Thursday, September 18, 2014

My Journey, Part 7: Explorations in Epistemology

This is part 7 of my rebooted series on my experience with the "gospel". Please read the previous parts if you haven't already:
  1. Back to the beginning
  2. Cracks appear
  3. Questions multiply
  4. Questioning the "Gospel"
  5. The big question
  6. A better hermeneutic
My changes in perspective on Scripture and hermeneutics (especially the realization of Jesus as the ultimate Truth) could not but spill over into my more general idea of how to handle truth itself. I didn't (and really still don't) see how to apply this idea consistently, so I still kept talking about small-t truth, but in ways that diverged increasingly from the rationalism that used to characterize my faith. In doing so, I moved into postmodern territory, learning from its critiques of rationalism while (I hoped) avoiding its skeptical excesses.

Beyond rationalism

Specifically, I realized there was probably more to reality than things that could be rationally known or proven; humans are far more than reason engines, after all. Looking back, it's shocking how I could have been blinded to this given how important it is for any kind of faith to be able to transcend rationality. I assumed that if something really was true, then reason had to be able to prove it, even if it was initially known by other means. But now, having personally realized that my faith went beyond the understanding of my intellect, I started to become open to the existence of nonrational truth. Why did modern reason have to be all there was to understanding reality, especially spiritual things? Could it prove its own all-sufficiency?
Are the laws of rationality just a big box so many are content to think inside? What makes a logical fallacy a fallacy? Can something have more than one explanation? If something can't be proven by 'rational skepticism', maybe we should expect arguments for it to look like logical fallacies. (2013-3-2)
I realized that attempting to fit everything in the Bible into this box of Enlightenment-influenced rationality that it was never meant to go in was probably a big reason why reading it kept giving me so many doubts.
Our different, modern context causes many parts of the Bible to raise questions that the authors weren't aware of and make no attempt to answer. (2013-9-29)
Instead of viewing everything through my rational, modern perspective, I have to be willing to step outside it and realize it's not the right way to view the supernatural. Modernism tends to stick its nose where it doesn't belong. (2014-2-23)
This brought me closer to a sound definition of "mystery" in the Christian vocabulary; not something that doesn't appear to make sense which you insist really does make sense, but something too high and vast for our to comprehend fully, even though we get tantalizing glimpses. The kind of mystery that the Psalmist wrote of when he said "such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it." (Psa 139:6) In my insistence on everything about my faith making rational sense (allowing me to exert a kind of self-centered control over it), I had shut such mystery out.

Kaleidoscopic truth

I also started seeing truth itself as more dynamic and multidimensional—not simply "statements accurately describing reality" to be grasped with the mind, but as more coterminous with reality itself, to be experienced and lived more holistically. There is far more to truth than anyone can say. This rules out the reductionistic, proposition-focused epistemology which I saw a lot of evangelical theology tending towards.
There are different kinds of truth. Not all of life—surprisingly little, actually—can be broken down into simple propositions, at least not in language. (2013-2-7)
Truth is not merely absolute facts—truth has height, depth, and breadth to be explored (Eph 3:18). [The difference between truth as statements corresponding to reality and as the fuller definition is] like the difference between studying a map and realizing that the map represents a real country to be explored. The map is necessary, but it is by no means sufficient. (2013-9-2)
The non- (or trans-) rational dimension to truth, I realized, was even more important to me than the rational dimension (again, in the excitement of these realizations I was a bit overzealous)—and in my efforts to believe the gospel teachings I was given, I'd been neglecting it. No wonder why I had so much trouble developing a "passion" for the gospel.
I don't need the gospel to 'make sense' logically so much as I need it to capture my heart and imagination. (2014-2-7)
Not long after realizing I was an INFJ, I identified this wider definition of truth as including meaning—the answers not just to the questions of "What?", "When?", "Where?", and so on, but the fuzzier, more complex question of "Why?" We tend to answer this question with mechanical explanations based on natural laws, but this is not the "Why?" the Bible usually concerns itself with, especially in the prophets. My concept of truth would have to expand further.
Even if we now have mechanistic explanations of things, without a teleological explanation they are simply senseless, meaningless phenomena. No one perceives the world this way—the 'story' for life we've adopted casts meaning on them like shadows. Connecting this story with the divine was second nature for the ancients who knew so little of how the world 'works', but our increased understanding doesn't preclude us from walking in a God-haunted world. In other words, the bare fact of God 'doing' something must never be taken apart from its teleological significance even if He 'does' it through means we would consider mundane. … So God's actions should primarily be understood in terms of their final cause—their efficient cause need not be explicitly miraculous. In this sense, our scientific worldview does not mean God is no longer active in the world. (2013-7-21) 
When I was on vacation in the UK last Spring, I had a problem with purchasing books. Specifically, I'd only brought a small messenger bag and a carry-on suitcase so I couldn't take many souvenirs home, but I kept visiting cool book stores and all the books were in English! One such book I stumbled on was Surfaces and Essences (described on my blog here) by Douglas Hofstadter, one of my favorite authors. His reflections got me thinking a lot about language and how it correlated with reality—but loosely, not neatly. [Quote from the book?]
The interesting challenge of language is that words are discrete, but the concepts and categories they refer to are not. (2013-4-29)
The seed of the postmodern realization of the difference between reality and the descriptions we apply to it had sprouted.

Beyond modernism

Returning to think about Calvinism and Arminianism a year later, I saw in my treatment of the providence debate how this fledging view of truth could, in a sense, be considered more modern than the modernist one; that is, truth-as-reality was more faithful to the modernist ideal of seeking to know "the way things are" than positivism, even if by questioning our ability to know truth it started to move into postmodernism. By this self-suspicion it avoided the false finish of naively thinking our descriptions of reality exactly corresponded to it.
I see [the Calvinism-Arminianism debate] as more about our descriptions of reality and how they must fit into our chosen logical frameworks than about the underlying reality being described itself, which stubbornly remains the same whatever we say about it. Deep down Calvinists and Arminians do know this, I think/hope, even if they don't acknowledge it. (2013-7-11)
In the modernist paradigm, truth is something external or other to reality that is applied to reality to describe it in the language of propositions. I would say that I take the existence of external reality more seriously than a modernist by allowing this reality an epistemological 'life of its own' independent of what I say or think about it. I peered through the cracks of my modernist faith and saw a greater vision. (2013-7-12)
I believe truth is intrinsically bound up in reality itself, not something separate and neutral we use to describe it. If truth is a body of rational statements, we have privileged access to it as rational beings. But it truth is tied into reality, then we have access to it inasmuch as we are 'native'/at home in the world. (2013-7-12)
The posture of studying reality is quite different from that of simply living in it, but I believe the latter is much more Christlike. These realizations helped me to give up the idol of rational certainty that had been at the heart of so much of my doubt.
Certainty and complexity are mutually exclusive. We have 'mathematical certainty' only about things that, like math, fall entirely short of the full complexity and richness of reality. (2013-7-16)
Things, I might add, that we can completely get our heads around—but no one thinks about God this way.

A new way to disagree

All this thinking about epistemology was also partly motivated by a desire to see past the controversies that divided so many Christians—Calvinism and Arminianism, eschatological disagreements, atonement theories, denominational divides. I was saddened by how so many Christians, supposedly led by the same Holy Spirit, could disagree on so many things, and in such an un-Christlike way, each claiming the high ground of truth. By shunning simple dualisms and binary thinking, I hoped to be able to transcend these squabbles and see how both (or all) positions could fit into a grander reality than any of them could have guessed.
A side-taking, 'us vs. them' outlook doesn't work for Christianity because you can't know whose side anyone is on for sure—even yourself. (2013-4-28)
I saw something I called "epistemological arrogance" in many of these debates, a refusal to admit weakness in your position, backed by a conflation of your own reading of Scripture with its God-given authority as an "inspired" book. I instead sought after "epistemological humility" (which I now realize has much in common with healthy postmodernism), a way to read and stand on the Bible with a Christlike attitude, acknowledging the dangers of overreacting:
There is also an opposite error to epistemological arrogance, on the other side of epistemological humility—an unwillingness to hold to crucial truth, to 'just get along'. But how do you decide what truth is worth holding to—or is that even the right question? (2014-2-2)
I drew a closer parallel between beliefs and actions, and realized that evangelicals (perhaps in our rush to emphasize "faith" over "works") tended to treat them differently, with high standards for beliefs (because they could be easily changed) and comparatively lax ones for actions (which, because we're sinful, are hard or impossible to change). Unpacking the implications of this:
Why do we expect each other to have perfect theology, but not perfect deeds? Because we think we can freely change our theology—but a belief that can be changed at will is not really held at all; it is just an arbitrary mental assent. My beliefs, like my actions, are fruits of who God has made me into. (2013-10-22)
Could we even, sometimes, be sacrificing Christlike conduct for the sake of upholding "Christian" beliefs? Or defining our faith by what we don't believe rather than by what we do?
Is correct belief the point? Do we care more about catching wrong beliefs than affirming right ones? (2013-5-10)

Bridging dichotomies

I became increasingly suspicious of the simple contrasts and dichotomies that I kept seeing in evangelical theology. One of the most obvious of these was the incompatibility I'd seen for years between my agency and God's agency, which I think also lies at the heart of the perennial Calvinism-Arminian debate. I finally began to realize a way past it.
When debating providence, it's important to remember that an action need not be solely God's doing or ours; rather than God regenerating us independently before or after we repent, they can be one and the same action. (2013-5-14)
More generally, I started noticing how often issues in theology in were framed in terms of dichotomies and spectra. These were of two kinds: one where one side was obviously better, so we should reject one and go as far in the other direction as we could (law vs. grace, faith vs. works, low vs. high views of Scripture) and one where both sides represented unhealthy extremes to be avoided (license vs. legalism, God being the author of sin vs. God not being sovereign, tolerating sin vs. not loving sinners as Christ would).

Both kinds of dichotomies made it all too possible to define one's position in terms of what you reject; I saw the second kind in particular behind a lot of thorny contemporary theological conflicts. I saw promise in reframing my thinking about these dichotomies (the second kind, at least) to avoid such negativity, so that they represented two desirable things which one had to embrace at the same time.
I'm learning to refuse to make (unnecessary) choices—or rather, to choose both options when people say it's one or the other. (2013-4-8)
It was with tentative conclusions such as these in mind that I continued thinking about the all-important gospel.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Position Paper: Bibliology

The following is the unabridged version of a paper I wrote for my systematic theology class. The prompt was simply to write a paper stating and defending my view of the Bible, providing a snapshot of my beliefs. I'm quite satisfied with the result.

