When and where it pleases God, it is God’s own Word. Upon the promise of this divine good-pleasure it is ventured in obedience. On this promise depend the claim and the expectation. But proclamation both as preaching and sacrament does not cease to be representation, human service” (71-2).

Barth includes the sacraments (as a Reformed theologian, baptism and the eucharist) alongside proclamation as the central calling of the church. He does not provide much comment on them here though because the context is revelation. Both proclamation and sacrament are related in that they are at once a fully human work and a work of God. Barth draws on the incarnation here to elucidate this. Just as Jesus is completely human and completely God, none of these being compromised in his being but rather upheld, so too are proclamation and sacrament human works in which God also works.

After addressing proclamation in §3, Barth goes on to address the doctrine of Scripture in §4, “The Word of God in Its Threefold Form.” The event of revelation is God with us, in Christ. This both proclamation and Scripture attest. In his work in proclamation, God directs his hearers back to himself in the person of Christ, by which he made himself known to human beings (revelation here also has a future element in which God will be fully revealed with the coming of the kingdom. Barth’s focus here though is on this retrospective aspect).

The middle term of revelation, Scripture, differs from proclamation:

“The distinction of the Head from the body and the superiority of the Head over the body find concrete expression in the fact that proclamation in the Church is confronted by a factor which is very like it as a phenomenon, which is temporal as it is, and yet which is different from it and in order superior to it. This factor is Holy Scripture” (101).

“With its acknowledgment of the presence of the Canon the Church expresses the fact that it is not left to itself in its proclamation, that the commission on the ground of which it proclaims, the object which it proclaims, the judgment under which its proclamation stands and the event of real proclamation must all come from elsewhere, from without, and very concretely from without, in all the externality of the concrete Canon as a categorical imperative which is also historical, which speaks in time” (101).

That is, if Scripture is just another form of proclamation then there is nothing by which the church can measure the validity of its proclamation. Not only would the proclamation of the church be disputable but Scripture itself. God would not have spoken. Moreover, Barth contends that the nature of Scripture as writing is essential to its role in relation to proclamation. An oral tradition, for example, lacks this same concreteness and can too easily be manipulated by successive generations. But the written word maintains a relative consistency from which it can confront the limits of proclamation. Anticipating the critique I had in mind here, that a written Scripture is as much open to abuse as an oral one, Barth writes,

“Nor will one banish the danger, but only conjure it up properly and make it acute, by making correct exposition dependent on the judgment of a definitive and decisive teaching office in the Church or on the judgment of a historico-critical scholarship which comports itself with equal infallibility. If we assume that one or other of these authorities is worthy of the Church’s highest confidence, then either way the Church goes astray in respect of the Bible by thinking that in one way or the other it can and should control correct exposition, and thereby set up a norm over the norm, and thereby capture the true norm for itself. The exegesis of the Bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible. Here as everywhere the defence against possible violence to the text must be left to the text itself, which in fact has always succeeded in doing something a purely spiritual and oral tradition cannot do, namely, maintaining its own life against the encroachments of individual or total periods and tendencies in the Church, victoriously asserting this life in ever new developments, and thus creating recognition for itself as a norm” (106).

This is a necessary inference. If God works in proclamation such that he really does reveal himself in the midst of human words, then it is true here also with Scripture. Amid the vicissitudes of human interpretation, the written word maintains a kind of constancy against its interpretations which God brings to light again and again to call the church back to its roots in revelation.

Like proclamation, nonetheless, Scripture is human words through which God speaks. It is a witness to revelation, which is Christ. Of John the Baptist’s witness to Christ, then, Barth writes,

“Why and in what respect does the biblical witness have authority? Because and in the fact that he claims no authority for himself, that his witness amounts to letting that other [revelation] itself be its own authority. We thus do the Bible poor and unwelcome honour if we equate it directly with this other, with revelation itself” (112).

Yet this does not mean a denigration of Scripture. Rather, Barth seems to be reluctant to go anywhere which would effectively equate Scripture with God. He maintains, however, that it really is God’s Word:

“To hear the Bible as God’s Word means, therefore, that then and there, in the undoubtedly very modest, changing, perhaps increasing but possibly also decreasing compass in which it is true at any given time for an individual, we hear the human words of the Bible as the bearers of this eternal Word, based on this centre and having it in view again in everything they say. When the Bible itself is revelation in this way, it establishes the Church and makes its proclamation necessary and possible. The unity of revelation guarantees the unity of the biblical witness in and in spite of all its multiplicity and even contradictoriness” (116-117).

At the end of the section Barth asserts the unity of revelation in its threefold form.

