Sunday, May 26, 2013

New Testament Final Paper

The following is the final paper for the New Testament class I took at my church, in which I write about four things I've learned from studying the whole New Testament this semester.

Having arrived at the end of a survey of the entire Bible, I can look back with genuine amazement at all that God has done in me this past year. I wouldn't have expected my first school year out of school to be the most influential to my thinking! He has used my reading, study, and discussion to transform my view of Him and His word. Where I was drowning in questions before, now my questions either have found answers or faded away into relative unimportance. I have learned to treasure the Bible as the story of God as told by His people rather than merely the foundation for a theological system. Praise God for being my teacher throughout  this year (and for giving me some great human discussion leaders as well)!

The most basic way my Biblical understanding has changed was a consequence of starting to do the weekly reading in Greek with John. This turned out to be surprisingly doable, despite my never having studied Greek before, due to picking up the alphabet as a former math major, knowing words from English roots and Greek word studies in books and sermons, and having the word-for-word ESV translation in parallel. Still, though I could make quite a bit of sense of the Greek text, it was painstakingly slow progress. Because of this, I realized I'd been reading the Bible too fast for nearly my whole life. Having to stumble through every word rather than flying over sentences I thought I "knew" forced me to focus on the text intensely and has really turned reading the New Testament (especially the writings on John) into a joy again.

For example, in John 7 I was struck by the prideful motivations of the Pharisees in dismissing Jesus as a "sinner" for healing the man born blind on the Sabbath and realized how easy it is for us to be like the Pharisees even without being legalists where salvation is concerned. Or in John 6, where Jesus delivers an increasingly bizarre sermon, I found myself following the mood of the incredulous crowd asking, "Jesus, what are you saying?" I also realized how much reflection and thought John had put into his gospel. It is much less of a "slice of Jesus' life" perspective than any of the synoptics. John's recollections of Jesus, filtered through a lifetime changed by love, are colored by his intimate love for his Savior and friend. He structures everything to make his point about Jesus' divinity as the Son of God and Son of Man, and intersperses plenty of his own comments and explanations. It's analogous to how I hear a new richness to old music when I listen with better headphones.

And besides all this, reading the Bible in Greek has also had the expected effect of allowing me to peer "behind the curtain" of translation to get at the original text. Even with my knowledge fuzzy as it is, I can start to pick up on things that get lost in translation. For example, Greek has multiple words for concepts English has only a single word for, like "time", "know", or "love". Given how much our language affects and shapes our thinking, I can't help but wonder how much of our confusing "knowing Jesus" as a purely intellectual venture or "loving Jesus" as a purely emotional feel-good experience is a result of the language we have at our disposal. The everyday language ("Koine" means "common") also reminds me that terms like "faith", "love", or "life" are not supposed to be technical or ultra-spiritual terms; they mean just what we would intuitively expect them to mean.

Perhaps the biggest change God has done in me this past year is in how I view and think about scripture. The difference in this regard between now and last September is like night and day. As I started studying the Old Testament, I held a view of the Bible that mirrored my highly intellectual, logical nature. I saw it roughly as a testimony from God to us about who He is, what His plan for the world is, and how we can know Him. The nature of this testimony was very propositional; i.e. it could be broken down into basic truths that were then combined into the edifice of truth I knew as "theology". I expected this edifice to perfectly mirror the nature of God in that it could have no tensions or contradictions in it, and every verse in the Bible (even the difficult ones) had to fit into it like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. I saw imperfect theology as an attempt to assemble this puzzle that didn't use all the pieces. The catchphrase "scripture interprets scripture" became roughly synonymous with allowing each verse to speak for itself (using scripture to clarify, not subjugate, other scripture) in its factual contribution to the completed puzzle.

The only problem with this view of the Bible is, as Matt Chandler would say, the Bible. During my survey of the Old Testament my scriptural paradigm developed fractures that turned into gaping cracks, and eventually it broke apart entirely. I grew increasingly suspicious of how I had to keep twisting the plain words of scripture to get this verse or that to fit in. And on a higher level, the tension I saw between the Testaments was becoming undeniable. Finally I admitted that God's word did seem to have tensions, even contradictions in it. My paradigm of scripture was so bound up with my view of God that, for a while, admitting this seemed tantamount to losing my faith. In reality, by waiting for God to reveal Himself in the ruins of the systems I'd built to try to understand Him, I was learning what faith is really about. This semester, I've been putting the pieces back together in a new way that ditches the puzzle metaphor altogether.

So how do I now see the Bible? It's more like I don't see it--or I consider it a window through which to see God, especially through Jesus. By trying to rationalize and systematize the truths of scripture I was making an idol out of God's words while forsaking the true Word that came into the world. Seeing as the early church was preserved not by the gospel-as-scripture (which hadn't been written or collected into canon yet), but by the gospel-as-knowledge-of-Jesus, I have concluded that the purpose of the Bible is not simply to teach Christians what to believe but to allow us to continue to experience and know (personally) Jesus even two thousand years later. This is what John states as the purpose of his gospel in John 20:31: "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."

This has led me to a much richer and more nuanced understanding of the Bible. I see it less as a repository of unformed systematic theology and more as a story about God breaking into the world, a book that, like Jesus, is fully divine and fully human at the same time. This means I read it expecting divine truth clothed in human culture and context (as it must be to be impactful for us), not existing in an abstract spiritual vacuum. I appreciate Biblical theology's emphasis on narrative and progression of revelation over propositional truths. I see scriptural tensions and apparent contradictions not as reasons to fear that Christianity is irrational but as evidence that it transcends the bounds of mere rationality and my own limited perspective of things.

