Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Richard Pratt on End Times

2nd Presbyterian in Memphis's Christian Life Conference featured Richard Pratt and others speaking on the end times. All lectures are downloadable even previous ones with Tim Keller. Sorry if this is too much like Justin Taylor. I thought I would save the email to all of you.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Contextualization and Presuppositions

We have much ground to cover as we awaken to the growing global conversation of the two thirds of the church not in the West. “Contextualization” brings to mind trite conversations on superficially packaging western theology with colorful, cultural trimming – e.g. Africans will want to dance during church, the Japanese will maintain a more authoritarian ecclesiology. But at its core, contextualization calls into question the nature of truth as well as what Andrew Walls has dubbed the ‘infinite translatability’ of our faith.

In his excellent essay, “One Rule to Rule Them All?”, Kevin Vanhoozer helpfully outlines three poor attempts at contextualizing Christianity. First, the belief (soundly refuted in The Drama of Doctrine) that truth is supracultural, able to be decoded from concrete expression and encoded into a new one – “Instead of profitable pastoral instruction, theologians begat system after system, exchanging their ecclesial birthright for a mess of propositionalist pottage”. The second attempt is an uncritical, syncretistic drawing from a supposed united backdrop of philosophy and religion for shaping faith. The third pitfall is “going local”, making one’s primary allegiance to context rather than text as if they were at odds.

Western theology has borrowed heavily from philosophy. In fact the two become eerily indistinguishable in many discussions on systematics. Now third world theologians are replacing philosophy with the social sciences serving the hermeneutical function of acknowledging the interpreter and the practical function of addressing present-day injustice. I am seeing this firsthand in Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako’s Jesus and the Gospel in Africa. Quoting J. V. Taylor he asks, “But if Christ were to appear as the answer to the questions that Africans are asking, what would he look like?” He finds confidence in the answer because “we are not introduced to a new God unrelated to the traditions of our past, but to One who brings to fulfillment all the highest religious and cultural aspirations of our heritage”. Why, Vanhoozer asks, “can theology borrow from Plato but not from primal religions”?

There is indeed a supra-cultural, supra-chronicle, supra-linguistic true God, but he will never be known as such. Instead he has determined to make himself known in time, space, and language, an act riddled with its own presuppositional complexity (e.g. N. T. Wright’s “three worlds” of Paul). And here is where Christianity parts ways with Islam, which is only at its truest form in Arabic: this complex text has since been disseminated and Spirit-accompanied into tens of thousands of language, people, socio-economic groups and in turn blossomed into multi-faceted expressions. The dirty details of Babel notwithstanding, this is God’s plan that charts its course through the promise to Abraham, the commission of the church, and the worship of the new earth.

How do we faithfully expose, sharpen, and embrace presuppositions in this light? How do we maintain malleable yet still breakable doctrines? How might new voices grow our Christology rather than shrink it to the least common denominator? And how do we hold fast to the rule of faith by which all gospel expressions are accountable?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Response

PD, you are way out of line on this one. I doubt any of us would defend the standards as a thorough, consistent, praiseworthy charter for Christian community but to loosely and erroneously wield the warning passages you cited concerning false teachers is absurd. Whether you intend to or not you have wrongly indicted godly, gospel-savoring faculty and staff who uphold them (whether they agree or not) as accomplices.

As I wrote to you before, "legalism" is a favorite term of slander in evangelical circles and is rarely used correctly. Its not wise behavior (I will not be alone with another woman), or cultural behavior (I will keep my Bible off the floor in Muslim settings), or community-conscious behavior (I will not invite someone to drink without knowing where they stand). Properly defined legalism is behavior that strives to earn salvation. It can be any of the former examples or none of them. Our heart is the issue. Knowing my spiritual laziness I can place the strictest of standards on myself and still revel in the free grace of the gospel alone. But I can also throw off all standards entirely and revel in my self-righteousness for doing so. The right set of standards (behavior, culture, community) does not automatically preclude which I will do.