I'm reticent about developing a "theology of Scripture" not because I don't respect the Bible, but because I do. Nowhere in it do we see the Bible give a sustained discourse about itself; the church fathers similarly focused on matters like God, Jesus, the Incarnation, salvation, and the everyday moral and practical challenges of living as a Christian when the religion was still underground. Additionally, dwelling too much on bibliology risks giving the impression (to myself, if no one else) that these kinds of rational systems of propositional knowledge are the end goal of studying Scripture, when this is only a shadow of the truth. But nonetheless I find myself doing so, not just because I was assigned to but because of its singular and important role in the Church as a window to the glory and mysteries of God, a "verbal icon" of Christ,1 His written Word to His children. As the written record of God's revelation, the Bible is divinely inspired, an infallible bearer of truth, and authoritative divine speech in human words that resound through the centuries.

My view of the Bible falls under three main heads. First, the Bible is inspired. It almost seems cliché to bring them to bear here, but 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:20-21 both help illuminate what inspiration entails. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that "all Scripture is inspired by God [literally theopneustos, "God-breathed"] and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (RSV) Here we learn what the (inspired) nature of Scripture means for its usefulness and its purpose: it is good for "training in righteousness", to build Christians up as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. St. John of Damascus similarly testifies to the salvific purpose of Scripture: "He [God] Himself worked out our salvation for which all Scripture and all mystery exists." We must not become exclusionary about this truth and deny that salvation can come through other means, but God has given the Bible a unique place in our salvation just as it is a truly unique collection of writings. 2 Peter 1:21 adds that "no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." The Bible testifies to its own transcendent nature: inspired writing is speech "from God", divine as well as human in origin. Of course, both of these passages were referring to the Old Testament, which was the only Scripture anyone had in the first century, but the Church has always believed that the New Testament is inspired as well, and they apply equally to it.

I find the "incarnational hermeneutic"2 helpful for understanding the inspiration of Scripture. In light of the fact that Jesus Himself, God in the flesh, is the true Word (Jhn 1:1), the fullest revelation from God (Hbr 1:1-2), and the Truth of God (Jhn 14:6), we can draw a parallel between Christ's dual divine/human natures and the natures of the Bible. "As Christ is both God and human, so is the Bible."3 This means that the Bible is divine speech clothed in human words, human language, human cultures. Though this can sometimes make it hard for us as modern people to understand it, it also reassures us that God does not dispense abstract spiritual truths but incarnated truth (namely His son), coming to us wherever we may be. This also ties in with the fact that all of the written word, teleologically, serves for the Christian as a witness to the person and work of the living Word Jesus (see Luk 24:27, Jhn 5:46). "The center of the Bible as the written Word of God in human form is the person of the Living Word of God in human form, Jesus Christ."4 Though His written word, I believe God is able to speak to us as He did in the first century and before, and to bring us to a fuller knowledge of the living Word, that is, Christ.

Second, the Bible is infallible, and reliable. (I will also affirm that it is inerrant, after an extensive qualifying discussion below) Proverbs 30:5 says that "every word of God proves true". Jesus, probably at least obliquely referring to Himself, says "your [the Father's] word is truth" (Jhn 17:17), which certainly describes Scripture fairly. What this means, practically, is that we can trust God to lead us truly us through His written word. It is a profitable well from which to draw truth of God, and there is no better written foundation on which to build our lives. (Of course, this point is not proof against our misunderstanding the Bible any more than Jesus in human flesh was immune to the abuse of the Jewish and Roman authorities)

Third, the Bible is authoritative. This follows straightforwardly from the fact that it holds the words of the Lord of the universe, the ultimate authority. But what does this authority entail? Commonly it is thought of as "the right to command belief and/or action",5 and it does certainly involve this. But not all of the Bible is composed of didactic teachings or commands, and not all of these necessarily apply to modern Christians. How is a historical narrative authoritative? A parable? A Psalm? By finding the propositional content and making it mandatory to believe? N.T. Wright offers an interesting alternative: he imagines a Shakespeare play whose fifth act has been lost. The actors are tasked with devising and carrying out the fifth act themselves. The "authority" of the first four acts would not manifest in a definite script for the fifth act, but there is no denying that it would be authoritative for the actors.6 In a sense, their authority would create the fifth act of the play according to the pattern or vision they lay down. And so with the scriptures, whose authority comes not just from the God who is Lord over us but who spoke the world into being, an authority to create a people for Himself or recreate a troubled creation as well as to command. It is not so much that God has delegated His authority to the Bible as He exercises His own authority through the Bible, just as the Bible itself depicts Him doing in its pages.

I identify and agree with the Catholic/Orthodox view of Scripture as existing within the Church and its traditions, not separately from (and over against) them. Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware wisely says that "it [the Bible] must not be regarded as something set up over the Church, but as something that lives and is understood within the Church (that is why one should not separate Scripture and Tradition)."7 He explains that we both receive and interpret Scripture through and in the Church.8 Regarding our reception of the Bible, obviously the Church has produced and preserved the Bible we have today, and it was the Church that did the important work of establishing the New Testament canon in the first few centuries AD. Of course this was not an arbitrary decision that conveyed authority to the books of the NT, but a recognition of the inspiration that produced them and their pre-existing authority. Nonetheless, the decisions that hammered out the canon were also made authoritatively, and no individual Christian is up to the task of it (as, for instance, Luther's doubts about certain books show). This process points to an organic relationship between Church and Bible, not simply the Bible's being set up as a sort of charter for the Church to abide by (the early Church went well beyond the "bounds of Scripture" before the New Testament was written and collected). God exercises His authority and gives His Spirit through both.

We also interpret Scripture through the Church. The Bible is authoritative, we say, but it can be misused. It never speaks to us without a (fallible) act of interpretation on our part. How does the Bible's authority transfer through this process? Is a flawed interpretation still authoritative in some way? Who determines which interpretation is correct? Sola scriptura Protestants who reject the notion of an authoritative arbiter of interpretations try to fill this gap in a variety of ways, usually by prescribing a correct, authoritative method for interpreting Scripture authoritatively. A common one is the method of "Scripture interprets Scripture", based on the idea that "the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself;9 in other words, we can discern the meaning of unclear passages of Scripture in light of the clear ones. But this only works if what is "clear" about Scripture is the same to everyone involved, which (due to varying presuppositions, cultural backgrounds, hermeneutical priorities, etc.) is seldom the case.10

What is there to prevent hermeneutical anarchy from prevailing? Tradition. A tradition is simply "an opinion, belief, or custom handed down from ancestors to posterity."11 Every Christian sect or denomination is guided by traditions, even those that explicitly reject their authority. These traditions form an underlying rule or structure for making sense of the Bible, like the "rule of faith" that guided the early Church. Atonement theories, ecclesiologies, and even the "Scripture interprets Scripture" approach are traditions, as are styles of worship, forms of prayer, and even religious music and works of art. Protestants who recognize this maintain that tradition should be based on Scripture, always under its authority, never replacing it, metaphorically serving a "judicial" rather than "legislative" role.12 But this view misses the fact that all of our handling of Scripture, including using it to verify traditions, is itself conditioned by tradition. We can never "step outside" traditions to evaluate them purely objectively. The line between allowing tradition to guide our interpretation of Scripture and allowing it to generate new beliefs is porous, not rigid. Even doctrines like the perpetual virginity of Mary, purgatory, or the veneration of icons have scriptural correlations, if not scriptural "proofs". Rather than seek to elevate Scripture above tradition or draw a distinction between the two, Catholics and Orthodox see Scripture as part of Holy Tradition (albeit the most authoritative and valuable part), the whole of which is the living fulfillment of Jesus' promise in John 16:13 that the Spirit will guide the Church into all truth. I agree that this is the way to position the Bible within the Church.

Half a century ago my work might be done, but I would be remiss if I did not address the (relatively) recent challenges that have been made to the Bible's truthfulness. Atheists, liberal Christians, and other skeptics have challenged—not always groundlessly—the Bible's factual claims, the morality it expresses, and the historicity of the events it depicts. In response a good deal of attention has been devoted in conservative Christian circles to upholding the reliability of the Bible to speak truth, under the doctrine of inerrancy. This the view that the Bible, being inspired by God and effectively His speech in written form, in light of the fact that God speaks only truth and does not lie (Num 23:19, Prov 30:5, Titus 1:2), is thus "without error or fault in all its teaching",13 authoritatively true in all that it affirms. For Scripture to be incorrect in any of its statements would be for God to speak falsely in His (apparently unreliable) revelation, which cannot happen. Some qualifications are important to avoid misunderstandings: inerrancy applies to things that the Bible affirms, not merely reports. For the Bible to record the words of a person who was speaking falsely does not jeopardize its inerrancy. Additionally, the words of Scripture are inerrant when judged in the context of the (ancient) cultural setting from which we have received them and the purpose for which they were written. This includes the propensity of the Bible's prescientific authors to use phenomenal language (describing the way things appear to the eye), making no attempt to scientifically describe what was happening as we might expect.14

These statements and deductions must be tested and integrated with the phenomena of Scripture, however. There are a great number of places in which the Bible actually does seem to say something false, or at least difficult to believe with intellectual integrity, and it will not do to simply say over them, "we have not found an explanation for this yet." First, the Bible appears to make a number of historical errors, disagreeing with the external evidence and even itself. For example, in the flood narrative, Gen 7:10 says that the flood began seven days after Noah and his family entered the ark, but 7:13 says that he entered it "on the very same day" that the rains began. Gen 7:12 says it rained for forty days; 8:2 says the rains continued until at least after 150 days (7:24). A common theory for resolving these discrepancies is that it consists of two distinct narratives interwoven, but this hardly resolves the issue. If the Bible really is inerrant divine speech, why did God not at least inspire the editor of the combined account to resolve such obvious contradictions? Additionally, there is no geological or archaeological evidence of a global flood as we would expect,15 to say nothing of how people of every race could have come to live all over the world after the flood left only eight alive. As far as we can tell, the flood never actually happened, even though the Bible seems to regard it as history.