It is useless to attempt to “understand the three forms of God’s Word in isolation. The first, revelation, is the form that underlies the other two. But it is the very one that never meets us anywhere in abstract form. We know it only indirectly, from Scripture and proclamation. The direct Word of God meets us only in this twofold mediacy. But Scripture too, to become God’s Word for us, must be proclaimed in the Church” (121).

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I’ve from a few people heard something along the lines that the NIV can’t be trusted because it takes verses out of the Bible. Just letting you know that that’s rubbish :) It’s true that the NIV, along with other modern translations such as the ESV and NLT, does not publish some verses. But this is a necessary consequence of good biblical scholarship. You can be sure that while all modern Bible translations will have their respective problems, these problems are typically minor. There are hours of prayer, hard work, and critical discussion which go into modern translations. If you only ever had access to one then you would still be set.

First, on versification, the original manuscripts did not have chapter or verse numbers, let alone punctuation or spacing (the original Hebrew didn’t even contain vowels, which makes it even more difficult to read in some places). Jews and Christians went without these for centuries until different versification traditions developed and eventually enjoyed widespread adoption in the 16th (!) Century. I say this because some people might find it off-putting when they read verse 42 and it goes straight to 44. No worry, a verse that was thought to be authentic in the 16th Century is no longer thought to be so, which leads me to the next point.

Second, as new manuscripts are discovered, as new technologies for reading manuscripts are developed, and as biblical scholars hone their highly critical methods, we learn more about the original oral and written sources from which we derive our modern day Bible. We have access to no original manuscripts. Every one we do have is a copy, and often an incomplete copy. We need to consult hundreds (thousands, I think but not sure) of manuscripts to get a still incomplete picture of the biblical text. As these texts were copied, variations were introduced. There are many possible reasons for this. I will name a few. Sometimes scribes made errors like omitting letters, words, or sentences, accidentally altering words by recording the wrong letter, or even inserting words through, for example, seeing a word written earlier in a sentence and accidentally reproducing it again later in a sentence, or just trying to hold too much in their head at a time and then recording a slightly altered sentence, etc.

Sometimes scribes intentionally changed the manuscript. This happens a lot with manuscripts of the first three Gospels. Scribes see Matthew using one word in a parallel passage where Luke uses another word and choose one over the other in order to harmonise. This extends to “correcting” details in the accounts so that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all witness to a particular event or detail in exactly the same way. Another common intentional change is editing the manuscript to accord with a particular theological position. The doctrine of the Trinity proper arose in the 4th Century and there is no direct “proof” for it in the New Testament (though there are good reasons to develop such a doctrine on the basis of New Testament theology). Nonetheless, in the King James Version can be found the “comma johanneum,” 1 John 5:7-8. This blatant affirmation of the Trinity appears in no Greek manuscript, and no church father makes reference to it, which makes no sense if the verses are original. It would have been unquestionable proof of the biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. It is found in some Latin manuscripts, where it was likely added to derive biblical support for the doctrine of the Trinity. Two other examples of intentional changes are the two endings of Mark (16:8b and 16:9-20) and the beloved “pericope adulterae” (John 7:53-8:11). Manuscript variations (with Mark) and obvious language and theological differences between these passages and their respective Gospels indicate that they are not original. What is interesting with John’s, however, is that it would fit well in Luke’s Gospel, and some have said that it was an independent oral (or otherwise) tradition that was preserved and added into John at a later date. The basic point is that we have access to a lot of manuscripts and as we learn more about their original contexts then some verses will be removed from the Bible (or referred to in footnotes), and the translation of other verses or passages will change in subtle or major ways. This is to be celebrated.

Finally, a short theological reflection. I think the fearmongering around this (even some conspiracy speak of people “altering the Bible” – no, scholars will always have different opinions and we are better off for it) stems from an unhealthy understanding of the Bible’s role in the church. Jesus told his disciples, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Nonetheless, “now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor 13:12). Faith is not based on some flawless set of manuscripts but on the Christ to whom these point. The Bible is not an end in itself nor can it be. Throughout history it has been used and still is used not to point to Christ but to legitimate whatever ungodly thing the wielder has in mind, intentional or not. Strive to ask what it reveals about the person of Christ and how the person of Christ leads his church to read Scripture, ever fragmented and ever being made new.

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I’ve spent some time yesterday and today getting into Barth’s majestic Church Dogmatics (edited and translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). It’s quite intimidating at first but I didn’t find it anywhere near as difficult as I thought it might be, probably because I spent all the time in the secondary literature first. I’ve just finished §8, which I’ll do a little summary of in the first part of my dissertation so here’s an opportunity for me to practice and you, if, whoever you are, are interested, to be interested in what I’m reading.

§8 is divided into three parts, “The place of the doctrine of the Trinity in dogmatics,” “The root of the doctrine of the Trinity,” and “Vestigium Trinitatis”.

