Friday, September 27, 2013

Doctrines and labels

My daughter called me the other day. She was in the throes of debate with a staunch Calvinist. (And what two words go together better than "staunch" and "Calvinist"?) As a result of their discussion she wanted to know what I thought of "total depravity," by which her friend meant a complete inability on the part of humanity to choose what is right. I replied that whether or not such a thing is true is actually moot so long as the Holy Spirit is in the world doing the work Jesus described, that is, convicting the world. It made me ponder once again what power a labeled doctrine has. Once there is such a label, be it transubstantiation,  inerrancy or total depravity, it presents to the world an in or out, good or bad choice-- if you agree, you're in, and if you disagree you're out. That's power, that is. Now maybe we need some such labeled doctrines, but at risk of tritely quoting Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. Let's try to have as few as possible.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Pardonable Subjectivism

Question for Christians: How do you treat the personal story of someone's conversion? I mean when someone recounts to you their conversion story, what to you do about it. Do you, on one hand, analyze the account to death and point out its theological faults, or derive a deep abiding doctrinal statement from it, blithely bending and twisting what you thought you knew to fit with your friend's account? Or would you generally take a middle road and allow the person his private perceptions of how and why God has worked in his life without giving it universal application?

Second question, more theological this time: In the context of the above, taking into account God's universal love for us, how would you respond if someone told you that God, counter to your intuitive understanding of that love, saved him, showed mercy to him, gave grace to him, loved him, etc. (and yes, I lump these together on purpose. I think that we split hairs far too glibly in these matters.) only because of some extenuating circumstance and that otherwise he would have been passed over? Would you try to explain to that person, that no, God has mercy on everyone, because that is his nature and it's not at all about us or would you pass it off as not that vitally important?

Third question: What if this person was the Apostle Paul? In 1 Timothy 1:13 he says precisely the kind of thing I refer to in question-- that he was shown mercy because of his ignorance. Now what do you do? You see, a couple of days ago I was reading this. It's written by a friend, whom I disagree with sharply on many occasions and issues, but whose erudition and Bible scholarship are several "pay-grades" above my own. I was appreciating his exposition about the various biblical words for ignorance, when suddenly I thought, "Wait a minute. Saying something that seems to abrogate God's universal mercy is not allowed or maybe taken seriously from anyone else, but if Paul does it we have to alter our theology?" It's a question of paradigm. If we look at the Bible as inerrant (I'm starting to call this the "the book done fell from the sky" theory) we are forced to make everything in it true in an absolute sense and it has to distort our theology. That's why my friend sees a necessity to categorize different kinds of ignorance.

There's really another way. Let's remember who we all are. Paul is not the uniquely anointed leader of a church filled with people otherwise disconnected from God who need him to disseminate all that is true. He is one of many sons of God (ideally!) equally filled by the Holy Spirit. He has a very significant voice among us, but by very definition of what it means to be the church, if we really want to look ourselves as all (including Paul) members of the body of Christ (Paul's own metaphor) then we cannot claim absolute error free communication will come from any one of us. We are all here to complete each other. Moses' prophetic prayer -- to which the church is the fulfilment-- says it all. "Oh that God would put his Spirit on all his people..."

And when it comes to Paul's take on why God showed him mercy or indeed his claim to be the chief of sinners, which I really have heard people take literally, ("You can't claim to be too bad to forgive; Paul has already declared himself to be the worst of sinners and God forgave him...") the question becomes "Why do we have crank up the doctrine mill for a subjective throw-away comment about something very personal -- Paul's conversion experience?" I say we allow him this subjectivism. We certainly allow it for each other. But let's not try to theologize around it.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Why I Read the Bible the Way I Do.

I thought I would make the effort, since I find that so often I am a different animal than others when it comes to how I approach the Bible, that it would be fair of me to itemize how I got this way.

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, in Langley-Vineyard-That-Was, Gary Best embarked on a sermon series that would last about a year and a half. The question before us was, as close as I can summarize, "What does the Bible really teach about the status of women in relationship to men?" It was a paradigm changing experience for me. It wasn't so much his conclusion, although I turned a fairly definite corner there too, but the process which produced that conclusion, which led me to an irrevocable shift. Gary argued (successfully, in my opinion) that after the fall, women as represented in God's law and in the practise of his people were always treated slightly better than the way they were treated in the cultures around them. He saw a persistent and definite trend that, as the redemption of the Kingdom worked its way through the cultures of his people, should have progressed in a rising straight line back to the equality men and women shared in the Garden. Unfortunately for women, the church hasn't read the Bible that way, and for years, men have ensured that the line of has levelled off and women, contrary to God's plan represented in that trend, have been left at the last biblical data point instead of being allowed to complete the intended redemptive process.