The Bible exhibits a number of examples of ancient science which we see paralleled in contemporary ancient Near Eastern literature. For example, it expresses a belief in the ancient view of the universe as consisting of three tiers (Phil 2:10) with foundations supporting the earth from below (Job 38:4-6, 1 Sam 2:8, Psa 104:5), an earth surrounded by a circular sea (Prov 8:22-31, Job 26:7-14) and having actual ends (Dan 4:12, Gen 11:31, Mat 12:42), an underworld (Num 16:31-33, Prov 5:5), a flat (Matt 4:8), fixed/immobile earth (1 Chr 16:30, Psa 83:1), a solid firmament fixed as the sky over the earth (Gen 1:6-8, Psa 19:1) holding back the waters above the heavens (Psa 104:2-3, 148:4) as well as storehouses of snow (Job 38:22-23) and the sun/moon/stars (Gen 1:14-19), that stars were small enough to fall to Earth (Dan 8:10, Mat 24:29, Rev 6:13), that the heavens could be rolled up like a scroll (Isa 34:4), that rabbits chewed the cud (Lev 11:5-6), that bats were birds (Lev 11:13-19), that seeds died before sprouting (Jhn 12:24-25, 1 Cor 15:36-37), and the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mat 13:31-33, Mar 4:30-32), all of which we now know to be false just as surely as we know that it gets dark at night. There is far too much biblical evidence like this to believe that the biblical authors were expressing something like our current knowledge of the universe and simply speaking phenomenologically or poetically, especially given the correlating evidence of the same ancient worldview in contemporary ancient cultures.

In the story of the exodus and Canaanite conquest, God does and commands some things that are dramatically at odds with Jesus' later teaching of love for one's enemies (Mat 5:44). In Deuteronomy 20 God commands the Israelites to enslave those who surrender to them and either slaughter or enslave those who resist (He especially commands them to "save alive nothing that breathes" of the towns in Canaan in 20:16-18). We see Israel carrying out these orders in the book of Joshua, especially chs. 6-8. Joshua 10:40 says that Joshua "defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded." 11:16-23 boasts of Joshua's complete extermination of numerous Canaanite tribes; verse 20 confirms that this extermination was the Lord's will. (The whole book takes pains to assert that this whole conquest was the Lord's will) In any other book, we would immediately (and rightly) deplore these conquests as genocide, the systematic extermination of nations to take their land and their possessions. And yet the Bible says that it was commanded by God, making no attempt to reconcile these commands with Jesus' teachings. Such "texts of terror" paint a seriously morally ambiguous picture of God, as countless biblical skeptics are happy to point out.

For one last example, the Old Testament does a surprising amount of hemming and hawing about the number of gods out there. For all the emphatic assertions that the Lord alone is worthy of worship, the Old Testament (at least, parts of it) doesn't seem to rule out the existence of other gods. For instance see Psa 86:8, 95:3, 96:4, 97:9, 135:5, 136:2, which praise the Lord by comparison with unnamed other gods; Psalm 82:1 and 89:7 refer to His presiding over some kind of divine council. Yet Isaiah (45:5) and Paul (1 Cor 8:4) both exclude the existence of any gods other than the true God. Wouldn't we expect God, in inspiring His inerrant revelation to His people, to get such a basic fact crystal clear?

These are undeniably difficult issues, but I believe that the aforementioned qualifications to inerrancy, when applied consistently, are able to explain them. For example, ancient historiography operated by a considerably different set of rules than modern historical studies. We see abundant evidence of this in contemporary literature such as the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics, which both have numerous parallels with the Genesis flood narrative(s)16 and which preceded it by centuries,17 indicating that the Genesis account was at least partially based on them. Ancient history was an outgrowth of ancient storytelling, which was heavily based on oral tradition,18 which made it considerably more fluid and prone to evolution and embellishment than modern history. The goal was not to provide an objective account of "what really happened", as in modern journalism and history, but as a way for a people to creatively interact with and retell its past so as to address present concerns and answer important questions of origin, identity, and meaning.19 Ancient history had a lot in common with mythmaking, though it had a basis in actual past events and was not simply "made up". If we evaluate the Old Testament by the standards of its own culture for doing history, rather than our own, our objections lose their grounding.

Add in the ancient perspective on science and the nature of the universe (which we have every indication Israel shared with its ancient neighbors,20 and on which the flood narratives rely), and we begin to realize a way to make sense of discrepancies in the Bible's witness by respecting its ancient viewpoint. Most evangelicals, especially conservatives, tend to be uncomfortable taking the reasoning this far, to the point of allowing the Bible to affirm things that we now know to be factually untrue like a geocentric universe or a flat earth. I see inconsistency in this refusal. If we have established that we must judge the truthfulness of Scripture by the standards of its ancient culture21 and this ancient culture did history and viewed the cosmos in ways that we consider false today (should we be surprised at this?), then Scripture should be allowed to make statements that hold together in its ancient worldview without their also being forced to conform to our modern one. Simple assertions that the Bible does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact fail to make the distinction between something being considered factual in the ancient Near East and its being considered factual today. A Bible that envisioned a heliocentric (much less a galaxy-based) universe, a spherical earth, and the vacuum of outer space would have been considered seriously in error (if not incomprehensible) by the ancient Hebrews! In light of this, it seems as though the traditional doctrine of inerrancy will have to be adjusted—but it already has.

It is true that the Church has historically affirmed that the Bible is true and without error in everything it affirms.22 But this is slightly misleading. Before the Reformation, and especially in the early Church, theologians believed that divine inspiration allowed Scripture to speak in multiple senses,23 and routinely appealed to the truth of the higher, more spiritual or allegorical senses when a passage appeared to be factually untrue/nonsensical or to portray God in an unworthy manner. Historically, the church fathers have been much less attached to the literal, factual truth of Scripture than modern defenders of inerrancy. Additionally (and this should go without saying, but I will say it anyhow), throughout most of the Church's history no one had a reason to doubt the Bible's scientific or historical accuracy. Until the modern age, no one had any idea that there was no archaeological evidence for many of Israel's conquests in Canaan,24 that geological evidence and radiometric dating indicate that the earth is much more than about 6,000 years old,25 or that there is not a layer of water above the sky. The few exceptions (such as the spherical shape of the earth which was established by Plato, albeit for philosophical and aesthetic reasons26) were accommodated to the Bible fairly easily, using allegorical interpretation if needed.

Our much more extensive knowledge of the differences between the Bible's claims and the way we know the world through science, combined with the unacceptability among defenders of inerrancy of interpreting troublesome passages allegorically, have tended to lead them to one of two options. First, they can change their reading of the Bible so that it supports new knowledge about the world. Prima facie, this doesn't seem like an option at all, since it makes our reading of Scripture dependent on current trends in academia and prevents us from reading the Bible the same way our Christian forebears did. Yet this method is commonly used, albeit subtly; when we read Genesis 1, how often do we envision God hovering over a spherical earth and creating the Sun at the center of the Solar System? (No one did the latter until after Galileo) In this way we lose sight of the Bible's ancient worldview as we read it as speaking to our modern one instead, often without noticing how much strain we are placing on its ancient words. Alternatively, they can not accept this outside information that would seem to contradict the Bible's claims, reaffirm the Bible's truth and consistency despite appearances, and in the case of scientific knowledge hold out hope that it will eventually be corrected by more complete information. But this means setting up an adversarial relationship between the Bible and what we can learn from the rest of creation, which is unacceptable if God created us to know Him through both sources.

How are we to understand the Bible's inerrancy in light of its proclamations about itself and the way it actually behaves? How can we trust the Bible to speak truth on spiritual matters if it gets empirical facts wrong?27 I believe we can, and that doing so is not a denial of its inspired nature but an affirmation of its dual human/divine nature, analogous to Jesus. Like our Savior during His ministry on Earth, the Bible is situated in a particular historical and cultural context. It occupies that context, rather than speaking abstract spiritual truth into it from outside. It was written by human authors who, though lovers of God and inspired by His Spirit, still had a limited, human perspective of the world, just as we do. We should expect Scripture to communicate the truth we need, most especially Jesus Himself, in that context and through that perspective—and so it does. Just as Jesus had a limited, mortal human body but was able to truly say "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jhn 14:9), so the Bible is able to lead us to the truth of God not just in spite of its human nature, but through it. Whatever errors exist in Scripture are due not to any ignorance or deception on God's part, but to the limited perspective of its human authors which in no way imperiled God's speech through their words. Realizing this frees us to read the Bible as God's word without being obligated to defend it where its ancient authors' cultural, historical, or scientific perspectives clash with our own.

I see two specific ways to do this. First, we can seek to understand the Bible's ancient viewpoint as best we can in order to discern what would have been revelatory for its first hearers (e.g. that God created the cosmos alone and made the first man for a personal relationship with Himself) and what would simply have been background knowledge (e.g. that there was divine act of creation or a first man). Theologian and biologist Denis Lamoreux calls this the "message-incident principle", which distinguishes between the inerrant "messages of faith" in Scripture and the incidental ancient history.28 Second, drawing on Christian interpretive tradition can help us to see what earlier theologians thought of "problem" texts before their factual accuracy was under debate, and so indicate how to constructively move past these debates. This helps us "do" theology as involved participants of the same body, not merely as quasi-historians studying ancient documents and reconstructing the beliefs of the authors for our own time (which is a risk of the first method). The inerrancy of Scripture means a lot more than its communicating correct information; in our sparring matches against modern skeptics we are apt to forget this, but the living tradition of the Church is there to remind us of the ineffable richness of God's written word.

Like the early church, I believe Jesus is the key to the Bible. In his unity of divinity and humanity we see how it can be written from an ancient perspective that we now consider primitive, yet speak the truth to us with the very voice and authority of God, making them manifest to the Church wherever she meets. And in Jesus' identification of Himself with the truth of God and the way to Him (Jhn 14:6), we understand the true purpose of God's written word for us: to manifest Christ, the true Word (logos) of God, to us and to make Him known long after His ascension, even as He makes God known to us. He is the center of the Bible, the key to its interpretation (see Luk 24:44), and the reason a two-thousand-plus-year-old collection of writings matters to us at all. May we come to the scriptures seeking to know Christ as well as to know of Him!

