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Posts Tagged ‘canon’

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.

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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?

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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?

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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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“Evangelicals have been raised to be suspicious of Christian tradition… Believers whose (unacknowledged) tradition is that the Bible is their only guide for faith and that there is not reliable Christian tradition must come to terms with how they got this view before they are willing to adopt the church tradition as their own.” –D.H. Williams¹

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When Protestants started breaking away from the Catholic Church they needed to establish what their authority was. Obviously it was still God, as it was with the Catholics, but something had got lost in translation and God was asking people to do what God doesn’t ask people to do. For Catholics, the Church was an authority that represented God as much as Scripture did. The Protestants, having seen human fallibility represented in the theology and practice of the Church, curbed that authority and developed the doctrine of sola scriptura, the bible alone being their source of faith. This blog post will attempt to bring to the surface some assumptions we have made on the basis of sola scriptura and some critical thinking that will hopefully in some way contribute to the Kingdom of God. Chur.

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One of the dangers of sola scriptura is the unavoidable consequence that biblical interpretation is no longer given to the individual by those who should know what they’re talking about; instead the individual interprets the bible personally. I don’t want to undermine the blessing of being free from uncritically received biblical interpretation though. It is surely a blessing that individuals read the bible and decided that God really did want women in church leadership. It is another blessing that a small group of people called Quakers read the bible and found out that God really didn’t want people to join in on all those wars. It is a great blessing that some devoted theologians over the centuries have again realised that you don’t have to do anything to be saved. It’s right there. It’s free. If we didn’t have individual bible interpretation then we wouldn’t have these things in Christianity to the same extent that we now have them. But one downside I suppose is that some guy read the bible and decided that God wanted us to keep most of those laws in the Old Testament, that Jesus hadn’t really abolished them, only some, and that we had to stop eating bacon. Another guy read the bible and told everyone that salvation isn’t for everyone, only those that God invited to the party. I’m still waiting for mine in the mail. And then this one guy read the bible and decided that if you give all your money to this church you attend then God will give it all back including triple and more, because the meek will inherit the earth or something. We probably wouldn’t have these if the Church was still an authority, or we would but to a lesser extent.

To be honest, I do certainly prefer the freedom of personal biblical interpretation. But what would I think if others hadn’t told me what to think? There are infinite controversies, including the topic of this blog, our ideas around the bible, which I need all the time in the world to do adequate research for and make up my mind on. Because it’s so important to have an opinion on anti-semitic sentiments expressed among the early church fathers… But really: People need to be told what to think about things. When necessary, you critique what you’re hearing. Other times, you assimilate it.

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“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2Timothy 3:16-17).

Would I be right in citing this as the most popular piece in the bible for asserting its inspiration? Not only does Paul poetically describe the origin of Scripture, but he also provides Timothy with purpose of Scripture. What Scripture was Paul speaking of though? His Scripture would have been the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which included the apocrypha² (books which are rarely found in a Protestant bible but are part of the Catholic, Orthodox and other canons). Modern bible translation uses the Septuagint to double check dubious translations of the Hebrew and better understand quotations in the New Testament, as most quotations from the Old Testament appearing in the New Testament are from the Septuagint. The New Testament authors’ use of the Septuagint explains why we have Jude³ quoting from Enoch (vv.14-15), and Paul making use of the Wisdom of Solomon in Romans (1:19-20). This guy has some good examples, including the Romans one.

So Paul probably isn’t referring to the bible as we currently know it. Peter, on the other hand, uses the same Greek word for the Hebrew Bible, translated as ‘Scripture’ to refer to a collection of Paul’s writings (2Peter 3:15-16 — there is an uncanny numerical resemblence to the piece from 2Timothy). But what is Scripture? It is widely accepted that the Book of Isaiah had not one but three authors, concerning close but historically separate times in Israel’s history. The Book of Job is an ancient poem and parallels of it can be found in other literary traditions. Elihu, the young eavesdropper in the story who gets a word in to rebuke Job and his friends just before God turns up is not mentioned at the start when Job’s other friends turn up and nor is he mentioned by God, who should really approve of his actions. He was probably written in at a much later date. Should I still consider what he says when reading Job or just flick past him? The Comma Johanneum, in 1John 5:7-8, is a later insertion by trinitarians which can not be found in any early Greek manuscripts. Until recently it was included in English bible translations.

The Book of Revelation was still being disputed as canonical five hundred years after Jesus had risen. Dionysius of Alexandria, quoted in Eusebius, writes, “I, however, would not dare reject the book, since many brethren hold it in esteem, but since my intellect cannot judge it properly, I hold that its interpretation is a wondrous mystery.” Dionysius had an esteemable intellect. His view is a profound contrast to the dogmatic end-time theologies people have constructed around this book. Hebrews, because of its unknown authorship and theology around apostasy was also widely disputed. The Shepherd of Hermas was, along with other writings not included in our New Testament, widely read and accepted by many early Christians, but the Church later rejected it because of its adoptonist theology, that is implying that Jesus became God’s Son at baptism. Now that the Church is concerned by things other than orthodoxy it’s not such a big issue, so imagine if a new council arose in modern times and James was excluded because of theological leanings to works-based salvation or 1Timothy for asserting that women would be saved through childbearing.

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That is the crux of what I’ve been exposed to so far, but there’s a lot more learned people out there who can give a decent critique of our current canon. I hope you enjoyed the whirlwind tour. If anything, problems with inspiration, biblical unity and canon should point to something that we can all agree is inspired by the Holy Spirit, that the bible uniformly makes clear and which every saved soul has experienced: Love God; love others.

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¹The quote is a paraphrase. I came across it in ‘Deep Church’, a book that looks for a midway point between postmodern and traditional Christianity.

²I may be wrong.

³Earlier on in Jude, the author also cites a confrontation between Michael and Satan, not mentioned elsewhere in the bible. You may be interested to also know that Paul quotes three Greek (?) poets throughout his writings.

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