But that's not what this post is about. I found the implications of his line of reasoning very impacting. The ideas that there could be a story that is larger than the text-- a story in this case of God leading his people through change, never changing more than they could handle culturally, lest they not be able to make the shift and the change be lost-- and that at any one slice of time, the message might be tailored to the people of that time and culture with no expectation that future cultures and times should take it as literally written to them were for me a door that slammed shut behind me that I realize now that I after that sermon series I could never treat the Bible as it is traditionally treated.

At another time I was exposed to the following, in the teaching of an acquaintance, Rod Graciano of Timothy Ministries. It's an easily understood and  paradigm setting way of looking at all doctrine. He calls it the Temple of Truth. It's basically a list of criteria against which you must test any new teaching that comes along. As follows:
  1. At least one explicit statement of Scripture. Without this support, the doctrine is uncertain and would be unbalanced if emphasized.
  2. Confirmation of additional statements of Scripture. Additional passages even if implicit can help support a doctrine and show its importance.
  3. Compatibility with established biblical truth. This is a necessary foundation, but does not in itself constitute a doctrinal edifice.
  4. Old Testament types and historical precedents. Types may deepen a teaching, but are not necessary and cannot support a doctrine by them selves. Historical precedents show that something may be done, but they do not prove that it must be done.
Thank you Rod. So much detritus in our teaching could have been ruled out before it became popular if we only could've used this test.

Another life changing experience was watching friends embrace Roman Catholicism and grappling with all the strange and new (to me) perspectives that they started to espouse. It was at my friends' house that I read a part of a volume by Peter Creeft which explained pretty convincingly that the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the supremacy of the Bible, was pretty well nonsense, and not even taught by the bible itself. Again convincingly, the Bible, specifically the New Testament was chosen by the church on its own authority. This makes historical sense. What doesn't necessarily follow, however, is that we ought to follow the Catholics back to that authority, that sola ecclesia, that supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church. Such a move is historically very problematic. I just don't believe that a group with such towering errors in their past as the Crusades, the persecution of the Anabaptists (my spiritual forebears), and the construction of cathedrals on the backs of the poor of Europe (follow the money!) can claim to have ultimate spiritual authority. The fact that Pope Francis is now having to clean house on that ancient institution is very telling. Did the Vatican have that ultimate authority through all those years of corruption? If they had it once, that is, even if you accept 'On this rock I will build my church' to have founded the papal dynasty, they can't claim have kept their authority after abusing it so. They appear to be a very human institution, and therefore an option at best merely equal to any other church. So, sola scriptura is out, but I just can't accept what is offered in return. Thinking a bit further along these lines, I can't help feeling that sola scriptura was developed by the Protestants as a bulwark and an indictment against the practises of the Catholics to justify their exit. I don't think they needed such a indictment. The Roman Catholic Church had enough to indict itself without any help from sola scriptura.
This next one happened very quietly. I was listening to a friend of mine teaching a class on the principles of the simple church movement. Here's my slant on what he said: There are three levels of authority in the church. (I cringed when I heard this at first -- I was expecting some kind of charismatic hierarchy to come forth, but was intrigued when I heard the following)
  • The commands of Christ: that which we must do. 
  • The practises of the apostles: that which we can do.
  • Human tradition: that which we might or might not do, but which cannot be allowed to interfere with the commands of Christ. 
(Here's a link to follow if you want to get more on this. It's a worksheet by a man named George Patterson, who is quietly responsible for leading thousands into the Kingdom because he keeps on planting churches and fostering church planting movements.)
But without saying much more this one just plain fit me like a glove. It makes absolute sense to me to place the teachings and commands of Jesus our Saviour and Lord above those of the apostles instead of taking the view that his teachings needed fleshing out or defining by his followers. And it's when I marry Rod Graciano's Temple of Truth step one with setting the commands and teaching of Jesus above all others, which comes to "There should be at least one explicit statement of Jesus..." that I am struck by this: there is no explicit statement from Jesus about the later assembled New Testament. An outsider to the church (the more Protestant side) judging from the importance we place on the Bible, would naturally expect that somewhere Jesus would have said "after me will come a book!" But he never did. So really the formation of the New Testament ranks far more with Rod's step four. It seems a matter of historical precedent-- God's people had Torah in the past therefore we need a new Torah. And I think we have been guilty of some serious imbalances in the use of our new Torah.

So take this post as a prequel to a previous post and understand why I need to pursue the line of reasoning taken there. I am a follower of Jesus, but not a Bible idolater. I love and try to read the Bible for what it is. But I hate to see it being used for what it's not.