Monthly Archives: March 2012

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Christ’s laid-down life …

Christ’s laid-down life is there [at the cross] made available for sacrifice, like a ram caught in the thicket. Any man who is humble and serious enough about his sin to recognize what is the proper reparation and penance for it may use the costly gift which another has made available for him to offer as his sacrifice.

Richard Swinburne on the sacrificial (as opposed to penal) nature of the atonement

Fundamentalism and Foundationalism

These are two words thrown around a lot in Biblical studies.  Fundamentalism is also a word thrown around a lot in the culture at large.  Westboro Baptist Church is seen as a fundamentalist church; Al-Qaeda is seen as a fundamentalist Muslim group.  In these cases, fundamentalist basically means “so conservative that they’re bad.”  The underlying idea seems to be that to really, truly believe the tenets of Christianity or Islam is dangerous.

John Yoder, in his essay “A Theological Critique of Violence,” defines the terms this way.

I define fundamentalism as that form of theological culture that assumes there are no hermeneutical problems, since what I take to mean is what it has to mean.  Foundationalism… makes a similar but opposite mistake. It assumes that since there are hermeneutical problems, we should and can resolve them before entering into the substance of the debate by making a ruling on how terms must be used.

In Yoder’s view, it would seem that fundamentalism isn’t a problem of how strongly or how conservatively we believe whatever we believe, but how adroit we are at engaging those who see the same things differently.  What is important is not holding our own beliefs at arms’ length, but learning how to negotiate disagreement.  As such, definitions become vitally important.

Word Bible Designs

The Atlantic recently ran a feature on art projects inspired by classic books.  The article is very interesting, and worth checking out.  One of the featured artists is Jim Lepage, who is a graphic artist who has designed a variety of prints focuses around the books of the Bible.  His art is sometimes a little cheesy, occasionally offensive, but invariably provocative and exciting.  

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Check out his page here.  

What do you think of his designs?  Which ones are most appealing or interesting to you?  Which ones offend you?  Does this artist’s response to scripture challenge you to produce your own works in response?  

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John Wesley on Predestination

I appeal to every impartial mind…whether the mercy of God would not be far less gloriously displayed, in saving a few by his irresistible power, and leaving all the rest without help, without hope, to perish everlastingly, than in offering salvation to every creature, actually saving all that consent thereto, and doing for the rest all that infinite wisdom, almighty power, and boundless love can do, without forcing them to be saved, which would be to destroy the very nature that he had given them.

John Wesley, from Predestination Calmly Considered

Wesley on “Being a Christian First”

John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist church.  He never meant to found a separate movement, and until his dying day he insured that Methodism remained only a movement within the Anglican church.  Nevertheless, the movement continued to move and developed its own organization and ordination.  

Timothy Tennant is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary.  In a recent blog post he reflected on how John Wesley models how Christians of all stripes must learn to reflect on the whole Christian tradition, and not focus myopically on their little branch.  He said,

John Wesley models for us the power of learning from other Christian movements.  He was a great student of the Reformation.  He was a student of Puritanism.  He was a student of pietism.  He was a student of Eastern Orthodoxy.  He was a student of the Patristics.  Over the course of his writings he criticizes all of these movements, times and writers.  But the “people called Methodist” also learned to glean the best from all these movements.   The Methodist emphasis on experience (fourth plank of the quadrilateral) is clearly drawn from the German pietists.  The Methodist emphasis on prevenient grace is drawn from the early Greek fathers of the church.  Wesley’s emphasis on salvation by faith alone resonates fully with the Reformation, even while Wesley embraced so much of the “catholic” tradition.  What a great model for us today.  We are Christians first before we are Methodists or Baptists or Pentecostals.  We must be good students of the whole movement, always learning, always listening and always reflecting. 

Sounds just right to me.  

What do you think?  What have you learned from other traditions, and where have you allowed other traditions to influence or challenge your thinking?  If you cannot think of an example, is that the result of a conscious decision, or might it reflect an isolated perspective?  

Athanasius on Interpreting Scripture

Athanasius ends his commentary “On The Incarnation” by saying,

“But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honorable life is needed, and a pure virtue, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God. For without a pure mind and a modelling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints. For just as, if a man wished to see the light of the sun, he would at any rate wipe and brighten his eye, purifying himself in some sort like what he desires, so that the eye, thus becoming light, may see the light of the sun; or as, if a man would see a city or country, he at any rate comes to the place to see it—thus he that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God must needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul, by his manner of living, and approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God, and thenceforth, as closely knit to them, may escape the peril of the sinners and their fire at the day of judgment, and receive what is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.”

I would argue that Augustine is making the same point, albeit implicitly, in the Confessions.  Many readers wonder why the Confessions, which in many ways was the first autobiography and the first novel with a character, ends with an extended sermon on Genesis 1.  For many readers it just feels tacked on.  But I think the whole point of Confessions is that you have to examine yourself the way Augustine does before you can begin to interpret the scriptures.  It is precisely as Athanasius says.

In one sense, this is comfortable terrain for Evangelicals, who are likely to believe and teach that the Bible is not primarily a book full of information, but a book about total life transformation, and that a person reading it strictly to gain information will necessarily miss something.

But in another sense, Athanasius moves in a direction deeply uncomfortable to most Evangelicals: “approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God.”  Now, Athanasius doesn’t necessarily mean canonized saints, but those examples who show us by their example what a community capable of reading scripture rightly looks like.  As Stanley Hauerwas is so fond of saying, only a pacifist church can accurately understand the sermon on the mount.