The place of the doctrine of the Trinity in dogmatics

Barth begins this section with the threefold nature of God’s revelation to humanity: “God reveals Himself. He reveals Himself through Himself. He reveals Himself” (296). The structure of God’s self-unveiling to humanity is Trinitarian so the Father acts, the Son is the act and the Holy Spirit is the apprehension of this act in the human subject. So throughout, God is subject, predicate, object; Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost; Revealer, Revealed, Revealedness.

Barth’s structure of revelation allows him to find something like the Trinity in the Old Testament, which, despite emphasising God’s oneness also went beyond this in God interacting with his creation so “The angel of Yahweh in the Old Testament is obviously both identical and not identical with Yahweh Himself” (299).

Whereas the old Protestant dogmatics started with the doctrine of Scripture, Catholic dogmatics with the authority of the Church, and modern liberal Protestant dogmatics (at least those contemporary with Barth) with the truth of “religion,” Barth argues for the need to start dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity as a well-developed doctrine of God is first necessary to understand all else (300). Interestingly, Barth’s later interpreters have either critiqued or developed Barth on this same point in reverse, revising his doctrine of the Trinity in light of his later volumes.

Indeed, so Barth famously says, “The doctrine of the Trinity is what basically distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian” (301). I love this. He follows it up with a collection of quotes from theologians throughout the centuries who have said similar things. I am increasingly swayed by Barth’s argument that the Trinity is distinctive of Christianity. We do not come to theology with a general concept of God and then find the Trinity to fit somehow there. Conversely, I am wary of the triumphalism that can come from this and in relation to other ideologies such as colonialism, imperialism, racism, etc. In agreeing that the Trinity is distinctly Christian and that I love it to be so, I do not thereby want to cut myself off from the insights and challenges of those on the fringes and outside of the Christian tradition.

The root of the doctrine of the Trinity

In this subsection Barth goes on to discuss his theology of revelation as the root not of the Trinity itself, as if the Trinity only existed in our apprehension of God, but the doctrine of the Trinity. I am here a little perplexed at his earlier ambition to start a dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity before something like the doctrine of Scripture. Obviously such clear distinctions are neither possible nor desirable.

God is by nature unknowable, yet his freedom entails that he is free to overcome this unknowability and make himself known to humanity. Thus in revelation God “distinguish[es] Himself from Himself, i.e., to be God in Himself and in concealment, and yet at the same time to be God a second time in a very different way, namely, in manifestation, i.e., in the form of something He Himself is not” (316). So even anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Old Testament “are not just descriptions and representations of the reality of Yahweh; they are themselves the reality of Yahweh” (316).

Humanity cannot know God apart from revelation. Even in revelation, such as the ministry of Jesus, people cannot know this God unless he meets them in this revelation, so the confession of Peter is exemplary of this: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matt 16:17). “The neutral observer who understood the events recorded in it as revelation would cease thereby to be a neutral observer” (325). Followed by a beautiful smackdown reminiscent of Kierkegaard: “the philosophy of religion of the Enlightenment from Lessing by way of Kant and Herder to Fichte and Hegel, with its intolerable distinction between the eternal content and the historical ‘vehicle,’ can only be described as the nadir of the modern misunderstanding of the Bible” (329).

Vestigium Trinitatis

The edition I’m using translates the Latin as “trace of the Trinity,” that is the traces of the Trinity in things outside of biblical revelation such as nature (a spring, stream, and lake) or humanity (body, soul, spirit), going back to Augustine. When you investigate something, you look for the traces. Barth is ultimately dismissive of this, but notes that theologians throughout history were sincere in their presentations of vestigia, trying to communicate complex theological concepts in everyday language. Although theological language is itself a vestigium, the only true vestigium is God’s revelation. Theology is to interpret this, but it must not illustrate it (so e.g. spring, stream, lake) as it thus produces another source for knowledge of the Trinity, competing with revelation it attempts to interpret. Additionally, the illustrations themselves have many flaws (often leaning to either modalism or tritheism).

Pointing out the appeal to the Holy Spirit above Scripture of the radical reformers (an appeal that I open to in some sense still being valid), Barth writes “one might almost say [the Holy Spirit] became the specifically non-Church or anti-Church God” (337). Haha, I just thought that was poetic and interesting.

Finally, despite our limitations we cannot not speak of God: “theological language [is that], which even though it can only be the language of the world, must still believe at root, cost what it will, that contrary to the natural capabilities of this language it can and should speak of God’s revelation in this language as theological language” (341).