You have failed to account for the “amoral” standards in the New Testament: widows must be 60 to receive charity (1 Tim 5.9), do not eat food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8.12), or drink wine in certain circumstances (Ro 14.21), “abstain from the things polluted by idols” (Ac 15.20), don’t pursue circumcision after conversion (1 Cor 7.18), let only 2-3 persons speak in tongues and prophecy in any given service (1 Cor 14.27), eat at home before gathering to celebrate communion (1 Cor 11.34). These standards are a blend of wisdom, culture, and community-consciousness and yet they still leave a lot of effeminate, adolescent ground uncovered. Paul was able to articulate a robust, grace-filled gospel in one breath and deliver these standards in the next without jeopardizing his message and so can we. I’m not putting, say, CIU’s prohibition of shorts to class on par with Paul’s advice in terms of Christian wisdom, but that is a question of the caliber of the standard and not the appropriateness of standards in general. If your gospel is so frail in the face of standard suggestions, what will become of it when the NT writers’ take off the gloves for moral imperatives (Ti 2.11ff; Heb 12.4; 1 Pt 1.17; Jas 1:25; 1 Jn 2.15; Rev 2:5, 23)?

I am willing to be wrong, but you appear to be pressing legalist charges where they simply won’t stick.

An Exposition of the Gospel: Anticipated responses

Anticipated responses:

NT Wright once said that the problem with writing is that you have to say everything all the time. Lacking any sort of literary omnipresence I have written and responded to some anticipated responses.

How does CIU take the blame for someone perverting the standards for self-justification? How can you call that sin?

I would point to Matthew 23 as biblical precedent. Jesus calls them children of hell, and says that the fruit of their missionary labor is that they have made them twice as bad! Paul says in Galatians to those who preach a different Gospel, “Goddamn them to hell forever!”. James warns about how teachers will be judged more strictly, if, this is not compelling enough to say that is sinful, all can rest assured that those who have bound the consciences will give account before God for it. People's misunderstanding about the Gospel is their sin yes, but attempts for precision must be made.

The standards are community rules, so how does your argument still apply?

There are a few problems with the idea that the-standards-are-just-community-guidelines-so-we-all-can-just-get-along. If the standards are community guidelines, first of all I have never heard any CIU staff or administration articulate this position, in fact quite the opposite that CIU is a “boot camp” or “testing lab” and that the standards are to be practiced for all of the Christian life. Where are all the standards about how I spend my money? Where are questions about procreation? What about effeminate guys who are prolonging adolescence? How I treat my parents? What about how I treat the environment? The selectively of which particular questions and standards are included is undeniably rooted in early 20th century southern American fundamentalism.

Secondly, if they are just guidelines than why am I asked about my prayer life, diet routine, views on miraculous gifts? Why am I required to go to entire days of prayer? These rules are nothing like U.S.C or the government trying to enforce a speed limit. I think there is a great bait and switch going on here. Corporate times of worship, prayer days, imposed accountability, “looks like a church, smells like a church, oh wait it’s a bible college”.

You should exercise integrity because you signed the form saying you would”

Scripture commands us to throw off the things that so easily entangle us, so that we may run the race with endurance. I happen to believe that more than throwing off immorality, deceit, covetousness, and pride, we throw off the need to meet the demands of the law. My personal experience has been that works righteousness is much more of a snare than pornography. Believing that my actions can help achieve spiritual growth and maturity is much more subtle and in that way more dangerous than smutty websites.

Well if your so smart why don’t have you a plan to replace the standards?

I would suggest one of two routes. Throwing all “spiritual” rules out the window and pushing for an actual academy. The second would be to throw out all rules that are not New Testament imperatives. Even the most staunch dispensationalist would find that commands of the NT are impossible to attain, and this too would miss the thrust of those commands.