[1] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 201.
[2] Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 17–21.
[3] Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 17.
[4] Thomas Hopko, "Sources of Christian Doctrine," The Orthodox Faith, 1981, (13 September 2014).
[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 212.
[6] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: Fortress Press, 1992), 140–143.
[7] Ware, The Orthodox Church, 199.
[8] Kallistos Ware, "How to Read the Bible" in The Orthodox Study Bible (eds. Jack Norman Sparks et al.; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 1760–1763.
[9] Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.9. (13 September 2014).
[10] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 21–22.
[11] Ware, The Orthodox Church, 196.
[12] Erickson, Christian Theology, 228.
[13] Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, (13 September 2014).
[14] Erickson, Christian Theology, 202–205.
[15] Denis Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 280.
[16] Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 27–29.
[17] Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 221.
[18] Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 180–182.
[19] Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 40.
[20] Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 148–176.
[21] Erickson, Christian Theology, 203.
[22] Erickson, Christian Theology, 194–195 and Michael Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 87–92.
[23] Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture, 48–55.
[24] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 58–60.
[25] Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 422–427.
[26] E. Edson and E. Savage-Smith, Medieval Views of the Cosmos: Picturing the Universe in the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages (Bodleian Library: Oxford, 2011), 22.
[27] Erickson, Christian Theology, 196–197 asks this question in more words.
[28] Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 239.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

My Journey, Part 6: A Better Hermeneutic

This is part 6 of my rebooted series on my experience with the "gospel". Please read the previous parts if you haven't already:
  1. Back to the beginning
  2. Cracks appear
  3. Questions multiply
  4. Questioning the "Gospel"
  5. The big question
After I accepted my doubt, the way was finally clear for God to begin making some big changes to my faith. I admitted that His Word had (as far as I could tell) real contradictions that could not simply be brushed aside or explained away, that would require real changes to me and my perspective to see past. I realized I would have to delve into the basement of my faith, to the foundational beliefs that I had previously been fighting to preserve.
Something has to give in this logical quandary—my view of God, the Bible, or truth itself. (2013-1-27)
As it would turn out, all three would undergo drastic change. This post will address the shifts that took place in how I viewed and read the Bible.
Maybe the tension and seeming contradiction in the Bible is real and intentional. How then should I believe? (2013-2-7)
More than anyone else, I have Old Testament scholar Peter Enns to thank for helping me to revitalize my view of the Bible. Here was a theologian who took seriously the kinds of questions I was having about the Bible and my faith. His book Inspiration and Incarnation addressed these and other topics head-on, rather than minimizing them or pointing to the big picture of the "gospel" to explain everything. Many of my subsequent revelations were applications of things I learned from him.

Rejecting false assumptions/rethinking paradigms

As I began to pick up the pieces of my Christianity, I applied my new, beyond-rational definition of 'faith' to it, especially to how I viewed the Bible, the source of so much of my doubt and trouble.
Basically, I think I've been treating the Bible wrong, approaching it wrong for my entire adult life. My relationship with it was intricately woven into my faith, and how I have to separate them. (2013-2-2)
I turned my skepticism toward my old view of Scripture that expected it to neatly and simply cohere because that was what I expected 'truth' to do, especially the totally-true word of God. So I questioned the simplicity of Scripture, on the grounds of the complexity and elusiveness of its Author:
I had assumed that if the Bible is 'God's word' given for us to know Him, it would be easy for anyone to understand. But then, is God? (2013-2-11)
Based on what I was learning of the cultural background of the Bible, I questioned what some might call the 'perspicuity' of Scripture.
I dispute the need for interpretive aids because first-century Christians understood Scripture without them—but I am not a first-century Christian. (2013-2-4)
The more I learned about this background to the Bible, the clearer it became how different the biblical authors were from you and me, not just externally but in how they thought. The Bible didn't simply communicate 'absolute truth' beneath a thin cultural wrapper as I had thought; it was soaked in the idiom of an ancient culture and worldview. I saw this as the key to making sense of the Bible's apparent (to my modern worldview) contradictions.
The central issue here, I think, is that the Bible seems to be written with a radically different, looser, premodern view of truth than the one I hold—a view of truth where God can have conflicting aspects to His nature and it's no problem, say and do contradictory things with no contradiction, and the meaning of symbols is decided by the interpreter's feelings and context. … I can't go back to my old, absolute truth way of thinking. It is only possible for the Bible to make sense in such a premodern paradigm? (2013-2-8)
Besides this, I questioned how I saw Scripture used, more practically, and the evangelical doctrines of scripture like inerrancy, sola scriptura, and inspiration itself that were used to justify these abuses. I was weary of the exclusivist attitude towards other sources of truth that a strict "Bible-only" attitude could produce:
We misuse the Bible when we use it to show why we're right and others and their glimpses of God are wrong. When we use it to drain the divine from the created world, from everything but itself. (2013-7-28)
I resented it when the "authority of Scripture" was used to quash legitimate doubts and question over our understanding of the text. This next entry is admittedly unfair and I was definitely misunderstanding, but it can happen.
When I hear of Scripture 'having authority' I usually connect this with obeying or believing what it says unthinkingly, unquestioningly. This is a lie. (2013-8-9)
When the Bible is interpreted in a vacuum, isolated from the world merely to shore up a theological system, I don't think we're treating it as the 'living and active' word. (2013-9-23)
I began to see more holes in doctrines about the Bible itself. Inerrancy had seemed unconvincing to me for a while and I had few qualms about discarding it, especially since Enns felt the same way. I also found more reasons to question sola scriptura, especially as I thought through the implications of the fact that the Christian belief of the early church (which didn't yet have a New Testament) unapolegetically went "beyond Scripture". Or, for example, how could Paul launch such polemics against Judaizing false teachers in Galatians and elsewhere if they were just doing what their Bibles (as they stood at the time) told them to do?
If disbelieving the word of God is our litmus test for bad doctrine, why were the Judaizers wrong? (2013-5-12)
The early church clearly recognized a truth that was larger than their Bibles, but evangelicals, it seemed, believed that that truth had been entirely contained in writing with the New Testament canon. I disagreed, seeing this as putting God in a box. 

The incarnational hermeneutic

The central point of Inspiration and Incarnation was something Enns called the "incarnational hermeneutic". This basically postulated that the Bible was both a fully human and fully divine book, just as Jesus was both fully God and fully man. The kinds of questions I was having about Scripture, Enns explained, were because of the expectations I was imposing on it (like containing no contradictions of any kind, and being full of timeless 'spiritual truths' for us to harvest and apply) by viewing it as only (or almost completely) a divine book. Just as Jesus' divinity in no way overrode His humanity, so we couldn't expect the fact that Scripture is the speech of God to suppress the fact that it was written by a diverse cast of human authors. So I started getting more in touch with the human dimension of Scripture, messy though it was.
The binding of the Bible into one volume with chapters and verses is not how it always was—it was received as a scattered set of documents in different languages, with no instruction plan for how to put it together. (2013-2-2)
What 'timeless truth' is to be read from the Bible is available to us 'secondhand', as it were, expressed in the cultural milieu of a particular time and place. This is a direct corollary of Enns' incarnational view of Scripture. (2014-2-14)
Beginning to come to terms with Paul, I realized that maybe (just maybe!) he wasn't writing to lay down abstract spiritual doctrines that would apply equally to all believers in all time; maybe, since the letters were originally written to churches in specific regions, he was writing to address their specific situations!
Paul isn't so much acting to establish what the church should believe so much as reacting—his letters had definite, limited recipients. (2013-5-12)
I still wasn't exactly sure how this helped my confusion about the Old and New Testaments; that would come later.

Later, I realized that the incarnational hermeneutic was strongly implied in the doctrine of progressive revelation—the idea that God reveals Himself more and more fully to people throughout biblical history, implying that earlier believers (even, say, the Old Testament authors!) would have a less full knowledge of God than we now have.
If you believe in progressive revelation, you should have no trouble accepting that God is depicted in very different, even contradictory ways throughout. (2014-1-18)
I went a little too far here; I probably had in mind the apparent contradiction between the warlike God of the Old Testament who commands aggressive military action to take other peoples' land and the teachings of Jesus. In the Old Testament, God was interacting with people from a culture that saw war as a test of the strength of the participating nations' gods, who fought alongside and through their worshippers. What we see throughout the Bible is not an instantaneous shift from this to Jesus' command to love your enemies, but something more gradual. The Israelites' expectations of what God was like were refined as He progressively revealed Himself to them more and more fully, revealed truth replacing erroneous cultural assumptions

In some confusion that came up in my Bible study over the apparent contradiction between Acts 20:22 (in which Paul says he is "bound in the Spirit" to go to Jerusalem) and 21:4 (in which disciples in Tyre tell Paul "through the Spirit" not to go), I tried to see how a dovetailing view of divine inspiration and human context could explain things. Of course it's unrealistic that everyone in the early church lived in perfect harmony with no disagreements of any kind; they were all human, after all. The problem people were having lay in how Luke said that these contradictory messages about Paul's itinerary both came through the Spirit. But how could Luke have known this? Did his inspiration give him a "God's-eye view" of the situation so that he could actually see the Spirit acting in both cases? Or was he faithfully relaying what both parties expressed, trusting the Spirit to be at work even if His working seemed (from a limited human perspective) confused?

That is, does Luke's inspiration enable him to report exactly and objectively "what happened" in a modern, scientific way, or does it simply mean that his writing conveys authentic (but human) faith, even in an ambiguous situation? The former meaning seemed to drive a wedge in between early Christians' beliefs (assumed to be protected by inspiration, at least when writing Scripture) and their actions (which never had any such protection).
Why do we expect the writers to be perfectly precise if we don't expect the people to perfectly agree? (2013-10-6)
If all it took to redeem peoples' human weaknesses and make them infallible was "inspiration", why send Jesus at all? Why not just inspire everyone all the time?

