Sunday, June 28, 2009

All Theology is Local

If a pastor/priest/preacher whatever is not in tune with their local community, both insiders and outsiders, they cannot do their job -- at best they will be ineffective, at worst they will be incredibly damaging. The trouble, then, will systematics is that it is theology abstracted from place and time. If your pastor is a systematics person, pray for them to be rooted and resist any attempts to make theology esoteric or trivial or over complicated. All theology is local.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rethinking It All: Symbolic Interpretation

Reading through The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism has brought up a few things that I have not considered in a long time: interpretive maximalism. This idea, proffered by James B. Jordan and expounded by David Chilton in his magisterial Days of Vengeance, looks for symbolic resonances throughout Scripture. In many ways, it is sort of a "Scripture interpreting Scripture" on steroids. The thought behind it is that in an aural and oral society, verbal and symbolic resonances would be easily picked up by the hearers with a minimum of forward allusions. The classic example, if I remember correctly, is that of Abimelech's death in the book of Judges. He, an enemy of God's people, is killed by having a woman throw a stone upon his head. The verbal and symbolic import of the text, though, (not to mention syntactic parallels) ties it in with the promise of the redeemer in Genesis 3: an enemy of God's people, the serpent, is killed by the seed of the woman crushing his head. The key symbols here are the enemy, the woman, and the head-crushing (compare, once again, Sisera and Jael elsewhere in Judges). It is not, of course, an exact parallel, but rather an evocative way of telling a story. The idea of "intertextual echo" proffered by Richard B. Hays is in some respects similar, but his has to do more with narrative underpinnings, rather than symbolic repetition.

In reading an essay in Jewish Roots by Margaret Barker, these ideas came running back. While Ms. Barker tends to be into what I might call the strange side of interpretive maximalism (believing YHWH to be the son of El Elyon, for example), some of the resonances that she brings up about the high priest in ancient Israel deserve closer attention. Sometimes, when interpreting Scripture, it can be easy to stick just with rational and narrative analysis, which have arguably been the Protestant's bread and butter since inception. Oftentimes, as Barker proves unwittingly, this sort of symbolic interpretation can lead into some weedy territory, which the early Reformers wanted to avoid, especially as they saw it in some allegorizing in the Catholic tradition. To avoid symbolism in the Bible, though, is to throw the proverbial baby out with the (equally proverbial) bathwater. Care, of course, must be exercised and other interpretive methods must be used to balance the symbolic. Once this is the case, though, the symbolic can then be used in tandem with historical, narrative, and theological interpretive criticism to further probe the meaning of Scripture in its original context and for us today.

The difficulty, as I see it, is reconstructing anything like the ancient symbolic worldview. Our symbolic universe, replete with the goddess Freedom and her entourage, is hard enough to pin down since our public discourse is largely demythologized. Instead of the evolving hand of Marduk, we speak of evolutionary processes. Instead of the cruel mastery of Mammon, we talk about economic determinism, both capitalistic and socialistic. The list, as always, could go on and on. The ancient worldview, at least the ancient Israelite shared (with significant variation and mutation) by the Biblical authors, is populated by angels and demons, primeval "welter and waste", gardens, serpents, nudity and clothing, names and Names and naming, blood crying out from the ground, and wanderers with marks of protection, just to mention some of the symbols from the first chapters of Genesis. We hear talk of the earth, the heavens above, the waters in division, and the grave below: so temporal space is conceived tripartite, with the sea in league with the underworld. This symbolism is powerful and still resonates today, but with a muted voice. Reclaiming it in a post-secular, post-Enlightenment world may be impossible for life, but essential, at least, for understanding the Biblical mindset.

One of the things that Barker argues is a symbolic tie between the high priest's work and Jesus' acclamation in Philippians 2. I've heard interpretations using Adam and Israel and the Servant (all of which have very good points, but that it for another time), but never the high priest. The parallels that she draws are quite intriguing, if I ultimately disagree with her overall interpretive scheme (she has a hammer of Temple symbolism and therefore everything is a Temple nail). It is an occasion to further study in a passage that I love and deeply lack understanding of (most of the Biblical passages that I keep returning to in my studying and questioning I deeply lack understanding). But it must be carefully tempered, otherwise we may develop symbolic worlds that make sense to us, but separate us from the realities that they are supposed to point us towards.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rethinking It All: Theonomy

My formative years of learning about what the Christian faith means in the day-to-day ethics of living came from the relatively small, but quite outspoken group known as the Theonomists or Christian Reconstructionists, headed by such luminaries as RJ Rushdoony, Gary North, and Kevin Craig. While practical application differed between the various schools of theonomists (how many schools? as many as there were theonomists), the exegetical base established by Greg Bahnsen seemed to be reasonably normative. That is to say, the Torah has abiding moral and legal principles for life in a post-resurrection world, which should not just be applied in a private or "spiritual" sense, but in the public realms of jurisprudence and legislation. In other words, "God's Law or Chaos" (so says a bumper sticker I have in my collection).