An Exposition of the Gospel

This is not an article about the standards, but about the gospel. The standards at CIU are merely a case study to show the full impact of the Gospel. What does God think of the standards? is perhaps the most important and the most neglected question regarding the debate on the standards at CIU. I would like to argue that Scripture gives us ample evidence to say that the standards at CIU are antithetical to the Gospel, alienate us from God, and are therefore sinful. Three legs support this stool (1) It is not our wickedness that keeps us from God but our goodness, (2) the default mode of the human heart is legalism, and (3) Christ is all one can point to in justification and sanctification.

In Luke 15 Jesus wants to tell a story to the Pharisees about a sinner who has turned his back on God. So we learn of a son who takes his inheritance and visits all the brothels and buffet lunches he could afford, and after a long journey finds his way home and repents. Yet Jesus continues to tell us of another brother. We find that the true prodigal is not the one who left but the one who stayed. What Jesus was saying was that the people who are alienated from the father’s heart are the pharisees. Now here some work is required. The pharisees were the sincere, pious, and dedicated leaders of the religious community. Why does Jesus go out of his way to infuriate the local religious leaders of his day? Isn’t he about evangelical unity? What does this mean that Jesus wants to tell us a story about sinners who are alienated from God and shows us that it is not our “evil deeds” that keep us from God, but it is our goodness. This moral bankruptcy continues throughout the whole Christian life. This is the first point that one must consider: It is not our wickedness but our goodness that keeps us from God.

Martin Luther once said that the default mode of the human heart is legalism. Said differently, “everyone is born a legalist”. The human heart is bent on earning righteousness, unless radically confronted with the free grace of Christ, it will continue on. What this means is that everyone, everywhere, will be erecting some standard in which they can justify themselves. You do not need to teach anyone this, they are already doing it, whether you are black and look down your nose at the whites who have oppressed you, or you are rich and look down your nose at the poor who are lazy, everyone will roll their eyes at someone. Every institution that does not recognize this does so to its peril. So lets look at CIU if what Martin Luther says is true. Even if all the standards were made obsolete, CIU would still be full of people trying to justify themselves. “Shouldn’t any form of rules be thrown out on these grounds” some might say, however, I think there is a very clear distinction between why CIU needs to hear this and not USC. The “spiritualizing” of the campus forces the rules to be seen as spiritual. To give students a law they can keep is to play to feed their vice. Like throwing gasoline on a burning fire. Biblically this is called a stumbling block. Paul addressed this issue with words that ring all too clear to our present day situation “

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world , do you submit to regulations– “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self made religion and asceticism and severity to the body; but they are of no value in stopping the indulgences of the flesh.” Colossians 2:20-23

Paul questions whether or not they “died with Christ” not because they neglected assumed religious practices but because they observed them. The issue here is not law vs. gospel, but gospel vs. “human precepts and teachings”. These human rules and precepts lack any substance and are hollow. John Calvin in his commentary on this passage says

When persons have once taken upon them to tyrannize over men’s souls, there is no end of new laws being daily added to old ones, and new enactments starting up from time to time. How bright there is a mirror to this Popery! Hence Paul acts admirably well in admonishing us that human traditions are a labyrinth, in which consciences are more and more entangled; nay more, are snares, which from the beginning bind in such a way that in course of time they strangle in the end. (Commentaries on the Epistles to the Philipians, Colosians, and Thessolonians )”

The movie Saving Private Ryan ends with a dreadful depiction of cinematic works righteousness. In the movie, eight men are sent out in the middle of WWII to bring home Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). As Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is dying, his last words to Private Ryan are “earn this”. I think of Jesus on the cross. He did not cry out to his friends or enemies demanding that they not waste his life, but He asked for forgiveness for the very people who were crucifying Him. Saving Private Ryan ends with a shot of James Ryan nearly 50 years later as he weeps before Miller’s grave. James through his tears tells Miller’s grave that everyday he has thought about what he said, he has tried to live a good life. His wife rushes to his side and he begs her to tell him that he’s a good man, that he’s lived a good life. The reality is that he hasn’t lived a good life. There is none who does good, no not even one.