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In reading any text of theological significance, I am ever trying to keep in mind certain questions to engage with, test, and expand the text. (It’s kind of a modification of the Wesleyan Quadri-/Pentalateral). Note that the questions are critical and not appropriate in all contexts. Perhaps the first question should be, When and how should we ask such questions? Onwards:

Trinity:

Does the writer focus on any one person of the Trinity? If so, for what reason? How can this writer’s understandings of God be expanded with reference to other Trinitarian persons? Is the participation of all Trinitarian persons explored so that the persons are not presented as acting individually? How are the Trinitarian persons related to each other? Does the writer present God in light of who Jesus is? Does the writer present Jesus as divine and human and what implications of this are present in the text? Does the writer take into account the work of the Spirit in Christian communities at present and throughout history? Is the writer careful or overly confident in making statements about God?

Bible:

Is the writer biblically literate? Do they give due emphasis to tensions within Scripture or assume that it speaks with one voice on all matters? How does the writer include contributions from biblical studies, such as recent commentaries and journal articles, as well as awareness of the socio-historical worlds in which the texts are situated? Does the writer focus on one part of the biblical story to the exclusion of others? What hermeneutics are implicit in the writer’s interpretation of biblical texts? What presuppositions do they bring to the texts? Does the writer cover an appropriate selection of texts for the points they are making?

Church and Kingdom (or, on the Pentalateral, tradition, experience, reason, creation):

What church traditions does the writer operate within? Is their intended audience the individual Christian, the community of God, both? What implications does this text have beyond the academy, and is any room given to exploring those implications? What missiological context is the writer situated in, or how are they related to Christian praxis?

Where necessary, who makes up the writer’s dialogue partners and implied audience: Do they engage with global Christian voices? Do they engage with historical Christian voices? Do they engage with critical voices, feminist, queer, colonised, poor, disabled? Does the writer acknowledge their own ideological commitments? Do they engage with voices outside of the visible Church, contemporary science, sociology, philosophy, literature and arts, politics, economics, other religions? Are any important voices excluded from the conversation?

What questions might you ask?

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This semester I’m doing a course on the Gospel of John. After reading it these are some of what I regard as the “best bits”. I hope it doesn’t say too much about my faith:

10. Wine with Jesus

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he’s hanging out at a wedding in Cana, not too far from his hometown in Nazareth. This is where he performs his first miracle which “revealed his glory” (2:11). John records other miracles like healing an official’s “ill”¹ son (4:46-54), healing a man who had been “ill”² for thirty-eight years (5:1-9), feeding five thousand followers (6:1-14), and healing a man born blind (9:1-7). With this resumé, providing wine at a wedding pales in comparison. Perhaps even more embarrassing for Jesus is that he performs this when the guests have already had their fair share: Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now (2:10).³ But I won’t leave you hanging. Perhaps this passage speaks to its First Century context as Jesus meeting the important needs of hospitality. Maybe what appeals to me is its simple mystery: Why was Jesus’ first miracle providing wine?

Cana I have some?

Cana I have some?

9. 1st Century cannibalism

Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. (6:53-55). This is quite intense and remains for me one of the most puzzling passages in John. The main difficulty I have with it is John’s use of sarx, here translated flesh. Elsewhere in the gospel he uses it in contrast to spirit, or spiritual things (eg. 1:13, 3:6, 8:15), so that flesh designates the human, material aspect. The difficulty is that interpreting sarx in the same sense here means that Jesus is asking his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood, plain meaning, no interpretation needed. Whatever its meaning, its value (apart from the obvious as a contribution to theology around the Eucharist) is in presenting Jesus as an enigmatic prophet who continued to shock his listeners, including newly acquired followers and those close to him. The result is that most of the crowd desert him and he is left with the twelve (6:66-69).

8. Paradoxical witness to Jesus’ validity

[“]I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.” Then they said to him, “Where is your father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (8:18-19). Compare this with Jesus saying earlier that his testimony needs to be backed up by a secondary source (5:31). Basically, in this passage Jesus appeals to the Father as a witness to his messiahship and then continues by telling his audience they will not know the Father unless they know him! His proof runs on a paradoxical, internal logic. Further reading of the gospel will show that belief in Jesus is not closed. He provides signs (10:38), scripture testifies to him (5:45) and the Father is at work in people’s hearts (6:44). Regardless, the verses on their lonesome demonstrate the depth of Jesus’ words in John and the complex theology they deliver.

7. Listening to your mother

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (2:3-5). Returning to the wedding scene at Cana, a further point to be made about Jesus’ first miracle is that he is ostensibly not ready for it. We know that, despite Jesus’ hour having not yet come, he does perform the miracle sooner or later. It would be convenient to be able to say that Jesus performed the miracle an hour later, which is a comical interpretation at best. Could it be that Mary’s ‘prayer’ is answered in line with prophetic tradition?4 Another passage presents a similar quirk where Jesus’ brothers ask him to go to the Festival of Tabernacles and he gives a similar excuse but then later goes to the festival in secret (7:2-10).5 The second passage differs in that it shows Jesus as having a greater, more considered plan in place of one seen through the eyes of the flesh, but the point remains that he appears open to change with the circumstances in which he finds himself.

