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I went through a really rough couple of months this year. Nonetheless, in it I came to know something of Jesus that has been greatly significant for my faith. I would like to stress that this refers to a specific period in a specific person’s life and I am in no way providing reflections on some kind of universal suffering. I understand that suffering escapes definition. It is better understood piecemeal in the particular stories that individuals and communities choose to share with others. I won’t be sharing my “rough couple of months” but only indirectly by way of my reflection on these.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). As promised, after three days in the grave, Jesus is risen from the dead and appears to the disciples. As glorious as it is,  however, there remains for the disciples the enormous task of making disciples of all the nations, by whom they will be hated (24:9-14). They will be called blessed for sharing his sufferings (5:10-11). And, before joining him in his resurrection they must join him in his crucifixion (16:24-25). It seems that Jesus’ being with the disciples is not only in the love, hope, and power of the Spirit, his body which is the church, and his future return, but his being with them is also in the call to crucifixion. That Jesus is with us is the confirmation of our suffering.

(The above refers to specifically Christian suffering, i.e., taking up your cross is an active and voluntary identification with Jesus in his suffering that characterises being Christian. My concern here, however, is not only with these sufferings but also suffering that is not specifically Christian. Indeed, this “everything-else-suffering” forms part of the precondition of Christian suffering, as God on the cross has identified with all human suffering and death).

While the New Testament provides much material on suffering, such as its littleness in relation to the coming return of Jesus and the new life that he offers (e.g., Rom 8:18-30; 2 Cor 4:7-18), or, not unrelatedly, as a way of building character or faith (e.g., Heb 12:3-13; 1 Pet 1:6-7), this is not all that Scripture provides. The Book of Job, for example, counters other Jewish wisdom literature of its time that advocate righteousness (fear of God, obedience to the law, being just in your relationships with others and the land) because it is the righteous who will prosper. But the wicked, who act as if there is no God and do to others as they please, will surely have their comeuppance. Job, however, is a righteous person who is thrust into the depths of suffering. In one day, a series of events takes away all of his livestock, servants, and children. While he is still grieving these losses, he gets covered in sores from head to toe. Three of his friends come to comfort him. But they are ill-received. They consistently locate the source of Job’s suffering in some sin that must have brought judgement upon him. Yet Job will not buy it. He turns his attention to his Judge on high, perplexed at why in actual fact the wicked do prosper and the righteous often suffer: “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (Job 21:7; see whole chapter).

For me though, the most important part of the Book of Job is the two chapters just before the last where God answers Job’s complaints. The disturbing thing is that God does not really provide an answer:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?

(38:4-5).

God goes on to rebuke Job with further questions on the wherefores and whatabouts of morning and night, the rains, the constellations, and exactly how numerous animals undertake their daily lives. God seems to be saying that the answer to Job’s suffering cannot be found by reflecting intelligibly on the nature of God or the world. Suffering is a fact inasmuch as everything else is a fact. There’s probably a lot more there, and, as said above, this is not all that Scripture has to say of suffering. What can be said on my part though is that the fact of suffering means first of all that it is. It’s not something that if we look hard enough actually is not. Secondly, while nonetheless affirming the particularity of everything that is, suffering as a fact is as factual as everything else. To affirm the fact of suffering is to affirm its albeit violent and disruptive arbitrarity. Thus to say that suffering is a fact is at the same time to say that it is not. It is not, in the same sense that everything else is not, that is, it is not because it is seen in the context of the arbitrary totality which encompasses everything and is “just there,” without any connection to some transcendent purpose.

Job is a type of Christ. In the Book of Job we see the righteous Christ in a suffering that does not acknowledge this righteousness. (We also see a resurrection of sorts, but that can wait for another time). The cross bares the utter factuality of suffering. No longer is it that suffering is a fact only for the world. He from whom “All things came into being … and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3) has given himself completely to suffering and death, asserting it not just as a fact for us but a fact for himself. So, too, the cross bares the utter arbitrarity of suffering. It is true that Christ suffers out of love, a suffering for us, that we may gain infinitely from it. But it is such a death that the whence and whither of any why for this suffering is swallowed up in the moment of death itself, in the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). There is no purpose, only utter arbitrarity and nothingness: he from whom all being comes has been swallowed up in non-being. If we say otherwise, have we said that Christ has given himself to death?