Legalism is this, pointing to anything other than Christ for justification or reason to stand before God. Most people can spot the smoking gun of legalism in statements like “your not a Christian if you smoke cigarettes”. But what about questions like “How many times have you masturbated this week?” or “You shouldn’t preach on that if you are struggling with that sin” and “I don’t want to give that homeless guy any money since he’s going to use it on drugs”. Here’s the dividing line: does Christ merely “jump-start” our lives so that we can go to our accountability groups with a clear conscience or is everyday of the Christian life a matter of looking to Christ saying “wretched man that I am who will save me from this body of death?”. The message communicated by the standards is that Christ has jump started our lives and now we will do the rest.

“Why write this article?” you might ask. After reflecting on these issues day after day and discussing these questions, I am convinced that the Gospel is at stake. While at CIU I found that I never told myself that I was growing in Christ through my keeping of the standards, but I specifically remember questioning people’s salvation when I would see them deliberately break the rules. The paradigm shift occurred slowly over the last year as Christ began to “cross all the fair designs I schemed”. This is not an issue merely of being bitter about not being able to celebrate the goodness of creation (though I could be accused of that) or of a rebel’s heart that will not submit to rules, this is an issue of the glory of God. Before God we do not point to our fulfilled standards forms, our grades, our converted souls, but to Christ and nothing else. Like James Ryan, we want to know that we have lived a good life, but despite our best attempts we have not. May God be found true and all men liars.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Genesis 30: A Postpropositional Attempt Part II

Admittedly it is easier to smell a rotten egg (propositionalism) than lay a fresh one (postpropositionalism). Kevin Vanhoozer is helpful in the realm of doctrine, but what about exegesis? If there is any miscarriage between the theory and a responsible reading of the text it must be scrapped.

Genesis is notorious for vociferous narratives seemingly disproportionate to their content (67 verses on finding Isaac a wife – more than the Fall and Flood combined!). Unless we are willing to enter the story on its terms and not a search and rescue effort for timeless truths, few are fit for the fifty-chapter marathon that lies ahead. True to the exacerbating promise made to Abraham where people and land never seem to join hands to jumpstart a “great nation”, Jacob finds himself hundreds of miles from home on the verge of fostering a massive family. What ensues is a 30-verse account of a fertility war waged between sisters of one husband.

Because the Word employs such violent metaphors concerning itself, we ought not expect stepping into its world will be a costless, comfortable endeavor. Our modern world of egg donors, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood is subverted by the opening line: “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb…” This Creator God has developed a habit of breaking into his creation-set-in-motion (“sprout”, “yield”, “seed”, “fill”, “multiply” in Genesis 1) to act.

The characters at least acknowledge, if they are not always in agreement with, God’s interaction with the created order. Rachel’s barrenness is God withholding fruit of her womb (30.2) and her fertility is God’s remembrance (30.22). The names of Leah’s sons become Ebenezer’s to this seeing and hearing God: “Because the Lord upon my affliction…Because the Lord has heard…” Imagine a world in which the birds and the bees is still the rule of the day but all stands or falls by the will of God. The relationship that follows between God and the sisters is not unlike Brueggemann’s dialectic of self-assertion (complaint) and self-abandonment (praise) – sinful motives not withstanding, neither woman is slavishly self-effacing nor ignorantly self-determining. Both lay claim to God’s ability to provide and give thanks when he does.

God’s outpouring of blessing on Abraham’s seed is effectual but not efficient – effectual because he has a chosen nation in view, but not efficient because in his mercy he remembers Rachel. On paper her fertility is expendable. Judah, the royal offspring, is born along with nine other boys. Leah, Bilhah, or Zilpah seem perfectly capable of producing another two for a rounded twelve. But despite the tinge of idolatry Rachel carries with having children (or her overt idolatry elsewhere, 31.19), God graciously ‘remembers’ her and grants her two strong tribes. Rachel acknowledges this as nothing less than God removing her reproach.