6. Stepping on necks and suchlike

Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. (12:30). John makes no small mention of Satan. He actually develops quite substantial demonology (satanology?) on him (8:44). But the most badass thing about John’s mentions of Satan is their connection to Jesus. He always approaches it from an ask-no-questions-your-time-has-come standpoint. So we get that Jesus will drive Satan out (12:30), but also that he has no power of Jesus (14:30), and even that he is already condemned (16:11). Combine this with Jesus’ comments on freedom from slavery to sin (8:34-36) and you’ve got a pretty solid Gospel.

Bam.

Bam.

5. Just sayin’

Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. (20:3-4). One of my pastors first pointed this out to me. Why is it necessary to know, in the Good News of the Gospel, that one disciple outran another? To put things in perspective, said disciple is the same one who claims authorship (21:24). It was important to let two thousand years of readers in on the fact that one disciple was not quite as fast as the other. Of course, because the Bible is a ‘serious’ undertaking then we must undertake it seriously. Maybe the writer wanted to build on the theme of this disciple’s love for Jesus and Peter’s shame at having denied him. Maybe he was being careful to convey his account as historically and truthfully as it came to him. Either way, there is humour in the Bible and I think this is a great contribution. It fits into a wider tradition of unneccessary comic detail (eg. Judges 3:21-22). I couldn’t help but laugh either when I read about the number of fish the disciples caught in the miraculous catch, 153 (21:11). Who counts that kind of thing?

4. All too human

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ (11:32-36). Along with the aforementioned text of Jesus listening to his mother, this passage also shows how Jesus reacted to the circumstances around him. At the risk of sounding a little polemical, to say that God foreordained Jesus to weep, or especially that Jesus knew he would weep is to miss one of the main points this passage conveys: Jesus’ humanity. On hearing the news about Lazarus’s sickness, Jesus appears cool, calm, and collected (11:6), even demonstrating his divine knowledge that Lazarus has died in this period of waiting (11:11). Despite this, along with the fact that he is going to raise Lazarus for the sake of his disciples’ belief (11:14-15), he is still overcome by his emotions when on site with the grieving family.

3. Membership benefits

Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples […] If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God.[“] (8:31, 39-40). If Jesus was trying to gain followers then he was certainly doing a terrible job at that. After a decent conversation with some Pharisees, many of the people listening end up believing in him (8:30). But here’s the problem. He then turns to them and starts talking about the nature of discipleship, calling them slaves to sin (8:34), accusing them of planning to kill him (8:37) and going as far as labelling them children of the devil (8:44).6 Now how’s that for an induction process?

2. A blind man’s irony

They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ (9:26-27). As with the text on Peter being beaten to the tomb, this can be read as a nice bit of humour added into John. Jesus has just healed the blind man and the Pharisees are questioning him to find out who healed him, as he has been healed on a sabbath. After the second question he asks them if they would like to become one of Jesus’ disciples. I see two interpretative possibilities here. The blind man may not have been fully onto it with social cues and so genuinely put the offer out to the Pharisees, in light of his life-changing experience (imagine having sight for the first time). But what if he too was poking fun at the religious elite? He knew how they would react and so wanted to ruffle their feathers a little. This makes sense in light of the continuing dialogue: The Pharisees do not want to accept the work that Jesus is doing among them, despite the obvious change Jesus has had in this blind man’s life and his connection with it (9:28-34).

1. He is

Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (8:57-59). This is the thrilling conclusion to Jesus’ confrontation with his new believers (8:31ff). He has up until now been reasonably evasive of questions regarding his identity. Now, in the Temple at Jerusalem, Jesus tactlessly claims to be God,7 probably the highest form of blasphemy. What makes this all so dangerously exciting is it’s well-executed build-up from an earlier, more peaceable dialogue. It makes me smile and think he just said that!

* * *

¹Not ill in the sense that he’s got a cold, but something worrying in days before modern medicine. All scripture quotations taken from NRSV.

²Bruner’s commentary notes this is probably a paraplegic, made worse by his inability to look after himself and therefore lack of personal hygiene.

³Of course, the text doesn’t explicitly state the guests were drunk; it is only implied. I could also say that the law does not explicitly prohibit drinking; it is only implied (Deut 21:20). Take me up on this too because it would be good to argue out. The verses in Proverbs don’t count either. They instruct wisdom, not covenant responsibility.

4Interestingly, the name Mary is never used in John in reference to Jesus’ mother.