Jesus as the Truth

I eventually decided that the incarnational hermeneutic went even further than Enns said. In John 14:6, Jesus claims to be "the way and the truth and the life". This had radical implications, which I tried to explore in my Metatheology series. I realized that assigning ultimate authority to determine truth to the Bible necessarily involved a modern idea of "truth" as something that can be conveyed by a book—and then endlessly studied, analyzed, and assembled into "authoritative" doctrinal systems. But if the Truth was ultimately a Person, that shattered the modernist paradigm. This freed my mind and my imagination from seeing my quest for truth as simply an endless search for the perfect lenses through which to read the Bible that would finally make it make logical sense. The Bible itself, I realized, was a lens to view the ultimate Truth.
We come to know God primarily through experience, not propositional truth. What if the purpose of the Bible is to allow us to experience the life, death, and resurrection of Christ? It's so beautiful, makes so much sense of everything—it must be true. And that, to me, is the Christocentric hermeneutic. (2013-5-6)
Jesus says He is the 'truth' and His word is Truth—but we interpret 'truth' in a modernist way, as 'that which corresponds with reality'. What if this definition is wrong? (2013-5-11)
Further following the implications of the Church predating the New Testament, I saw further hints that the Bible was not set up as "the truth", but a testimony to Him.
The early church didn't believe in Jesus because of the Bible; they believed in the Bible because of Jesus. (2013-6-6)
(By "Bible" here I probably just meant the then-unwritten New Testament) This was supported by the obvious fact that the church predated the "complete" Bible by anywhere from a few decades to a few centuries. In the beginning, the only Bible anyone had was the Old Testament.
How was the church at Galatia expected to discern the true gospel with no New Testament? Not from Scripture (the Old Testament). We [modern Christians] treat the written word as the source rather than looking to its source, or through it. (2013-11-10) 
I imagined that if Jesus was really the Truth, then we would have to stop thinking about biblical "truth" as primarily doctrinal or propositional. Truth was not only believed, but lived.
I refuse to see the gospel as mere information to be learned. I get the feeling that it meant much more to Paul than it does to me or most Christians today. (2013-9-6) 
The Scripture is not merely a 'text' to be studied; it is to be lived. If we do study it, we should do so with the urgency of a man studying the instructions for a life vest. (2013-10-2)
Jesus' death and resurrection were not abstract spiritual objects to the disciples—they were there. They were real. Have we lost that, so that we only teach the gospel instead of experiencing it together? It is from this experience that the New Testament was written. If we simply try to study the writings rather than trying to get beneath them to the apostles and Christ, we are getting the gospel secondhand. (2013-11-10)
In the euphoria of realizing that truth was a person instead of a body of statements, an ocean instead of a pool, I carried some of these ideas too far. I was tempted to discard the propositional side of the Bible's truth altogether, thinking that the experience was the real point. Looking back, I'm glad I never fully made this mistake. But the relation between these dimensions of truth was something that would take me time to figure out, and in the meantime I was prone to regrettably dichotomous statements like this.

With a hint of postmodernism, I also began to realize the ever-present difference between "what Scripture says" and our interpretation of what it says. Owing to the aforementioned complexity of God and differences between biblical cultures and ours, we can't expect the Bible as "God's word" to be nearly as straightforward as words spoken by a personal friend; hermeneutics are required. Inspiration (the Bible speaking to us as God's words) is not simply a static, absolute quality that baptizes whatever we do with the Bible; it is dynamic, active, dependent on manner as well as matter. Our interpretations of what the Bible says need the Spirit to guide them just as much as the original authors did.
We may say we're following the examples of the church fathers who knew Christ so well even as they follow His, but when we make their words a rigid gold standard of truth, we are not imitating but elevating them. The fact that God can speak through their words does not mean we can assume He always will. The same is true of the Bible. When we misuse the Bible in ways that misrepresent Christ, it is no longer the word of God for us. One way I commonly misuse it is by using it as just a part of a merely human argument. (2013-8-28)
Now I was leaning somewhat towards Neo-Orthodoxy. Were my theological oscillations converging on anything, or still accelerating?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Cool" Christianity and Form/Content Dualism

I'd like to give a quick shout-out to a recent article written by a blogger I follow, Brett McCracken, as a follow-up to his book Hipster Christianity.

McCracken's book wasn't specifically about the trend of "hipster" Christianity that we seem to hear so much about today (which my church simultaneously participates in and pokes fun at), but about the notion of "cool" Christianity in general. He examines the ways we try to make our timeless faith more "accessible", "seeker-oriented", "user-friendly", or "contemporary" by "repackaging" it in a different, culturally-appropriate style, ostensibly without changing the underlying gospel message. A sample summary of this approach that he gives goes, "What we’re doing is simply putting the gospel in different packaging and updating the style of its delivery [so] as to be relevant to a particular audience. The medium may be different and new, but the message remains the same."

McCracken doesn't think this approach to church is worse, just different, but tries to call attention to "the way form matters in the Christian life", the connection between style matter and manner that is forgotten all too often by "cool" Christians. It's something I'm concerned about and periodically bring up on my blog, but McCracken explains it much better.
Are the medium and the message really so detached that, no matter how an idea is packaged or presented, its meaning remains the same? With Hipster I wanted to challenge this notion and show how form matters: that perhaps the way Christianity is understood and appropriated is different when packaged in Helvetica, skinny jeans, and small batch whisky than when it’s packaged in robes, pews, and pleated khakis. Not that one is necessarily preferable to the other, mind you; just that they are different.
He makes a very insightful connection with the Incarnation that I hadn't thought of:
Christians of all people should grasp the inextricability of form and content. The Incarnation itself demonstrates it. The Word made flesh is content meeting form (John 1:1-18). The gospel is not some ethereal, conceptual “message” as much as it is an enfleshed reality and storied form. The gospel message is embedded within and derived from a medium: the medium of a man named Jesus, out of a nation named Israel, crucified in a place named Calvary.
He also alludes to some of the Christian artists of yesteryear to show what we stand to lose along with the connection between form and content. I agree with his comments on "Christian" media: when we turn the medium into nothing more than a container for the message, we lose sight of makes great art, art.
I think it’s naive for Christians to suggest that medium is something separate from message; they are intertwined. The architects of the great cathedrals in Christian history understood it; composers of sacred music like Handel and Berlioz and Tavener understood it. And yet contemporary evangelical Christians seem to have lost the inextricable connection between form and content. It’s one of the reasons, I think, why evangelical movies, music and artistic output have such a reputation for mediocrity. In privileging content over form, and caring about medium only insofar as it efficiently conveys a message, we’ve tiptoed down a Gnostic path of dualism that doesn’t really resonate with how embodied people live in this world.
Going into specifics, he identifies three values where the ideal of "cool" clashes with the Christian gospel: trendiness, exclusivity, and individualism. I really appreciated this part, as he shows how particular media and style are not content-free but carry their own values and assumptions which may or may not be conducive to the gospel.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

My Journey, Part 5: The Big Question

This is part 5 of my rebooted series on my experience with the "gospel". Please read the previous parts if you haven't already:
  1. Back to the beginning
  2. Cracks appear
  3. Questions multiply
  4. Questioning the "Gospel"
As much as I had begun questioning the gospel I'd been taught, all of these questions were still at least somewhat external. Though I was growing tired of hearing them, I didn't believe these teachings were actually true, and I was fine with simply not believing them, or at least seeking to modify them into a better form. At least at first, I expected to still remain an evangelical after doing so. What I was struggling against were caricatures and 'bad habits' of the evangelicalism I saw around me—something that I have more recently been tempted to forget. I 'knew' they weren't true and sought better alternatives; they didn't have to characterize the Church.

But there was one doubt that plagued me singularly, wreaking havoc on my ability to see any kind of coherent biblical narrative or make sense of large swaths of Scripture. It wasn't a disagreement with something I was being taught; in fact, it was an issue I almost never even heard mentioned. It was an apparently inescapable contradiction in what the Bible itself said. And not just something surface-level that could be explained away by an appeal to genre or ancient literary conventions, like the disparate genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, but a fundamental discontinuity in the theology and overarching narrative of the Bible. It could be stated succinctly:

Is the gospel a God-given solution to a God-given problem?

My starting point

It began as an offshoot of my quasi-dispensationalist dissatisfaction with biblical interpretation that seemed to disregard the original context and meaning of a passage in favor of its retrospective, 'Christological' meaning. Applying this, evangelical theology viewed the law in light of Christ: it was given to point out our sin by contrasting it with God's standard of perfection, both to mitigate sin and to convict us of it to point us toward Jesus. (Rom 3:20, Gal 3:19) The law was like a stern babysitter or tutor (Gal 3:24) that imprisoned us in our sins, condemning them but not healing them, until Christ should come and set us free. Everyone's default state is to be sinful, under the law's curse (Gal 3:13). 'Sin' is, in some form, trying to add some kind of law to the all-sufficient salvific work of Christ, trying to be justified apart from Him, which is impossible (Rom 3:20). By faith in Christ, we are justified apart from the law (Rom 3:28) as Christ takes the curse and penalty of the law on Himself and gives us life. (Rom 3:24-25) 

This is, roughly, the view of the law I was given: we start out under law, which screams to us, "Sinner!", and by nature objects of God's righteous wrath (Eph 2:3), but thanks to Christ we are no longer under law but under grace (Rom 6:14), able to either live free from the law's demands or finally fulfill them by His grace, not our own moral effort. My church kind of waffles between the Lutheran and Reformed extremes on the law, but from either perspective it's clear that salvation has always been by grace through faith; we were never expected to save ourselves by obeying the law.

Cracks appear

In the biblical theology class of 2012-2013 I took at my church, I started thinking and wondering more critically about how the Old and New Testaments, or the covenants of law and grace, fit together. Part of this was simply the practical question: how do the precepts of the Mosaic law relate to us as Christians today? We talk about how the purpose of the law is to convict us of sin—so why aren't we letting us convict it of breaking the Sabbath (Exo 20:8-11), not circumcising our children (Gen 17:9-14), eating pork (Lev 11:7-8), or wearing different kinds of fibers (Lev 19:19)? Reflecting on these differences between the Mosaic law and how Christian seem called to live, I (reluctantly) gravitated towards a view that, again, seems shockingly dispensational to me today.
I think each covenant is a way God chooses to relate with His people and how He chooses His people. There is nothing intrinsic or necessary to His nature about either covenant. They are totally arbitrary—there is no ethical concept of 'good' apart from God's commands, and right is right only because He says so. What troubles me isn't that there is no external definition of good apart from God, but that His decrees are not intrinsically based on His nature—either in the old covenant, or presumably the new. Each covenant has its own system of ethics. (2012-9-23) 
But continuing that journal entry, I glimpsed (maybe for the first time) the troubling implications of this view of the covenants. I couldn't see how God could make such a covenant with the Israelites, but so radically change it at the advent of Christ and, in doing so, reveal that the original covenant was deeply inadequate.
The bad news is not the good news. Showing the hopelessness of Israel's condition under the law does not equate to promising Jesus. … So the question becomes, why did God make a doomed, futile covenant with His 'chosen' people? (2012-9-23)
I was beginning to think about this law-grace dynamic historically. The view of the law as existing to show us our hopeless sinful condition and drive us to Jesus as our savior worked on an individual level for modern people—but I was getting tired of thinking of salvation in individual terms. On a national, historical level, it made no sense. The law was given to Israel specifically as a nation, not to all of humanity as individuals. And it was given over a thousand years before Christ came. So what are we to make of the plight of God's 'chosen' people the Israelites, who spent all that time with a flawed, imperfect (Hbr 7:18) covenant that could only point out their sin but offer no solution, with only a distant, poorly-seen hope of the future Messiah (to say nothing of the other nations)? What kind of a gift is this for a good God to give His children? Why did He leave them for so long with only half the gospel—the bad half? I kept thinking about the implications:
The law doesn't 'point to Jesus' because the provision for what to do if/when you break the law is contained in it. If it was put in place to show us our transgressions, then why aren't we repenting of our failure to make the sacrifices, or wear the right clothing—if it is by our failure to uphold the law that we are condemned? (2012-9-24) 
Again: if the Mosaic law really was given to point out our sin, why do we refuse to let so much of it do its convicting work? I began to suspect that we had lost the ability to think about the 'law' in its original context, and could only see it Christocentrically.