For many years, I have come under flak for being sympathetic to the theonomic cause. (I prefer the appellation 'theonomic' over 'Christian Reconstructionist' largely because of political differences inherent in those titles.) One professor even labeled the movement as 'demonic', albeit in some jest. The vitriol of many theonomic writers, especially North and David Chilton, occasioned this sort of derision. Looking back on some of their more polemic writings (especially "Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators"), it doesn't strike me as odd in the slightest that theonomists were, by and large, a lonely bunch. I still hold onto the basic tenet and exegesis: the Old Testament, especially the Torah on which the whole is built, is fundamentally important to the Christian Church and we ignore it or 'spiritualize' it to our own peril. The Torah of Moses does have very significant things to say not just about our individual, private or family lives, but also about our public and political discourse, especially in an increasingly antagonistic pluralist polytheist society (for many in the Church, I realize, the realities of the demonic side of the 'principalities and the powers' is a reality that the North American branch of the Church has not yet fully understood or contended with, but we are starting to feel the pressure).

My rethinking comes along the lines set forth, not only by the theonomists, but by much recent and erudite scholarship that is pouring over the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. That is, the ever present, and apparently and paradoxically divise, debate about Paul and the Torah, whether on the more scholarly level (Westerholm, Sanders, Wright, et al) or the more popular Lutheran-esque revisions (Piper and company). When thinking about this, though, it is important to set it in proper historical context, especially as we find it in the book of Acts: how does the relation of the Torah ("holy, just, and good") to the Gentile converts work?

In reading Marcus Bockmuehl's Jewish Law in Gentile Churches and Mark Nanos' The Mystery of Romans, I have been introduced to the halakhic concept of how Gentiles were supposed to act in the land of Israel if they wanted to be part of the common life and the worship (however limited they might experience it) of the one true God. These regulations are found primarily in Leviticus 18-20 (further confirming my suspicions that the Church's ignorance of this book has been theologically deadly) and consist mainly of three categories: idolatry/blasphemy, blood regulations (both dietary and 'blood shedding'), and sexual immorality. Interestingly enough, these same things appear in Acts 15 under the auspices of the Apostolic Decree, a document drafted to answer the question "What must Gentile converts to the Messiah do in order to be saved?" Of course, here, a redefinition of soteriology is in order -- in Acts the question is not "how does one get into heaven" but "how does one have a place in the eschatological community that will have a place in the age to come". Salvation is never primarily individualistic (although it does involve the individual), but speaks of how we are to be truly human now, in anticipation of God's final plans for creation (for example, Rom. 8).

These categories (which in later Rabbinic thought would be categorized under the heading of "Noachide Laws") give the theonomist much to think about. Many of the laws to Israel were exactly that, to Israel as it lived in the land. The relevance to diaspora Judaism has been much debated in Jewish circles, and Christians should consider the relevance to ethnic Jews who follow Messiah, as they are the restoration of "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (of course there is much debate here). But to the Gentile who believes in Messiah? It would seem that many of the laws, especially concerning 'ritual' or Sabbath or kosher or circumcision, do not have anything to say to the Messianic Gentile. These are the things that make Jews Jews, and Paul says (and the Apostolic Decree confirms) that "there is neither Jew nor Greek" (that is, Jews are Jews who follow Messiah, Gentiles are Gentiles who follow Messiah, they do not need to become the other). In thinking about public ethics, then, it becomes important not to overstate the theonomic case, but what is there in Lev. 18-20 and Acts 15 (not to mention Ex 20, the Ten Commandments, but that is another story for another time) must be studied and understood. In many ways, it seems, the New Testament understands the Gentile converts to not be a separate institution, but a part of God's eschatological community, which includes the restored Israel of which I've spoken in previous posts. The Church, then, is to be neither Gentile nor Jew, but builds off of what God started with Israel and forms something new, where the distinctions between Jew and Gentile are relativized in Messiah, but certainly foundational ethical principles form the basis of continued community life, in both intra-community dialogue and table fellowship and also in public discourse and legislation.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Limits of Competence

I have been raised and reared under the Gospel of Excellence. If everything we do is supposed to be "to the glory of God", then (the assumption goes) everything we do must be excellent, because only excellent things are worthy of the glory of God. However, having lived under that burden for many years now, I'm beginning to see that the assumption entailed in it are incorrect.