5Note that this passage uses time/kairos instead of hour/hōra. I’m not boss enough to say how significant this is.

6The most apparent meaning is that this discourse is engaged between Jesus and the new believers (8:30-31), although the text presents problems in that his accusations of them don’t line up with the idea of a believer. He is either challenging his believers to authentic deeper belief (the way I have read the passage here) or the discourse has been accidentally mixed in with something aimed at “the Jews” who yet don’t believe in Jesus.

7Cf. Ex 3:14, Ps 90:2. There is also a clear claim here to Jesus’ pre-existence.

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I have just finished reading Christian Smith’s  insightful critique of biblicism, The bible made impossible: Why biblicism is not a truly evangelical reading of scripture. You can read the introduction for free through the Amazon link. Here are two critiques worth reading (the first two that come up on Google), although they should not distract from the overall worth of the text, which I highly recommend. I would love also to lend it out but let it be noted that I’ll do so quite sparingly as I think it’ll be a lot of help for my assignments this year!

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In the first part of the book, Smith defines biblicism as a distinctly American evangelical approach to scripture, based, give or take, on ten assumptions:

1. The words of the Bible are identical with God’s words written inerrantly in human language.
2. The Bible represents the totality of God’s will for humanity.
3. The divine will for all issues relevant to Christian life are contained in the Bible.
4. Any reasonable person can correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. The way to understand the Bible is to look at the obvious, literal sense [intended by the author, possibly involving taking into account literary, cultural and historic purposes].
6. The [significance of any part of the bible] can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, or historic church traditions.
7. The Bible possesses internal harmony and consistency.
8. [Any part of historical teaching in the bible] is universally applicable for all Christians [unless superseded by later passages].
9. All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned through inductive Bible study.
10. The Bible is a kind of handbook or textbook for Christian faith and practice.

(Retrieved here, linked earlier. I reworded a few because I think the reviewer missed what Smith was saying in a few places).

This starting point could stand alone as something deeply important. Many Christians I have read, hung out with, or known otherwise would subscribe to some if not all of these. Most I reject in some way but the one I am most sympathetic towards is #5, although I would be open to exceptions, such where an underpinning philosophy in a biblical text has implications that the original author may have not realised at the time of writing¹.

Smith then goes on to show that the primary problem arising from a biblicist approach to scripture is that of “pervasive interpretive pluralism”, or honest, Spirit-led, deep thinking Christians coming to very different conclusions on important theological matters:

[…] the doctrines of God, Christ, revelation, atonement, salvation, baptism, the Lord’s supper, creation, hell, war, divorce, and remarriage. On all of these biblical and theological issues, we can identify three or four different views, not because those who hold them are trying to be contentious but because they read the Bible and come away convinced that their different views are correct.

(p.24)

This is the main problem on which Smith bases his argument, although a later chapter is dedicated to “subsidiary problems with biblicism”, which looks at things such as the actual lack of a biblical basis for a biblicist approach to the bible (ooh!) and one which I personally identified with, “Setting up youth for unnecessary crises of faith” (p.88). If my whole faith is based on biblicism then when either myself or others pose the tough questions my only viable responses are intellectual dishonesty or an honest end to faith.

In the second part of the book Smith details a Christocentric hermeneutic, that is first and foremost basing our faith on God’s work through Christ to redeem creation. Once that is sorted, a good Christology should inform both our reading of the bible and our treatment of theological and moral issues. The obvious criticism to raise here is that all we know of Jesus is from the bible. But how much of it really is? I liked this quote:

Faith does not simply rest on texts, but — also and more — on persons and events. Faith stands or falls not with the status of a holy text… but the knowledge and meaning of these persons and events, which can be mediated by the text.

(p.118, quoting James Barr).

For me, and I suspect most (all) Christians, our understanding of Jesus is mediated not just by scripture but church history/tradition, the community we come to faith in, and, yes, the real person of Jesus intervening in our lives, among other things. Of course this is going to be messy but who says an absolute commitment to scripture is any better? This is not to denounce the role of scripture but to restore to its place as a part of the whole. It still maintains a high place in Christian revelation. I have however known, and people may come to your mind also, people with little biblical familiarity to be very Christlike and others with a lot of biblical familiarity but little Christlikeness.

Smith goes on to talk about accepting complexity and unanswered questions in our approach to scripture and a puzzling chapter on questions concerning epistemology and authority. It’s not completely necessary but it nonetheless adds to his discussion.

I really enjoyed the prophetic nature of the book in its call to put Christ at the center. Regardless of the problems people have with Smith’s reasoning, I think all Christians can agree on that. I thought also that the structure was a very easy one to follow (traditional polemic — critique, followed by expounding his own position), the arguments were clear, most times giving sufficient evidence/examples, and Smith is widely read, which is good for those who want to explore other writers on the topics he discusses.