I looked for a better way to think about the law and how it related to salvation, later writing:
God didn't give the Israelites, His people, a faulty system to keep them from being saved. The thing that saved them, then like now, was faith. The punishment associated with breaking the law was temporal, not eternal—they broke the covenant, so He punished them as He'd warned from the beginning. They had to earn God's blessings, but not salvation. But at any rate, works were never the basis for man's relationship with God, but faith—faith inextricably tied to obedience. We do not obey God to be 'saved', we obey because he is Lord and we love Him. The gospel does not free us from having to obey God, it frees us to obey Him as He intended. (2012-12-11)
I was beginning to see beyond the simplistic 'faith vs. works' dichotomy, that the law was not simply about "works" that could never save, but that justification was always from faith. Giving the law was not equivalent to commanding them to seek salvation by works. I hinted at a concept I would expand on later, that obeying the law might not be for the sake of earning your salvation by "works" but about enjoying the blessings of pre-existing salvation. My view was kind of similar to the Reformed one (especially that last sentence), still well within the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the biggest problem with this perception of law and grace was the Bible.
Why does God seem to command people to seek life through [the law] if it was never intended? ... God never wanted Pharisees—He never intended for anyone to actually try to be justified by obeying the law. So how do you explain His commanding them to obey it all so they would live? I picture Him saying it with a wink—'By the way, this is all impossible, but just play along.' If God never intended anyone to be saved by the law, why was He so emphatic about obeying it so you might live? Lev 18:5, Deu 6:25... And this after the establishment in Abraham of justification by faith—what were they supposed to think? 'Wait, so if we disobey the law, does that nullify our righteousness by faith?' (2012-12-13) 
It almost seems like God did expect the Israelites to be justified by law. Was the whole system of law a big joke, delivered with a wink, with Christ the punchline that God expected the Israelites to 'get'? 'You will be declared righteous by obeying the whole law (only you can't, this way doesn't work, you just have to believe like Abraham)' (2013-1-12)
If God never intended for people to seek salvation through the law, why did He tell them to and say they could do it? [Deu 30:11-14] If Abraham had already established the precedent of salvation by faith, why was the law then given at all? (2012-1-20)
This view of faith and obedience made much better sense of the Old Testament than saying that God gave the Israelites the law simply so they would fail at it, realize their hopeless sinfulness, and turn to Jesus. I wanted to believe that God had never sent the Jews from Mount Sinai on a hopeless quest for self-justification by works. But standing firmly in opposition to this more optimistic view of the law was the apostle Paul.

The problem of Paul

I was back to my meta-question of "why does the Bible not say what it means?" But it got worse as I realized the tension was not just between the Bible and evangelical teaching, but (as far as I could tell) within the Bible itself. God told the Israelites to seek life and righteousness by keeping His commands.
You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live: I am the LORD. (Lev 18:5 RSV)
And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.' (Deu 6:25 RSV)
And further, in Moses' final, summary address to the Israelites at the end of Deuteronomy, he tells them that they are able to obey the law today, not after Christ rescues them. There is no hint of the law being impossible; the message simply seems to be that you are able to obey this law, so you should.
"For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deu 30:11-14 RSV)
So then how can Paul say that no one will be justified (or, equivalently, declared righteous) through the law, that no one could ever follow it, and that it simply brings knowledge of sin?
For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20 RSV)
We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. (Gal 2:15-16 RSV)
Paul's answer to the question "why the law?" seemed to fit the evangelical teaching: it was added "because of transgressions", to consign all things to sin, to confine us, to be our "custodian" (Greek: paidagogos, as in "pedagogy"), to lead us to justification through faith in Christ.
This is what I mean: the law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained by angels through an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one; but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; (Gal 3:17-25 RSV)
In Romans 10, Paul mourns his fellow Jews who have not found their righteousness in Jesus, but sought to establish their own righteousness by law—yet he describes this righteousness by citing Leviticus 18:5! In other words, he seems to be saying that God commanded the Jews to seek the righteousness through the law that led them to reject the righteousness of Jesus, for which they are now condemned!
Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified. Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on the law shall live by it. [Lev 18:25] (Rom 10:1-5 RSV)
Hebrews' treatment of the law was, if possible, even worse. The law that was supposed to have been given by a perfect God to His chosen people as a treasured gift was called "weak" and "useless", merely a shadow of the grace to come, whose sacrificial system was secretly defective.
On the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. (Heb 7:18-19 RSV)
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshipers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins. (Heb 10:1-4 RSV)
This was my biggest doubt yet. I tried reading those verses every way I could think of, looking for some way to avoid the seemingly inescapable contradiction between them. Paul's view of the law not only seemed incommensurably different from the view depicted in Deuteronomy, it turned salvation history into a farce. At worst, the law seemed to be something that Jesus saves us from; at best, it was a stopgap measure, a deliberately ineffectual solution to the problem of sin which Jesus would later solve in earnest. Neither view made any sense in light of the fact that the law was itself given by God, supposedly for a redemptive purpose. I kept looking for ways to make sense of this tension, to coherently tie together the old and new covenants, but each time I came up with an idea, another unaccountably strange verse from Paul would jump out at me and shoot it down. That darned Paul!

Accepting doubt

By early 2013, my faith was in shambles as as result of all of these doubts about both what the Bible said and the questions my biblical theology class was raising. What really didn't help matters was that, at first, I was reluctant to address my growing doubts. I saw it as allowing my intellect to control and lead my relationship with God, which I knew was bad. Early in the fall semester, still wrestling with my doubts about God's goodness, I journaled:
I thought the answer was just to trust God more, in spite of my doubt, to not let it come between us. But that doesn't mean I set it aside and let it grow. It means I deal with it to know God better. But what else was I supposed to conclude from all the times I heard Christianity contrasted with an 'intellectual assent'? It led me to deny a (big) part of who I am. I didn't rigorously answer these doubts before because I thought having complete answers was unimportant. (2012-9-26)
What Don Miller's railing against Christianity as 'lists and formulas' seems to say, my questions don't matter, I just have to 'know God relationally'. But suspecting someone to be a liar puts a damper on a relationship. (2012-10-2)
I realized that I couldn't simply marginalize my intellect and "trust Jesus" instead, or put my relationship with Him ahead of "having all the answers", as I viewed my questioning quest. These things couldn't be set in opposition to each other without denying a vital part of who and why God had made me to be. My doubts weren't being actively suppressed, but it did feel like they were being swept aside or relativized.
In the tradition I'm from, questions aren't so much fearfully suppressed as they are buried under 'the gospel' or a wash of platitudes. (2013-1-2)
Not long after this I published my post on the denial of doubt, which expanded on an idea I had had on the value of doubt a few months ago:
This is why skepticism is needed—it is so easy to believe that my ineptitude in missions in a serious problem that must be repented of, that I am not properly applying the great commission to my life, to get swept up in the evangelical tide and accept it 'on faith' as a given, labeling your doubts as sin. Because God calls us to put on faith—in what?—and cast off doubt. If the church stops questioning and doubting itself, it veers off into catastrophe. (2012-11-2)
So I held onto my doubt, rather than simply 'laying it down' for the sake of a shallow 'faith' that shied from tough questions. My 'faith' (actually my ability to make rational sense of Christian theology) reached its nadir in late January 2013. As I described in my post on sola scriptura, I finally admitted to God what I had been fervently denying for so long: "Your Word has contradictions in it. What do I do now?" It was then that I think I realized what faith truly was.
I am unwilling to reject God even as my mind is telling me to do so and doubting. So my intellect and will are distinct after all. If God really is faithful, it doesn't matter whether I believe that He is. The 'strength' of my belief is secondary—that is, my certainty/level of understanding. (2013-1-27)
For the first time, I actually saw that my faith was different from my intellectual conception of Christianity. The latter was utterly defeated, yet somehow I still had faith. I still wanted to trust and believe in God. Even when He made absolutely no sense to me and I could see no reason to trust Him, I continued to trust Him to bring me light and restore order in my troubled soul. The day after, I reflected:
I think God is separating my faith/will and intellect from each other. I now have to learn how to have faith that isn't coterminous with rational thought. (2013-1-28) 
In a post on my big doubt last February, I came to some preliminary conclusions about the relationship between the covenants. I tried to free the Mosaic law from the straitjacket our exclusive focus on its Christocentric meaning had become and situate it in its ancient Near Eastern context. I tentatively concluded that the context in which the law was viewed and the way it was treated had changed from when it was initially given to the first century AD. I was still a long way from figuring out the questions raised by Paul, but my admission about the Bible and discovery of a faith that wasn't in thrall to reason had freed me to begin to seek a new, better way to approach Scripture.

Monday, September 8, 2014

My Journey, Part 4: Questioning "the Gospel"

This is part 4 of my rebooted series on my experience with the "gospel". Please read the previous parts if you haven't already:
  1. Back to the beginning
  2. Cracks appear
  3. Questions multiply
Once my doubts about the gospel story started, they never stopped. Rather than simply following a single line of thought, they quickly branched out to many different facets of the gospel, which I have attempted to break into some themes. Reflecting the period I was going through in late 2012 and 2013, this post is rather more negative than I would like. (It gets better!)

The Fall

The Fall: the moment when it all went wrong. The origin of the big problem to which Jesus is the solution. According to the evangelical narrative, sin came into the world through Adam (Rom 5:12); consequently, we are all born with a sinful nature that makes us slaves to iniquity from the womb, subject to the just punishment of death for our acts of treason against a holy God. We are born into slavery to sin, unable to produce any good in ourselves, yet somehow this inability makes us more culpable rather than less. Adam's act of disobedience was the "original sin" that is responsible for our present predicament from which Jesus saves us.