It is true that the resurrection must be seen on either side of this, proleptically in the hope of the Old Testament, the miracles and sayings of Jesus, and the transfiguration, and then on the other side, in its actuality on Easter Sunday. But the fact of suffering which Christ takes upon himself means also a separation of himself from resurrection. In that “moment” of humiliation and death on the cross, there is no resurrection. Resurrection is the impossibility that God raises that which is not, from the dead. It has its own absoluteness that in a limited sense precedes but in its true sense comes after the absoluteness of death.

Yet we must go further than a separation of resurrection from crucifixion. In the suffering of the cross, Christ enters into death and is emphatically separated from his Father, and the Spirit of life who sustains him. It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that this separation is prefigured. Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt 26:39). Jesus does not want to submit himself to death, yet he knows this is the Father’s will, indeed, his will (e.g. Phil 2:6). He thus lays aside his desire for self-preservation and submits to death. But in this sense he is forsaken by God. The Father has forsaken the Son in neglecting to answer his prayer, “let this cup pass from me.” The Father has forsaken the Son in submitting him to utter meaninglessness. So, too, Jesus is forsaken by the Spirit. In death, the Spirit of life who kept so close to Jesus in his earthly life, indeed in all eternity, has allowed death to overtake him (Matt 27:50).

This is not the end of the story but it takes place at its disturbing center. The crucifixion reveals not so much the presence of God in suffering but his absence. The absence of deliverance, purpose, and life in the Father and the Spirit, and in the Son the absence of the sufferer from comfort. Jesus suffers alone. Nonetheless, this absence at the heart of the crucifixion demonstrates just in what way God is present in human suffering. He is present in the Son, suffering alone, but, paradoxically, with us. He is present insofar as suffering and death are now facts for God. Thus, so too is God present in the Father and the Spirit, in the Father sending his Son and in the Spirit in bringing the Son to us and making him real for us. God is absent, but this is not any absence. It is the awful and beautiful absence of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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I know I’ve been incredibly silent recently and that might continue for a while. Nonetheless, I thought I’d record some of my favourite insights from the course I’m doing this semester on the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He’s quite prolific so we don’t cover everything, but it’s been exciting to get to know someone who really strived to know Jesus and make him known in his own context and trace the development of this guy’s thought. Bonhoeffer came from an upper-middle class family and showed a greater interest in Jesus as he advanced throughout his teens, desiring to become a minister. I love this: “[His family] sought to dissuade him, claiming that the church was not really worthy of his commitment; it was, they insisted, ‘a poor, feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution.’ To which Dietrich replied: ‘In that case I shall reform it!’¹ Anyway, he’s famous for his theological innovation coupled with his involvement in the Confessing Church, the German church which sought to oppose Hitler’s Third Reich, and his imprisonment and later execution just before the close of WWII for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

On the the person of Christ:

From now on we cannot speak rightly of either God or the world without speaking of Jesus Christ.”

(DBWE 6:54).

I can never think of Jesus Christ in his being-in-himself, but only in his relatedness to me.”

(DBWE 12:314).

The concept of the body as applied to the church-community is not a functional concept referring to the members but is instead a concept of the way in which the Christ exists who is present, exalted, and humiliated.”

(DBWE 12:323).

On grace abstracted from the person of Jesus:

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that teaches this doctrine of grace thereby conveys such grace upon itself. The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be free. Cheap grace is, thus, denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God.”

(DBWE 4:43).

On the suffering of Christ:

The fact that it is Peter, the rock of the church, who makes himself guilty [of attempting to hinder Jesus’ suffering] just after he has confessed Jesus to be the Christ … shows that from its very beginning the church has taken offense at the suffering Christ.”

(DBWE 4:85).

On Christian community:

The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies.”

(DBWE 5:27).

[Christians] need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the divine word of salvation… The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians.”

(DBWE 5:32).

On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life should be, and they will often be anxious to realize it. But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community.”