In conclusion it was theologically challenging and I see it as an important contribution to the discussion of what role the bible has to play in faith. Smith makes clear throughout that alternatives are still being worked out but his critiques of biblicism still stand. If you need me to explain anything or would like to discuss some of Smith’s ideas which I here present in a very limited sense then take me up in the comments section =)

* * *

I have now two minor critiques. If you wanted to know about the book or what I thought about it then you can go home now. You get an achieved. This next section is extra for experts. My first critique is Smith’s use of Roger Olsen’s distinction between dogma, doctrine and opinion (cited on p.135):

Some Christian beliefs are non-negotiable for any believer — such as the dogmas of the Trinity and the Nicene Christology. Other beliefs are those to which groups of Christians adhere with firm conviction but also disagree over with other kinds of Christians — such as Calvinist or Wesleyan systems of theology. Still others are beliefs that some Christians hold, sometimes with strong feelings, but that are far from being central, sure, and most important in the larger scheme of Christian belief and life. Examples of the latter include a preference for baptism by immersion or sprinkling, the commitment to homeschooling versus sending them to Christian or public school, and so on.

Smith’s argument follows that we need to learn to distinguish between the three and call each other Christian based on a shared adherence to dogma, with openness regarding doctrine, and especially opinion. At the risk of sounding heretical, I would actually go for a more open view of dogma, which I know is dangerous considering the wide witness to things considered dogma throughout church history (the trinity is one example). But the reason I say this is that even considering the great historical importannce of certain dogmas such as those laid out in the Nicene creed, to take an absolute stance on them excludes such contributions to theology as unitarianism and preterism, among others. I’m not saying that I support either of these theologies but I am saying both that Jesus can be found authentically in the lives of many who do not hold to the dogmas of the wider and historical church and that I would personally like to maintain an openness concerning heterodox beliefs. Maybe this is my sympathies with postmodernism coming through contra Smith’s critical realism (p.152).

My second critique is much more minor than the first and it’s only implicit in the book rather than a major point he makes. Throughout the work he makes continual reference to liberalism (in theology and our approach to the bible) as something to avoid. I was beginning to get annoyed at these mysterious mentions until he qualified them:

Theological liberalism is all about rethinking Christianity from an anthropological perspective, making it essentially about human consciousness and experience and progress. The view just elaborated — in which everything is all about its definition and existence in relation to the reality of Jesus Christ — offers the starkest contrast to liberalism imaginable. Liberalism wants to reconfigure Christian faith and doctrine in terms of modern, human categories and concerns. The view just elaborated says that every category, concern, idea, and identity must itself be reconceived in light of the ultimate fact of Jesus Christ. Liberalism wants to “demythologize” Christian stories and beliefs in view of “modern” scientific knowledge and plausibility systems. But the view elaborated here tells us that every knowledge system — including, if not especially, modern epistemologies — is literally lost and needing to be rescued and reoriented by the living person of Jesus Christ.

(pp.118-119, emphasis original).

Ultimately I am probably in agreement with Smith here in adherence to a Christocentric hermeneutic as opposed to a humanist or scientific materialist, etc³, but I don’t want to brush off ‘liberal’ theologies so quickly. I think an openness to and exploration of liberal theologies is a part of our humanity, which is a part of our faith. This might include the likes of biblical criticism or a death of god theology. Zizek, a marxist philosopher who makes use of Christian theology in his philosophy is relevant here in constructing a Hegelian Christology:

[…] the Greek gods appear to humans in human form, while the Christian God appears as human to himself. This is the crucial point: for Hegel the Incarnation is not a move by means of which God makes himself accessible/visible to humans, but a move by means of which God looks at himself from the distorting human perspective.

(pp.81-82, emphasis original)²

The point I am making is that as much as Christ was human it is important to entertain ‘human’ responses to him, however heterodox they may be, not with a desire to tickle our ears but with Christlike love to see God and the world from others’ perspectives, examine validities here and there, and take on that which is important.

* * *

¹One example, depending on your theological persuasions, would be Gal 3:28 where the egalitarian ethic does not appear fully realised in other texts.