More than just a reminder of the reality of our world, this reproductive explosion is a building block in a nation that will culminate in the Messiah. Rachel and Leah’s walk with God is only partially exemplary. There is covenantal ambiguity here – the promise to Abraham stands but remains unfulfilled, the Law has yet to come. An age is inaugurated in this Messiah with a new paradigm of God’s breaking into the created order. We have received lavish, ludicrous promises that the believer’s self-assertion has the ear of the King (Jn 14.13-14) in a way that has never been done before (16.23). His effectual but still not efficient answering now follows not the trajectory of building a nation Israel but bringing a kingdom. In that day, the Messiah declares, “you will ask nothing of me” (16.23, interestingly our present sorrow turned to that joyful day is compared to a woman giving birth).

If we love by obeying (Jn 14.21), we demonstrate faith by working (Jas 2.18), we walk in deed and truth (1 Jn 3.18), where else do we expect to gain understanding except by doing (Lk 11.28; Jn 7.17; 13.17; Rom 12.2; Eph 4.15; Heb 5.14; Jas 1.22)? To file this devotional on a cognitive shelf, even an easily accessible one, is to fail to grasp what it says. Faithfully inhabiting such a world, sharpening one’s longings by it, disciplining one’s prayers for it, imagining new ways to obey in it requires “constant practice” (Heb 5.14). Embodiment is the purest form of exegesis. This is why the author to the Hebrews commended the flock to “imitate their faith” (Heb 13.7; 6.12) – i.e. a flesh and blood performance of what the text says.

How do we believe, obey, and practice Genesis 30? My world is not the closed system crafted by my fog of unbelief. My Creator sees, hears, and remembers and then moves to act. One facet of such a world highlighted here is the role of prayer – appealing to God both for what is scientifically inevitable (conception) and improbable (overcoming barrenness). What materializes in the Christian life is a dual-dialectic of prayer. I approach the throne for that which is effectual but not necessarily efficient. Do my requests keep the mounting momentum of time in view – “that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (Jn 13.13)? Do they also vigorously defend the Son’s delight of granting abundant life (Jn 10.11)? The road from the cross to the eschaton is not a straight one. God liberally takes leave of it to deliver blessing and suffering that may fail to amount to any direct kingdom fruit. But I also approach the throne with self-assertion as well as self-abandonment. Refusing to make my requests known is at best faithless, false humility and at worst outright disobedience. Refusing to lay them down however is faltering under the weight of the cross.

Above all the chapter as well as the book is a solicitation to believe. Eight of the ten stories of faith told in Hebrews 11 are found in the book of Genesis. Inasmuch as I acknowledged my alien status and bank my life on the heavenly country, I walk the road of Genesis.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Just a quick thought

So I've been thinking a lot about good old Reformed theology and about how much trouble people have with predestination and the Elect. Then I was thinking about the Old Testament and how obvious it is that Israel was God's chosen people. I was reading Malachi today and was again reminded of this when God reminds Israel (through Malachi) that "I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert" (1:2b-3).
For some reason it is easier for me to think of God in the Old Testament choosing Israel then to think of God today only saving the Elect. But God's sovereignty in this issue is not a new concept. Just as God chose Israel and saved them and loved them, He today chooses whom he will save from death. I'm so thankful for God's goodness to save sinners such as us!
I love that Paul uses this thought in Romans 9 when describing election. Anyway this is nothing new but it just hit me in a new way. Its not that God has changed and now lets some perish, He has ALWAYS been faithful to save whom He chooses. As Paul says, there is NO injustice on God's part!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Hermeneutics of the Emmaus Road

Rather than putting this in the comments section I wanted to synthesize some of the responses and thoughts that have been simmering in my mind with all of this discussion. Luke 24:13-35 contains some insights into hermeneutics that pertain to our recent discussions.