Anyone under the burden of "perfectionism" knows that ultimately perfection is unattainable, but the drive to grasp it shoulders guilt upon us. So we try harder, and fail -- maybe a little, maybe epically -- and we try again to get it just right. I wonder, though, if this call to perfection might be part of Adamic pride, the desire to be as God without reference to God. If so, then it is a peculiar sin, since even God did not make all things perfect: ask any farmer about their marginal land, ask any carpenter about marginal wood, ask a coffee roaster about 'defect' beans, etc.

Instead, I would like to proffer the idea of competence: we work not for perfection, but for fit. To return to a bit of agriculture (or gardening, if you prefer), marginal land is not rendered useless by its status as marginal. Instead, special care and consideration is needed to make proper and sustainable use of that land (sustainable being understood as use that preserves or improves the fertility and integral structure of the land). Sometimes its best use, its most competent use, is being marginal: a barrier between the rows of crops and the 'wild'. However, if our agriculture standard is 'perfection' (and that usually is defined in an industrial economy as 'efficiency'), then marginal land qua marginal land is useless. It must be (incompetently) turned into row land, which makes it unsustainable and is deeply damaging to the structure of the land and the humans who are to care for it, as Wendell Berry might point out.

Competence, then, involves a few neccessary things that distinguish it from 'perfection': humility to see and know the work, land, idea, people as they really are; care to get into the marginal parts of life along with the 'better' elements and to understand them; place, since no thing is ultimately disconnected from where it grows, whether we are speaking of plants or ideas or factories. 'Perfection' or 'excellence' are, in the end, Platonic ideas, ideas beyond the reach of man that make us feel trapped in our creatureliness; competence embraces creatureliness, yet mourns sinfulness (not the same thing!), and makes the best of its created circumstances. Competence is thrifty -- even apple peels can have copious amounts of canning pectin rendered from them. Excellence ends up being wasteful, as apple peels cannot contribute to a larger goal (pectin is never the goal in perfection). The idea of scale really does hit home here: competence can be content with the small, with excellence is always striving for the 'big' solution to the 'big' problem.

Developing competence, of course, is no easy thing. Especially since competence is so wide ranging: one can be 'excellent' in only a few things; one can be competent in many. Consider just the duties of a house husbandman: carpentry, plumbing, painting, mechanical maintenance, care for animals, care for wife and children, etc. Competence in these things is developed over long periods of time and in conjunction with community (we observe and help others to build these skills). Excellence in any of these things, apart from a conscious disciplined career choice, is impossible for us -- I certainly will never understand the full inner workings of my car, but that doesn't mean that I cannot use and maintain it properly.

Excellence, however, is still needed. I strive for excellence in my theology and in my coffee roasting -- however, excellence must itself come by way of competence. Only when I have learned to care for these things as concrete entities, as placed things, can I develop them to their greatest potential.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Interlude: The Psalms

Dear Reader and Fellow Rethinker,

I appreciate your patience with this series of posts -- I do not know how many will be a part of the whole or even if I will "finish". In many ways, I hope that I do not, for that would call for another rethinking: I am not infallible and I must be allowed to disagree with myself. In some ways, this Arabian process is one of self-discovery -- but not in the sense of "self-actualization" but rather the sense of "it is no longer 'I' who lives, but the Messiah who lives within me". This process changes me, brings me to repentance, and is conforming me to an image of the Messianic Other. It is uncomfortable, and (as a friend tells me) dangerous considering some of the ties I have in the Christian world. But it is something that must be done and has been pressing on me for years.

Which brings me to the Psalms. My religious tradition uses only Psalms in corporate worship. It is one of the things that led me to embrace the tradition and which has caused this rethinking: in many ways that tradition is being consumed in the gnostic modernism that I described earlier, I do not wish it to be. The Psalms can be an antidote to that tendency.

The Psalms are, really, God's song-book. Whether or not a Church tradition makes use of them says much about that tradition. Many "evangelical" traditions forswear them or relegate them to "personal devotion", if that. The vapidity of much modern Church music does not need to be recited here, instead I would like to examine some of the positive aspects of the Psalms.