As I felt increasingly disconnected from the way my biblical theology class interpreted biblical passages (especially OT passages) "in light of Christ" in a way that seemed to disregard their original context and meaning to fit them into our prepared "gospel" narrative, I saw little of the gospel Fall narrative in what Genesis 2-3 actually said. The garden of Eden was supposed to be a perfect, deathless paradise before the Fall, yet factors in the text itself challenge both of these assertions (man's immortality seems dependent on ongoing access to the tree of life in 3:22; the words for "till" and "keep" in 2:15 have militaristic connotations suggesting that the rest of the world might not have been like the garden; there is a lying, talking snake in the garden before the Fall). The snake itself is always identified with Satan, but this is dependent on a connection with Revelation 20:2, not anywhere in Genesis itself.
The most likely explanation of Gen 3:14-15 is that God is actually speaking to the serpent as an animal, which begs the question: why would God curse a snake for being acted through by Satan? … Sin entered the world through the man and woman, but before that the snake. (2012-9-13)
Genesis 2:24 was supposed to be the record of God "creating the institution" of marriage, yet to all appearances it seemed more like a post facto explanation to the already-existing tradition (note how Adam's poetry in 2:23—not a decree of God—is taken as the direct reason for marriage in the time of writing). Likewise the attempt to glimpse a complete account of "how it was supposed to be" from 2:25 seems sketchy. I already mentioned my difficulty seeing the "protoevangelium" in 3:14-15. These two chapters in Genesis seemed to me a textbook example of clobbering a text's original meaning in the practice of "Scripture interprets Scripture". And wasn't the author's original meaning supposed to be the true meaning? (This was my dispensationalist phase talking)

I also wrestled with the theological implications of God allowing the Fall to happen if it was really so completely awful that it somehow "broke" the entire creation:
It's very hard to see 'the Fall' from a state of sinless perfection as anything other than a great derailment of God's plans. ... We justify it by saying God used it to bring 'more glory' to Himself—treating glory as a quantity. (Which, for God, is supposed to be infinite anyway) What keeps people holding to the Fall is the false belief that the alternative is a denial of sin and the gospel. (2013-5-1)
It didn't make sense: if God was really as sovereign as I was taught (from a Reformed perspective) He was, why on earth would He allow His creatures to so ruin His perfect world? In fact, how could they even do this? I pretty clearly gave my objections to the "cosmic Fall" theory for explaining natural evil (that God cursed the creation as a punishment for Adam's sin) in May. When this question wasn't simply answered with an appeal to mystery, it was with an appeal to God's "glory"—a fallen and restored creation would be better and bring more glory to God than one that had never fallen in the first place. But, being omnipotent, why couldn't God have made the world this way to begin with? Was Eden perfect or not? Why was the finite Adam able to do instantly something that's taking God thousands of years to undo? And extending how the Fall was supposed to happen, how do we know there will be no second Fall after God makes everything perfect again, if what made the first one possible was human free will? If we will somehow be totally free but without the possibility of sinning, then why didn't God just create us like this in the first place? The implied questions were limitless.

The last part of this entry also protests how we have made this interpretation of Genesis 2-3 absolutely critical for the rest of the gospel story, the part without which nothing would make sense. We think of evil, sin, and death not so much in terms of their present reality as in terms of their beginning (the Fall) and ending (the Atonement). The Fall narrative was presented as the only theodicy needed: sin, death, and suffering are not God's will but exist because of Adam's sin, and God is working to redeem the effects of this sin. So my questions about it cast the rest of the gospel into doubt as well.

And, of course, there was the fact that this Fall narrative made the evangelical gospel story dependent on the claim that sin and death came into the world through Adam's sin and denying the (incompatible) scientific facts that there was no first pair of humans and that animals were living, dying, and evolving millions of years before humans existed.
Theistic evolution implies death before the Fall—uh-oh... (2012-9-16)
I eventually settled for simply not knowing how they fit together and "trusting God" with the answer.

Sin/The Human Condition

I was also becoming dissatisfied with how evangelical theology described the basic human condition. In the narrative of the 'gospel', humanity's 'big problem' is sin: it entered the world through Adam (Rom 5:12 again), brought death and condemnation to all men (see also 5:17-19), was dealt a deathblow by Jesus's atoning death on the cross, and will be fully done away with at His return. But I realized I couldn't follow the evangelical arithmetic of sin, as high treason against an infinitely holy God that instantly brought eternal condemnation and death, no matter what the actual offense. It made God's justice seem like a parody of our human legal systems, rather than the other way around. I had trouble believing God made no distinction between swearing and genocide. I wrote,
How is all sin like crossing the moral event horizon for God? ...With God, He is perfect and we should have the highest regard for Him and therefore not want to disobey. If we do it is because we don't hold Him in the highest regard or see Him as perfect—we believe a lie. Except coasting through a stop sign is not treason. The use of the word 'treason' to refer to sin is not biblical. ... every sin reflects this loss of viewing God as perfect and all-sufficient. (2012-10-16)
I think with the stop sign example I was comparing sinning against God to breaking the laws of the land; obviously, not everything that is a crime according to the American legal system is treason. As well, I was trying to get at the relational (rather than the legal) dimension of sin, which I saw as being neglected by this judicially-minded talk of sin as "treason against a holy God", as the ultimate cosmic crime that had to be punished. I began to see sin as leading to death because it cuts us off from the author of life, not because it incurs a death penalty. This view seemed superior because it showed how some sins could be worse than others as well as why all sin is a problem (beyond just "because God must punish it"; see below).

I was also dissatisfied with the emphasis on sin being used to denigrate human dignity or agency (often in support of the kind of dualism between us and God I used to hold to). Humans, it was supposed, were so flawed and sinful that even our best attempts at righteousness are "filthy rags" (Isa 64:6) before the all-holy God, which we are to count as loss (Phil 3:8) as we trust entirely in Christ's sufficiency rather than our inability. But did this kind of focus on the "sinful nature" lead us to see ourselves more negatively than God sees us (and to believe that the worse assessment of our nature is always necessarily the more accurate)? In the thinking that led up to my post on how God will praise us, I wrote:
In reformed teaching we are just (presumably interchangeable) passive, imperfect straws through which the spirit blows. But this view misses much. We will get praise from God—for what we have done with what we have been given, for how well we've obeyed. (2013-3-16)
Using "sin" as a blanket explanation for why we couldn't expect anything more from ourselves than continual disobedience was starting to seem like a cop-out. Even in the Reformed teaching I was misunderstanding, we're supposed to be saved not from God's moral standards, but in order to obey them better. This would seem to undercut the dichotomies between God's agency and ours I was hearing, which contrasted Jesus' perfect righteousness with our sin-addled attempts to secure righteousness for ourselves. But I didn't hear this nuance as often as I heard simple dichotomies between our righteousness and Christ's.

God's "Justice"/PSA

As I said above, I also stopped being able to make sense of the evangelical account of God's response to our sin. Because the penalty for our sin is death, God, being perfectly just, would be right to destroy us at any time for our sin, so even our continued existence is a testament to His mercy—so the thinking goes. I tried and failed to convince myself of this. God's "justice" was conceptualized as the necessity to punish sin (in the sense of giving a courtroom verdict and "executing justice"), for "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). If God simply let our sin slide or let up in His condemnation in the slightest, then He would not be perfectly just; it has to be punished—right? I was starting to doubt that.
Why are the wages of sin death? Why is God considered just to kill people for any sin? Is this just an arbitrary feature of His justice? (2013-1-12)
I asked a pointed question in an attempt to draw out what I saw as the questionable part of this view of our sin and God's justice:
If, somehow, a person could be instantaneously rendered morally perfect and without a sinful nature, would that person still have need of further justification from God? (2013-2-6)
I still think this is a great question. If (as evangelicals will sometimes say) sin is not primarily what we do but who we are, then is the point of "dealing with sin" to provide a legal mechanism to forgive acts of wrongdoing, or actually healing the presence of sin (as an infection) in our souls? Is our "justification" before God forensic (legal acquittal of past wrongdoing) or moral (restoration of our present moral righteousness)? The idea that "salvation" is something that we can attain fully and instantaneously by divine decree (i.e. without actually becoming morally perfect) would seem to indicate the former options. By implication, God holds our past transgressions against us regardless of our current state, this remembrance seems to be a corollary of His justice, and it is from this impure record and the just condemnation that it brings that we are saved in the moment of justification. This is what I call a juridical view of sin, and I was having trouble believing it anymore.

A few weeks later I wrote of how I was shifting to seeing God's justice as something that we desperately seek to see restored to the world instead of something we graciously are spared from, something that was "satisfied" by restoration and flourishing rather than by punishment. This was a more relational, less juridical view of God's justice. I clarified the tension between these conceptions further in March:
One gets this image of this invisible, spiritual mass of sin of which we are insensible but which God sees all too clearly and will judge us by—no. Our sin is not 'out there', it is all 'in us'. (2013-3-29)
I saw evangelical theology as conceptualizing sin as this "spiritual object" somewhere out there, not intrinsic to our selves, that we add to with our transgressions and that God (being just) cannot ignore and has to get past (by punishing/condemning it) before He can have a relationship with us. In the evangelical gospel, our sin keeps God away from us because God, being "just", cannot tolerate sin in His presence. (Well, except that whole time in Job 1-2 when He has a face-to-face meeting with the devil. And maybe when He comes to earth and spends a good deal of time with the outcasts of society.) I expected such a fundamental problem as sin to be more intrinsic to us, too much so to be defeated by a mere legal decree.

I also questioned the dominant theory of atonement in evangelicalism, penal substitution, which seemed dependent on this external view of sin as something that can be decisively "dealt with" by a courtroom maneuver and of God's justice as the necessity to legally retaliate against sin which can be "satisfied" by Jesus' sacrifice and thus bypassed in order to have a relationship with Him.
The difficulty with the penal substitution view is that God's wrath seems needlessly cruel, disconnected from the actual offense. (2013-3-29)
It seemed to me that in penal substitution (and this juridical view of sin in general), we weren't saved from our sin so much as from what God was going to do to us for our sin. The problem of sin that was so often emphasized was not that sin relationally separated us from God because of our ungodliness, but that it legally separated God from us because of His justice. If it did relationally separate us, it was because it legally separated us first and foremost. And I could not accept this. I saw it as misapplying language of God as 'judge' so that our whole relationship with God was understood through a courtroom metaphor, mediated by it, rather than simply allowing it to speak to a dimension of the relationship. God wants to love us, it seems, but He is first and foremost the great cosmic judge and He has to fully discharge His legal duties (namely, hearing the case against us) before He can get off the stand and come near us.