On the morning of the resurrection, the disciples were walking along the road discussing and talking about all that happened. When a man whom they did not recognize joins them and inquires as to what all the commotion is, they retell in their own understanding what had transpired. This man, Jesus, rebukes them for their disbelief in all that the prophets had foretold. Jesus then gives them a lesson starting with Moses and the prophets and showed that all of those writings point to Him. Jesus proceeds to share a meal with them, upon breaking bread their eyes are opened and he “vanished from their sight”.

A few observations,

1. The disciples did not recognize Jesus physically (their eyes were kept from recognizing him) or spiritually (they were looking for the “one to redeem Israel”)

2. The disciples had misread and therefore disbelieved in the Scriptures

3. Jesus gives them an OT survey with Himself as the central protagonist

4. After breaking bread their eyes were opened

This pertains to our recent discussion in a few ways. Like the disciples we see Jesus on our own terms. As this story shows, Jesus is most fit for the task to correct our views of Him and as we saw in Mark 8, only Jesus can decide who is and is not fit to preach. Misunderstanding is form of disbelief. This next point is perhaps the most slippery exegetically. I think that hermeneutics must be sacramental. As Jesus broke the bread and gave it them their eyes were opened. Internalization of these stories is a form of hermeneutics. As Flannery O’Connor pointed out, the point is the story. Reading scripture must develop a Christ-as-the-protagonist internalization.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Jesus, Peter, and Theological Precision

One of Jesus' most bizarre statements in the gospel of Mark comes in its eighth chapter. He has just finished feeding the four thousand, has rebuked the Pharisees and the disciples for their unbelief, and has healed a blind man at Bethsaida. While on his way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi with the disciples he asks them the loaded question, "Who do people say that I am?" They answer with a litany of venerable, but inferior spiritual leaders. Immediately, Jesus narrows his focus. The disciples are now forced to account for their understanding of the identity of Jesus. Peter, always a tad bit impetuous, gladly answers for the whole. He declares Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus then says the unthinkable. Something that would no more be said from an American evangelical pulpit than a Hillary Clinton campaign endorsement. "He strictly charged them to tell no one about him."

Most likely, Jesus knew that the disciples' presuppositions about the nature, and mission of Messiah were so skewed that propagation of them would be disastrous for his ministry. In the next verses Jesus demonstrates that the Son of Man would not lead another Maccabean revolt, this time one with eternal sustenance. No, the Son of Man would not only not end imperial control of the people of God, but he would even be rejected by Israel itself. Peter, once again in flagrant grandiosity takes Jesus to school on the historic, orthodox doctrines of Jewish messiahship. Abruptly then, Jesus silences him on this once and for all.

It is clear that the disciples' theological imprecision was caused by the burden of their presuppositions. This was completely unacceptable to Jesus, and limited their participation in his cause. They did not remain in this state, though, by the sixteenth chapter Jesus gives the go-ahead for the eleven to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” Therefore, in the time between the eighth chapter of Mark, and the sixteenth the disciples had gained enough theological accuracy for Jesus to grant them the privilege of proclamation.

Is there then possibility for theological precision? In measure, yes. Although, it comes almost always gradualy, and almost always (because of sin, and pressupositions) includes a significant paradigm shift. The Spirit, in the divine discourse that has been discussed, must help us take our minds off the things of man, and set them on the things of God, just as Jesus did for his disciples. That, I am assured, comes to us often accompanied by abrupt, and unsettling rebukes when we realize that we have come to Jesus trying to force him through our own rubrick. It seems that after this, though, we are left with a measure of truth.

If this is true, it is not presumptuous for our ministers to tell those outside the covenant that they must be born again. It is not presumptuous for us to encourage one another to specific forms of love, and good deads. It is not presumptuous for us to come boldly before the throne of God in prayer. We have the mind of Christ, and this of all things secures for us the potential for accurate theological reflection.

Genesis 30: A Postpropositional Attempt Part I

The fertility war of Israel’s founding women is a preacher’s nightmare. Not even NT writers, for all their fantastically imaginative exegesis, will touch it (outside acknowledging that it really happened, Mt 1:2; Ac 7:8). But that makes this story the perfect postpropositionalist attempt. After all, the more time-bound the details of the story are the more broad the timeless principle must be to bridge the historic, societal, cultural, economic, scientific, linguistic gap between “them” and “us”.