The Psalms connect the Messiah's Body and Bride with its past. This is a collection of works that span around a half-millennium in time, from the foundation of the Kingdom to the initial return from exile and speak of the common hopes of Israel. If the full restoration of Israel is important in understanding the New Testament, then the Psalms are indispensible: the themes of forgiveness, restoration, vindication, triumph, and God's royal sovereignty pervade the poems and songs. In that light, it is important, though, to recognize that even though we sing these songs and they do have modern applicability, they are Israel's songs. Those of us who are Gentiles in the faith must see them in their proper historical and eschatological light before we just take them as our own. When we sing of vindication over enemies, let us remember that God has done this in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. When imprecations are sung, let us remember that the Messiah is the conquerer and that the enemy may not be the Romans or the Taliban or whoever, but "the last enemy that shall be defeated is death". When return from exile is longed for, let us remember the book of Acts and our responsibilities towards the historically called Israel "according to the flesh", for the "gifts and calling of God are irrevocable".

The Psalms emphasize the community that God has called, not just the lone individual. We are called by the Messiah not to be individual brides, as if Jesus were some cosmic polygamist, but to be a part of -- to participate in -- his one Bride, the Church, made up of Israel and righteous Gentiles together praising God. Even those songs that are spoken from an individual point of view are often the king singing, giving them an undeniable Messianic cast. Those of Asaph often express the individual longing to be back in the community, amongst the throng of worshippers (such as Psalm 42/43). The individual finds meaning and purpose in the midst of this worshipping community, who share songs and history, who are called into being, not by themselves, but by the Shepherd.

The Psalms remind us that not everything is well, that there remains mighty acts of God for us to participate in, pray for, worship God for, and so on. There is exile still, there is sin, there are enemies, death still reigns over much of the world. But the Messiah has conquered and is conquering through that worshipping community. If man fell into sin by his selfish idolatry, what is true salvation but the restoration of worship and koinonia between man and his Creator? All is not well, but the Messiah reigns (Psalm 2) and the troubled history of Israel (Psalm 105-106) has brought the mighty act of God on the cross of Jesus of Nazareth to bear on the whole world.

The Psalms remind us that we know God, not by idle speculation or theological dogma, but through His acts in history to restore, redeem, and recreate. God is a revealer, but He does so through acting in history, especially through His chosen ("salvation is from the Jews"), culminating in their representative and our Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Christian knowledge is not esoteric, not far off, not the exclusive provenance of the priestly caste (regardless of ecclesial nomenclature), but the common property of His people and knowable by all who would investigate these things which "were not done in a corner".

The Psalms tell us that even though the public works of God are available to all -- Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free -- they ultimately lead us to recognize the Creator's great unfathomability: "how unsearchable are your works". God acts, we can understand, but let us not think that we have exclusive or exhaustive knowledge of God's doings or plans: "the secret things are God's, but the revealed things are our and our children's".

The Psalms, in other words, form important cornerstones for Christian worship and keep us grounded in the full history of God's mission in the world: Abraham to Israel through Moses to David past the exile to the Messiah and the ingathering of the Gentiles, of which many of us are. In the great words of the Psalmists: Praise Yah!

Monday, June 01, 2009

Rethinking It All: The Primacy of Acts

When thinking about the ideas of simplicity and clarity in theology, one quickly runs into a fasinating doctrine from the Reformation: the perspicuity of Scripture. Perspicuity means clarity (why they don't use that much more clear word is beyond me) and has to do with the idea that the necessary things to believe for one to be a part of the people of God are accessible to anyone. I love this idea, but too often our understand of what we must believe for salvation is clouded by centuries of minutae from systematic theology: justification, the innards of trinitarian speculation, whatever eschatology we call home, etc. Instead, looking at Scripture, it is (with a few exceptions that prove this rule) a story -- exactly the story that we need in our postmodern/modern malaise and loss of certitude, exactly what we need to found and sustain a community such as I describe in the last post. In other words, what is necessary to believe is the mighty acts of God. These are relatively clear and point the way to being explained by the apostles in the New Testament. In that regard, if we are to reassess and understand New Testament theology, how it connects to the Hebrew Bible, and how the whole story fits together, primacy in interpretation must be given to Acts: the perspicuity of Scripture practically demands it.