²Zizek, S. (2009). The fear of four words: A modest plea for the Hegelian reading of Christianity. In C. Davies (Eds.), The monstrosity of Christ (pp. 24-110). USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

³Perhaps maintaining sympathy towards postmodernism…

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In a complete u-turn from the last post, this blog will examine the validity of non-academic, even counter-academic approaches to the bible. Because I affirm both academic and counter/non-academic, if you think the bible is contradictory then you can embrace your puzzlement by attempting to reason that people are like numbers who add up and all of their rational views are coherent. And though I haven’t been a Christian long, if I have a ‘background’, that is, a Christian background, then I can very proudly say it is Pentecostal. Pentecostals are awesome for counter-academic approaches. Maybe this has something to do with class: If the middle to upper classes were those who engaged in higher learning, back in the day when Pentecostalism was predominantly sweeping through the lower classes, then there would be understandable undervaluing of higher learning. Although my Pentecostal background is more of an educated middle-class one, I think in the Pentecostalism I have been exposed to that there is a healthy admixture of upholding higher learning as well as being suspicious of it. Suspicion is definitely more prevalent towards the theological quarter, rather than in something like say education, medicine, science, etc.

Modern Pentecostalism arose out of the Azusa St Revival. In the early days after Azusa, people all over America met at cheap-to-rent buildings throughout all hours of the night, in prayer, speaking, experiencing healing and coming back to their Lord. Healing evangelists travelled across the land of opportunity with their massive tents and held meetings. In one semi-regular meeting, an older woman attended who had the gift of discernment. She could tell if the Spirit moved someone to speak or whether that person thought something of their self enough to start preaching without the leading of the Holy Spirit. The principle is not whether you have the ability to be a preacher or not, but whether the Spirit leads you to do so. A person, if they believe they are created by God, can best glorify him when they do what he has made them for. I think someone else has said that before. It might’ve been C S Lewis, but I’m not sure.

* * *

I read a book about two YWAM missionaries just over a year ago. It really affected me and reminded me how central a part of faith is following the Spirit. After a time of settling down and looking after the family, the husband was reading his bible when he came across God’s words to Abraham: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1 NIV). And so his family packed up their stuff and went to do mission work in another country. This is such an affront to the context and real meaning of the text! Is it not just to indicate the story of Israel’s history through God’s actions with Abraham? There is no way that every Spirit-filled Christian who reads that verse should take it at face-value and accept it as a command from God to their self. Maybe we can look at Abraham’s example of faith and draw some guidance for our own faith in that. But, c’mon YWAM guy! If you can only see those things then you miss the point of the story. Of course we can’t take God’s commands to another as commands for ourselves; of course we need to build our theology on the context of the passage rather than its literal meaning. But, even so, can you discount the fact that God spoke through the Holy Spirit to this guy and his family, and that they were fruitful in their ministry as a result of their obedience?

One verse I have heard quoted a lot which I don’t think does too much justice to the original context is Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God” (NIV). The psalm gives the impression of a city feeling the pressure from some outside sources: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (v1); “God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day” (v5). The psalmist then contrasts the threat of war with the power of God: “Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts” (v6); “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire” (v9). This is followed by the climax of the poem, the imperative to “Be still and know that I am God”, the God who has power over the nations. In an attractively lit church service with some nice worship music, what relevance does this God have for our first world troubles? How can quoting this verse do justice to its original purpose? Yet, if the Spirit leads, and we are unaware of the original purpose of the psalm, can not God use these words to bring comfort, even his purpose in the service, which is to draw people closer to him? Of course. Then I hear you say that this focus on individual experience is an injustice to all those who don’t have it half as good as us attending the church service. Yet if you draw close to God, and follow the Holy Spirit, who knows where he will lead you?

* * *

In the last blog post I pointed out some holes in our conception of biblical canon, or at least I attempted to do so. But there is also value in having the bible as a closed canon where all books are seen as under one homogenous umbrella known as ‘scripture’, even considering the considerable differences in sources and content. This, ‘scripture’, is of course the modern-traditional and more widely accepted view among the vast number of churches and laity. This value is seen in such acts as opening your bible and the first verse you read is just what you need to read at that moment: It’s really comforting to know God knows how you feel. Other times the same verse may come up  three times in one week from different friends, books, etc, giving you a sense that God is trying to speak to you through this verse¹. Sometimes you may read two completely unrelated books of the bible and find that God speaks to you on a similar theme from both, even though the writers have nothing to do with each other. I’m being very hypothetical and amn’t giving any clear examples because I can’t think of any… But anyway, the assumed connectedness that the idea of a unified the text, the so-called ‘bible’ gives way to is, as many other people have experienced more widely and deeply than I could ever hope to imagine or idealise, clearly a way that God speaks to us. Thoughts?

* * *

¹I read a funny account of a similar approach where people would randomly select a bible verse and take it for God’s word for them at that moment. Some poor guy received a verse about Judas miserably hanging himself. Of course you could also come across some of the hardline denouncements of the Old Testament prophets or the fleshly suggestions of Ecclesiastes or Song of Songs. The important thing, I have learnt, is praying through something like this as well as looking for confirmation from other sources.

Image from http://divinity.library.vanderbilt.edu/collections/ARIL/azusa.JPG

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