Another flaw of PSA that I saw was how it concentrated the whole work of redemption, the sine qua non of the gospel, into the crucifixion, effectively making it central to the gospel and implicitly demoting the rest of Jesus' time on earth. Even the resurrection seemed secondary, since it wasn't what "dealt with" our sin in this crucial legal sense. It mostly served to rectify the problem of God being dead after the crucifixion and to exemplify the fullness of life beyond death that Jesus bought for us on the cross, and the rest of the teachings of Jesus...well, the gospel isn't about what we do to make ourselves righteous but what what Jesus has completely done to make us righteous, but if our saving faith in Him starts to spill over into our lives, great! His commands and teachings are not laws that we have to follow to make ourselves acceptable to God but a way to check yourself to see if you are bearing fruit in keeping with repentance; we can't make ourselves any more obedient to them. (there's that "justification by faith alone" dualism again)

Once again, I found this borderline-exclusionary focus on the cross over every other dimension of Jesus' life and ministry unsatisfying, reductionistic, and opaque. There had to be a reason for all the things Jesus said and did (occupying most of the gospel accounts about Him) before and after His passion. At the very least, I thought the "gospel" should place at least as much emphasis on the resurrection as on the crucifixon.
Arguably the biggest flaw with penal substitution is that it marginalizes the resurrection, makes it unnecessary for our atonement. (2013-3-28)
Luther's emphasis on the cross of Christ risks making one part of the gospel message into the whole thing, our only light for seeing God. This can be confining, even damaging. (2013-4-24)
Luther was not alone; I have often heard "the cross of Christ" used synecdochically to refer to the whole gospel. But without a counterintuitive legal mechanism by which it can completely secure our "salvation", the cross cannot stand alone. I wanted an understanding of the gospel that would be summed up as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, by mentioning Christ's death and resurrection in the same breath. Having been told the crucicentric rendition of the gospel for years, I wasn't sure what this might look like.

As well, in all the talk of sharing "the gospel of Jesus Christ", "trusting Jesus", "Jesus as Lord and Savior", Jesus as the one who decisively defeats sin, I saw another potential imbalance.
I think evangelicalism does overfocus on Jesus over the rest of the Trinity. (2012-10-8)
In the gospel of PSA, the Father supposedly loves us and is coequal to the Son, but is also apparently the wrathful, "just" judge of sin that Jesus saves us from. Within this tension between justice and love, and considering Jesus' place in it, it's easy to see how we can focus our thanks and adoration on Jesus, our "savior". Again, the Holy Spirit is our comforter and advocate, sent by Jesus to live in us, transform us, and pray for us, but I sensed in all the sola fide-istic denials that we can or should actively participate in our salvation or sanctification an implicit denial of His ministry.

Focus on salvation

I also questioned the enormous weight and importance put on "getting saved", "putting your trust in Jesus", "starting a relationship with Jesus", "being justified by faith", etc. that I saw in evangelicalism. In October 2012 I made a bridge analogy that I found helpful:
I get this image of a celestial bridge across a great divide. The bridge is the gospel, and it spans from Death to Life. Other bridges go from nearer outcroppings to Death, and people thing the outcroppings are life. The point of crossing the gospel bridge is to get to the other side and lie there, never forgetting where you came from and how you got there. (2012-10-13) 
The whole focus of evangelicalism is the bridge—how wonderful it is that it's there, and getting other people to cross it. (2012-10-14)
I'm not sure if it was intentional, but I was recalling an image that was commonplace among evangelicals.
Does he have to climb over the top part of the cross, or work his way around it somehow? I've always wondered.
This diagram is similar to one that I saw used (explicitly or implicitly) in thinking about 'the gospel'. The focus is entirely on how to get across the chasm separating us from God. Once you cross the chasm, everything after is simply depicted as "GOD". "Getting across the chasm to God" seems to be thought of similarly to "living happily ever after", as if the rest of your life will just work itself out after you 'get saved'. No one would explicitly say this, of course, but it was the message I was getting from so emphasizing the single-moment-of-salvation aspect of the evangelical gospel over everything else.

Especially in Cru, but also in general, the strong focus on evangelism, on helping other people to hear and respond to this gospel made it hard for me to see how I 'fit in' to the body of Christ, the church. My introverted nature made it hard enough for me to go up to strangers and engage them in what might be the most important conversation of their lives; my doubts about the gospel I was supposed to be sharing made it nigh impossible. How could I share something that didn't make sense to me?
If we reduce the gospel from a new reality to a message to be proclaimed, the range of acceptable parts of the body of Christ shrinks distinctly. (2013-4-7)
I also became aware of the pastoral quandaries brought about by this binary view of salvation. It's understandable how such a binary view could shift peoples' focus from living as saved to simply being sure they 'have' salvation.
If the only two categories we have are 'saved' and 'unsaved', the only alternative to everything being great between you and God is admitting that you're unsaved. (2013-5-8)
Of course evangelicals view their faith with more nuance than this—but is this because of a binary view of salvation, or in spite of it?
We place such a high importance on knowing you have obtained salvation, we deflect any verses that might challenge that assurance—because I'm so sinful, I'll throw salvation away the first chance I get. Are we supposed to be so worried about whether we're 'saved'? (2013-5-16)
Insidiously, this conceptualization of salvation as something you "receive" from God and then "have" (i.e. a "spiritual object") threatens to shift our focus from trusting in God to seeking certainty that we have received something from Him. This attitude is unacceptable with physical possessions or any other created things, yet it's allowed for salvation? (I had heard plenty of explanations that salvation was essentially receiving the gift of God Himself, but then why did we keep talking about this thing called "salvation"?)

And, embarrassingly, the question of children (or infant) salvation was a grey area of this paradigm. How can we know when children are old enough to have 'saving faith'? What is the difference between a child who is old enough and one who is not?
Our model of sin and salvation doesn't apply to children—so you get wonky debates on paedobaptism and infant salvation. (2013-6-17)
These were all clues to me that the way I'd been conceptualizing salvation was in need of improvement. 


I grew tired of the term 'relationship with God', often preceded by the word 'personal'. In an attempt to help the gospel land with people and not just be something to believe intellectually, it was stated in very personal terms: 'God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life', 'When Jesus died on the cross He was thinking of you', 'Jesus died for my sin', etc. (Often this came at the expense of the intellectual side of faith, as I would see) I realized the potential problems of focusing on this personal dimension:
How is the gospel usually stated in evangelicalism? 'God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, so He sent Jesus so that your sin could be forgiven and you can have a personal relationship with Him.' With such a personal understanding of the gospel—as being all about you and God—is it any wonder that so many American Christians have a self-centered faith? (2013-1-10)
A few days later I wrote of the 'impersonal gospel' I thought we were missing. I sought a bigger, more cosmic and universal view of God's redemption, of which the personal dimension of the gospel is simply one part.
A self-focused faith also blinds me to the glory of God throughout the universe by making faith too 'personal'. (2013-2-6)
As much as I need to feel loved, I also wanted a gospel that truly made me feel small and left me in awe of the plans and glory of God. The highly personal gospel of evangelicalism was not doing this for me.

Descriptive or normative?

With all of these doubts, it's no surprise that I had trouble accepting the overall gospel 'storyline' that I was hearing. I couldn't look back to a decisive, dramatic moment when I let Jesus come into my heart and transform my life. I couldn't see my life as a constant struggle against trying to prove myself 'good enough' to God (what Jesus was supposed to have saved us from), at least without a lot of unintuitive mental maneuvering. On a meta level, I couldn't see how my present struggle with doubt and questions fit into this narrative at all.
It's not helpful when my twisted, specific situation is answered with vague, 'gospel' generalities. (2013-1-13)
By mid-2013, I was apparently distancing myself from evangelicalism, partly because of how its redemption narrative just didn't seem to fit me, as I noticed every time I tried to write my "testimony".
I kept waiting for God to write me a story that fit into the evangelical four-point narrative. I stopped being one when I realized God had no intention of doing this. (2013-6-14)
The gospel narrative of salvation seemed disconnected from my experience, like something I was supposed to intentionally fit my life into, a square peg into a round hole. But this made it impossible for it to illuminate or explain what I was going through. I realized the importance of connecting my received faith with the rest of my life, but for the reasons listed above I couldn't seem to do this. I couldn't see how a message with so many holes in it could possibly explain my relationship with the divine or the purpose of my life.

Holistic deconstruction

An important qualification: my questions about the vision of the gospel that was being presented to me weren't so much over statements I thought were false outright (though those did occasionally happen, especially with very strong/exclusionary statements), but over misplaced emphasis: parts of the gospel were shifted around, distorted, overemphasized or marginalized. This telling of the gospel had plenty of truth to it, but that truth did not seem to be in the proper balance. Regardless of how its individual pieces were justified from Scripture, the way they were put together into the big picture just wasn't believable to me. I kept wanting to respond: "Yes, but..." Some examples:
  • The 'Pauline' reading of Genesis 2-3 was given center stage until it became the only reading.
  • The legal dimension of sin was overemphasized in the message of salvation; I wasn't sure that it was even worth focusing on.
  • Within this legal framework, sin was closely associated with "works-righteousness": human attempts to establish legal merit before God, as if this was all there is to sin. In denial of these, our agency/righteousness was dualistically opposed to God's; the former is bad, the latter good.
  • God's justice was viewed primarily as the necessity to judicially punish sin, instead of the broader sense of something positive that God is restoring whose consequence is the punishment of those who oppose it.
  • This distorted picture of redemption was accomplished primarily on the cross (so that "the cross" becomes virtually synonymous with salvation), only secondarily in the empty tomb.
  • Jesus was the one we wanted to tell everyone about, never just "God", the Father, or the Holy Spirit.
  • The initial moment of salvation was prized above all else; salvation was an all-or-nothing deal, a crucial, life-altering turning point; the rest of life afterward was out of focus.
  • Partly in reaction to the perceived intellectual dryness of a doctrine-centric faith, the personal dimension of salvation was turned way up: "when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you".
I'm also aware that there are answers to most of these things within evangelical theology—but seemingly nowhere in evangelical worship and practice, as far as I could see. They were often posed as question or brief sketches by theologians exploring the possibilities of their tradition, almost as far from soaking down to the ground level of the church as you can get. Attempting to blaze my own path through the gap between church and academy would entail an incredibly individualistic picture of faith with which I may have once been comfortable, but no longer was. I tried to see past these problems to the theoretical solutions I was only reading about, and to help others to do the same, but the constant waves of doubt and disagreement made it very hard to be constructive. I couldn't do this project of reinvention on my own; I was never meant to. And my doubts continued to deepen...