However, how well do we know Acts? In some ways, due to its classification as a "historical" book, it often is slighted or ignored: where are its great discourses into Christology? Or Justification? Or any other doctrine that props us up against our theological enemies? Usually, when people start reading Acts, they begin to notice that their theology doesn't stand up to it, so they say that Acts is "early", "primative", "undeveloped", "not a credible witness", "perfunctory", "not normative" or something of the sort. Acts does not have a high christology, or concentrate very much on justification, and seems to up end any eschatological speculation (why, after all, does Peter say that his audience was in the last days? More on that anon). Acts humbles overly spiritual and overly intellectualized theologies both, and therefore gets tossed in the dust bin. Even if a Church or denomination claims to be centered on the "Word of God", rarely is Acts preached through or even mentioned -- except maybe to note the ostensible tension between it and Galatians, with Galatians always coming out on top as being Paul's "more mature thought". Whenever data that doesn't fit hits an entrenched worldview, it is often ignored or belittled until the evidence mounts so high as to create a paradigm shift or a breakdown of the sacred canopy. I know this because I do it myself, hence the need -- the desparate need -- for rethinking, for Arabia. Acts must send us to Arabia, to hear with fresh ears and to see with fresh eyes the magnalia Dei, the wonderful works of God.

Key, it has become clear to me, is the disciples question in the beginning chapter. "Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?" Often times, at least in all the commentaries I've read and all the sermons I've heard, this is considered a juvenile or completely off-base question: how, after all, can the disciples still be thinking and speaking in such earthly terms? How can they consider Israel important at all since the Messiah has come? But notice that Jesus does not chide them or say "O you of little faith" which was his common way of addressing their former failure to understand: "It is not for you to know the times and eras that the Father has set by his own authority, but you shall be my witnessess in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth." In other words, they had not asked a wrong question, but the answer was not going to be given to them at that time. However, if we understand a little bit of the basic Jewish eschatology of the time (and I'm thankful for )Mark Nanos for bringing this obvious point to my attention), we know that the restoration of Israel from exile, to its position of God's wise stewards of Creation and ruler over the nations, was expected before the Gentiles could come into the true worship of the one God. Note the prevalance of this theme in Jeremiah 30-33: Israel is restored to God's favor, then the Gentiles worship alongside of them.

What happens in the book of Acts is that through the proclamation of Jesus as "Lord and Christ" (code, as it were, for the functions that the Messianic King was to have -- Anointed One over Israel "Christ" and Lord over the Gentiles), Israel is being restored: their sins are forgiven, the Spirit of God rests on them instead of the Temple, and the are united with the Messiah. The tricky part comes when Cornelius believes and receives the Holy Spirit, just like the Jews. This is unexpected, as it is generally believed at this time that the Jews will have a precedence over the Gentiles in the Kingdom -- lord to servant, if you will. For the Gentiles to become full members of the people of God, to become children of Abraham, they will -- in the mind of some Christian Jews -- be circumcised and take the full burden and privelege of Torah upon themselves. Not so say Peter and James and Paul, but instead they must comport themselves like changed Gentiles, "righteous Gentiles" in the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15). But the point is, since Israel is restored through the work of the Messiah and the proclamation thereof, the Gentiles can come into the Kingdom as equal participants, not as "second-class citizens" (basically the argument of Romans and Galatians). This is why Paul's ministry continues throughout to be "to the Jew first and also the Greek" -- Israel must be restored, then the Gentiles can enter in alongside as equals, both vindicated (justified/acquited) as God's people based on their faith in the Lord Messiah alone.

Reading Acts in this way, with the dual focus on the restoration of Israel and efficacy of the witness "unto the ends of the earth" calls for a rereading of the epistles: how do the situations and controversies in Acts find their expression in Paul's dense rhetoric in his letters; how about Peter; or John? Once situated thusly, I've been finding in my reading that the epistles make a lot more sense -- they speak to genuinely first century issues -- not to fourth century or even sixteenth century ones. That does not make them any less relevant, though. We live in a storied world, where Acts (not to mention Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, etc.) makes up a vital chapter in our corporate history -- denying its validity would be tantamount to saying that because we don't relive the American Revolution constantly, it must not be important (which maybe the British wouldn't mind?). Such a devaluation of history in the Church bespeaks a prevalent and pernicious gnostic influence: only the timeless is important, history is important only if it teaches us lessons for today. May it never be in God's Church! Instead, we continue the narrative of Acts in our local parishes: we are witnesses, not to "personal conversion" but to the resurrection of the Messiah, to the restoration of Israel, to the in-gathering of the Gentiles to the true worship of God. What Jesus "began to do and teach" continues, by the Spirit he and the Father share, in the workings of the Church qua Church in the world today -- there is no need to relay the foundation of the Messiah and his apostles, but to build the Temple of God upon it (I Corinthians 1-3). Many of the lessons in the book, of course, do have contemporary relevance, especially since the arrogance of Jew over Gentile has been radically reversed in Church history: instead of Gentiles needing to become Jews, often times it is Jews that must become, not Jewish followers of the Messiah, but Gentiles!

It is high time for us to reconsider the role of Acts in our thought, actions, and worship as the people of God.