Traditionally the timeless truth of this text might be, ‘God is sovereign over all things’ (or moralistically Jacob’s treatment of Leah or the sisters’ treatment of each other). Without demonizing propositionalism, several things are troubling about this interpretation. First, what becomes important is the timeless principle and not the narrative fluff – Genesis 30 is a verbose, round about way of saying what I’ve been able to say in six words. Second and similarly, it has the adverse affect of flattening the text and sucking the wonder out of it. Third, as comments in the previous blog have pointed out, it is not entirely clear what single, “juicy” timeless principle lurks behind the story. And fourth, it treats doctrine like an object suspended in air for which we can all slip out of our pesky cultural skin to examine it from no particular vantage point. If a timeless principle is preached in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a meaningful sound? To say, ‘God is sovereign over all things’ in a vacuum is to say nothing at all.

For the sake of brevity but hopefully not simplicity I suggest at least a three step process to embody the text. First, in narratives like this one the story is the message. We are not being invited to harvest it but indwell it. Flannery O’Connor says it well about her own writing when people ask for the story’s main point: “And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story. Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction”. Genesis 30 taps into a running theme of the whole book of a God who has created the world and then engages in its affairs, here down to the minutia of sperm and egg. What does life on the ground in Paddan-aram look, sound, feel, and think like with such a God? – an exercise Vanhoozer calls “not mastery [of the text] so much as apprenticeship”.

The through-line of the divine drama conceived in a series of building promises to humanity will not allow us to reduce this work to personally embodying the story alone. It is not a snippet of daily life in the Ancient Near East that proves helpful but a building block in a very carefully crafted redemption. Thoughtfully opening and closing wombs creates a genealogy the Gospel writers found worth celebrating and ties God’s sovereignty in creation and our lives to a very specific end.

The second step requires the hard work of faithful imagination. The reality of the world of Genesis 30 looks different in the Ancient Near East than it does in modern America. How do we as children of this God take our cues from His Word and learn to live, love, and pray in our world? The third step challenges the notion that much understanding has happened up until this point. It is not an application of understanding then doing but understanding by doing. It is, as my pastor pointed out, the circularity of Paul’s prayer for the Colossians: filled with spiritual wisdom to walk in a worthy manner to gain more spiritual wisdom. At the end of the eschatological day it’s not our talk of blueprints but our house that faces the floods.

* I am indebted to Wright, Doriani, and Vanhoozer for prompting me in this direction.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Living Word

After a brief exchange with John’s disciples, Jesus asked the attendant crowds a pointed question about their relationship to him: “What did you got out into the wilderness to see?” One’s aim in listening inevitably shapes what one hears. If it was the curiosity of a shaken reed or a soft-clothed man, they would have been disappointed; if it was the disbelief of the Pharisees, they would have been rebuked. But if it was humility to hear a prophet, “and more than a prophet”, they would have had ears to hear a kingdom come.

Locating one’s own motivation in going to the written Word is not unlike the crowds’. Our posture before the Bible demonstrates this hermeneutic of hearing. Do we go to the text to confirm what we have always thought? Or with a sense of dutiful obedience? Or to be informed? Who among us is not guilty of all of these?

And yet the Scriptures refuse to subordinate themselves to what we are willing to hear. It is the self-attested working, living, abiding, exposing, and equipping Word, burning like fire, breaking like a hammer, cutting like a sword, piercing like an arrow. In short, it is a restless Word. We are not observers but addressees being solicited on every page to respond. As such we cannot read without communion or community – without an ear cocked towards the Author and hands towards the church.

What did you go after the Word to see? To sit down to become learned or confirmed is to address a dead, impotent text foreign to the Bible; not unlike perusing a newspaper pulled from the recycling bin. But to humbly seek reorientation in every engagement is to read with ears to hear a kingdom come.