(DBWE 5:35).

On denominations:

The concept of denomination is not entirely clear. It is not a theological concept. It says more about historical, political, and social conditions.”

(Green and DeJonge, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 571).

On fundamentalism. Yes, that fundamentalism.

At the beginning of this year, the journal Christian Century published a series of essays on the topic: ‘How my mind has changed in the last decade.’ … A common thread in all these essays–with the exception of the fundamentalists, who deliberately declare that nothing essential could have changed in their thinking since they espouse the same teaching then and now–is the admission of a decisive theological turn in the last ten years.” Nonetheless, “The failure in Christology is characteristic of all current  American theology (with the exception of fundamentalism).”

(Bonhoeffer Reader, 589-590).

Although this is pretty standard Reformation theology it’s been interesting being introduced to it via Barth and Bonhoeffer:

[A]t Pentecost, too, one preaches about Jesus Christ, the one who is present in the Holy Spirit, and nothing else.”

(DBWE 15:552).

On idolatry and nihilism:

The usual interpretation of idolatry as ‘wealth, lust, pride’ doesn’t seem at all biblical to me. That is moralizing. Idols are to be worshipped, and idolatry presupposes that people still worship something. But we don’t worship anything anymore, not even idols. In that respect we’re really nihilists.”

(DBWE 8:447).

On the ethical failure of duty:

[D]uty is so circumscribed that there is never any room to venture that which rests wholly in one’s own responsibility, the action that alone strikes at the very core of evil and can overcome it. The man of duty will in the end have to do his duty also to the devil.”

(DBWE 8:40).

On ethics and Christian freedom:

[I]t is the arena of everyday life that presents the fundamental difficulties, and which one has to have first experienced in order to sense how insufficient, inappropriate, and unsuitable it is to address it with general moral principles.” Thus “[Human beings] are not essentially and exclusively students of ethics. It is part of the great naivete or, more accurately, folly of ethicists to overlook this fact willfully, and to start from the fictional assumption that human beings at every moment of their lives have to make an ultimate, infinite choice.”

(DBWE 6:365).

The ‘ethical’ merely identifies the limits formally and negatively, and thus can only become a topic at the boundary, and in a formal and negative way. God’s commandment, on the other hand, is concerned with the positive content and with the freedom of human beings to affirm that positive content.”

(DBWE 6:386).

On this-worldliness:

It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future.”

(DBWE 8:51).

OT faith differs from other oriental religions in not being a religion of redemption… To the objection that redemption has a crucial importance in the OT as well (out of Egypt and later out of Babylon, cf. Deutero-Isaiah), the reply is that this is redemption within history, that is, this side of the bounds of death, whereas everywhere else the aim of all the other myths of redemption is precisely to overcome death’s boundary… The Christian hope of the resurrection is different from the mythological in that it refers people to their life on earth in a wholly new way, and more sharply than the OT.”

(DBWE 8:447).

* * *

¹F. Burton Nelson, “The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). The quotes are translated from Eberhard Bethge’s lengthy biography in German.

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http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/93/Gregor-Chora.jpg/217px-Gregor-Chora.jpg

Currently working on explaining how Jesus is fully God and fully human for ‘xam in a few days! Been getting excited about the Church fathers. So no doubt was I stoked to find this in one of Thomas Oden’s books:

He hungered — but He fed thousands…
He was wearied, but He is the Rest of them that are weary…
He was heavy with sleep, but He walked lightly over the sea…
He prays but He hears prayer.
He weeps, but He causes tears to cease.
He asks where Lazarus was laid, for He was Man; but He raises Lazarus, for He was God.
He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only thirty pieces of silver; but He redeems the world…
As a sheep He is led to the slaughter, but He is the Shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also.
As a Lamb He is silent, yet He is the Word…
He is … wounded, but He healeth every disease…
He dies, but He gives life…
If the one give you a starting point for your error, let the others put an end to it.¹

Gregory Nazianzen

¹Orat. XXIX. 20. Cited in Thomas Oden, The Word of Life: Systematic Theology: Volume Two (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1989), 185.

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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 =)

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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.

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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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