What do you think?  Is there an objective way for all people to read scripture in common, or do our communities, traditions and lifestyles necessarily impact how we read what we read?

Subtle Idolatry: The American Patriot’s Bible

I often speak of the dangers of nationalism, and of the kind of worship the nation-state demands of its citizens.  (As William Cavanaugh points out, how many Americans would be willing to kill for their religious beliefs?  How many have been willing to kill for their nation, even for their belief in abstract national principles like freedom and democracy?)  But while many of the people I talk to understand my concerns in principle, they suggest that I’m being creating strawmen, or worrying too much, or simply being paranoid.

But here comes a book – an edition of the Bible, in fact – that precisely illustrates my concerns.  Here comes a Bible that explicitly links Christmas to July 4th, identifies the American soldier to the suffering Messiah, and equates the United States itself to the church of God.

I find it hard to imagine the Christian, however patriotic, who would not see these claims as making a functional idol of the United States.  This means that to accuse anyone of making such claims in the name of patriotism is an extraordinary claim.  Fortunately, the American Patriot’s Bible is very candid in the claims it makes, and I will examine the above three from its pages.

Since I was sent this Bible by the fine folks at Thomas Nelson publishers, let me begin by describing the book itself.  It is a beautiful edition.  It is hardbound, with a relatively understated artistic style that I find very appealing.  The American Patriot’s Bible is preceded by quite a few plates for information about family history, including immigration records, military service records and baptismal records.  Also included are maps of the United States and a list of the fifty states, with capitol city and the date each state was added to the union.

There is a general introduction to the Bible, as well as a single-page introduction to each book.  The book introductions are very general, with one paragraph describing the context of the book and one relating some theme of the book to American history.  The intro to 1 Thessalonians, for instance, describes a radio address of Ronald Reagan, where he talked about the importance of “being in constant prayer,” and about the role of prayer for other American leaders.  There are also occasional comments on specific verses scattered throughout the text, ranging from small notes like “Harry S. Truman placed his hand on Matthew 5:3-11 as he took the oath of office in 1949″ to half-page sidebars relating verses to specific events in U.S. history.  Also scattered through the text are 4-page inserts on various topics, such as the use of scripture in American monuments, or the role of scripture in American westward expansion.

For the most part, this is all well-executed, and I can understand why someone would find this Bible an attractive addition to their collection; even as a family Bible to be passed down.  But the commentaries don’t simply include some Americana or Presidential trivia.  They go beyond patriotism and even nationalism to make claims for the United States that should make both Americans and Christians uncomfortable.

In a comment on Col 2:7, the American Patriot’s Bible links the birth of Christ with the birth of America.  The section is called “The Christmas/July 4 Link,” and quotes with approval from John Quincy Adams, who asked during an Independence Day speech,

Why is it that, next to the birthday of the Savior of the world, your most joyous and most venerated festival returns on this day?  Is it not that in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior?  That it forms a leading event in the progress of the Gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth?

So here Adams links the birth of Christ with the birth of the United States, and suggests that the Declaration of Independence has created the first society capable of living out the Redeemer’s mission on the earth.  Of course, the Bible suggests a different “social compact” capable of living out the Redeemer’s mission, but it is not centered around a nation.  It is the church.

Adams was not the first American leader to attempt to co-opt the church’s role as the mediator of God’s saving activity, and he is not the only one quoted approvingly by the American Patriot’s Bible. A common reprieve among politicians is that the United States is a city on a hill, a light in the darkness.  Obama, Bush and McCain have all used this language in recent years.  This is language Jesus applies to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s hardly surprising that national leaders try to steal this language for themselves.  What is surprising that Jesus’s followers would not only permit but encourage this theft, as the American Patriot’s Bible does when its commentary on Mt 5:14 is called “God’s covenant people,” quoting Puritan leader Peter Bulkley, who described the Puritan colonies (not yet the United States, of course) as “a city set upon a hill, in the open view of all the earth… We profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God, and therefore… the Lord our God… will cry shame upon us if we walk contrary… [ellipses in original].”

Making the claim that America is God’s covenant people is audacious, surely, but there are Christians in America who would defend even such a claim.  But the American Patriot’s Bible goes beyond this questionable move when it equates the United States with God and the U.S. army with Jesus.  The commentary on John 3:16 is titled “Freedom Abroad,” and it quotes with approval Colin Powell, when he said that

Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and omen into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those who did not return.

Let’s leave aside the ludicrous claim that the United States has never expanded its territorial control through bloodshed, and look at the underlying theology of the American Patriot’s Bible in placing this quote as a commentary on John 3:16.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only son;” and the United States so loves the world that we give our sons and daughters.  The sacrifice of a soldier is a great sacrifice – not only in the possibility of their dying but in their willingness to put aside the normal unwillingness of a person to kill – but it is the very definition of idolatry to compare a person’s sacrifice to the sacrifice of Christ.  What is more, to compare the role of a soldier (who in the words of General Patton, tries not to die for his country but make some other poor bastard die for his) to the suffering servant of Isaiah 55 is to make a mockery out of Christ’s death, when Christ himself had armies at his disposal and did not deign to use them.

The American Patriot’s Bible may not have been a misguided idea.  Why shouldn’t there be an edition of the Bible specifically for those who love America and want to study and celebrate its theological heritage?  But the American Patriot’s Bible in practice is an exercise in subtly misplaced worship, and thinly subverted readings of the scriptures.  Yet I don’t think its editors meant to create a controversial text, which is precisely why I warn against the dangers of patriotism and nationalism  for believers.