And, most amazingly, I find that I no longer have doubts about the Bible, not because God has answered them all but because He has revealed Himself as the ultimate answer. The only way to truly get rid of my doubts was to accept them and allow God to lead me through them. As an INTP, I've realized the need to arrive at a "big picture" of the Gospel that really resonates with me rather than just being handed to me, that I can connect practically with every situation I face in life. I truly feel called to help other people to see God through questions and doubts the way He has helped me and I hope that the Master of Arts on theology I'm about to pursue will help me do to so.

This new, more holistic perspective of scripture has all kinds of applications. If we view the Bible not as nothing but pure spiritual truth and universal instructions but as originating from specific contexts, the question of how to apply it to our lives becomes less simple. Yes, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16), but no Christian today thinks Paul's command to bring his cloak and scrolls (4:13) applies to us as it did to Timothy. Yet John Piper, preaching a sermon on the end of 2 Timothy, has still managed to learn something of the warmth of Paul and Timothy's relationship from this verse.

That is an extremely simple example of the role of context in Biblical hermeneutics, where it's obvious that our application of a verse is context-sensitive. Or consider Paul's instructions for churches to "greet one another with a holy kiss" (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26). Again, no one has a problem believing this directive is culturally contextualized, that a kiss means something very different today than in the first century, and that we can now take from it that we should greet others in the church warmly, perhaps with a holy handshake or fist-bump.

But dealing with cultural context in the New Testament is not always so easy. Consider some of the more controversial of Paul's instructions regarding men and women in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35,  or 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. These have been the source of much contention regarding the rights of women in church as the question continues to be debated: just how much do these verses apply to the modern, American church? Paul doesn't make the original context of these commands or whatever rationale he may have had clear, and so we are left to guess at the context. His support of his points with the creation order indicates that there may be more universal principles behind them.

Or consider a different example, Paul's tirade about the Corinthians' abuse of the Lord's supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. As I learned when we preached through 1 Corinthians, the big issue was that the administration of communion, which was supposed to be a time for the church to come together in love and to remember the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus, had instead become a time of class segregation and elitism, as "one person remains hungry and another gets drunk." (11:21) I used to think that because Hope doesn't practice communion as a full meal, these verses simply didn't apply to my situation at all, and took his later command in verses 27 and 28 to examine oneself as meaning you had to pray and confess your sins before taking communion, as I still tend to do.

But if we look at the situation behind Paul's instructions and stop interpreting them in such a specific way, we see Paul's desire for the Corinthian church to be the kind of egalitarian community seen in Acts 4:32-35 where the categories people use to place themselves over others become irrelevant, or the strength of the symbolism he sees in the bread and the wine and his desire to fight for it to be reflected in the believers' conduct. Behind the specific misconduct of the Corinthians, these principles are just as applicable today as they were in the first century.

This context-sensitive way of looking at scripture can be confusing if you're accustomed to interpreting Biblical commands more literally. Where is the line, you may ask? What's to stop us from using context to apply the Bible in whatever way we want? I would ask, what is the rationale behind Paul's reprimand of the Corinthians' communion practices, or teachings on the role of men and women in the church? Orderly, loving worship, or more generally, the health of the body of Christ, the Church. The ultimate motive in my interpretation of scripture is (hopefully) not my own theological whims or even adherence to a "correct" method but my desire to be conformed to the image of Christ.

One interesting change in my thinking has been in how I treat concepts like salvation, love, grace, glory, wrath, or sin. I think in our western culture we're used to thinking of these things as abstract things or even numerical quantities that somehow have substance independent of God or us and that can be created, destroyed, and transacted almost like money. And many verses allow this kind of reading: God gives us love (1 John 3:1), we deserve to receive wrath but instead receive mercy (Romans 11:30), when we believe we obtain salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:9), by our disobedience we store up sin and wrath (Romans 2:5) for ourselves, an abundance of grace and peace are ours (2 Peter 1:2), the atonement exchanges our sin for Jesus' righteousness, God strengthens us out of His glorious riches (Ephesians 3:16), or trying to get the maximum amount of glory possible for God (the glory of God is never referred to in this quantitative fashion). I refer to this kind of thinking as "spiritual objects".

But though this is what the (English) wording of the Bible sounds like to us, I don't think this is the picture it paints of love, grace, sin, or anything else, but rather a preconception we bring into our reading. My support for this point is not a convenient verse that clears up all our modern philosophical confusion but the mere fact that I see the glory of God's plan of redemption more clearly by reading the Bible in this way. I'm learning to see God's love not as an invisible quantity that He amasses in some kind of spiritual storehouse and gives us but as something He does, or is, or creates in us. The accumulation of sin is not like the increase of a monetary debt but increasing disunion and dissimilarity between us and God, the tragic breaking of intimacy.

This small shift in my reading has already had surprisingly wide effects on my faith. Instead of praying to receive intangible spiritual abstractions and feeling frustrated, I'm learning to see how God "shows up" in and through my life. Things I do like teach Sunday School stop seeming like merely something I enjoy doing and hope it "counts" toward an abstract notion of God's glory; instead I'm able to see my love for my kids as an (imperfect) reflection of His love for me that He is nonetheless pleased with, just as I'm genuinely pleased with my kids' less-than-perfect attempts to write their names. Adopting more tangible, personal definitions of love, mercy, grace, etc. has allowed me to joyfully see God better through these things and better connect the Gospel to my everyday life.

Finally, I have realized not only the truth but both the sheer scope of the Gospel. In evangelical Christianity I often see the Gospel being presented in a very individualistic, personal way, as in the KGP (Knowing God Personally) booklet used by Cru. The message is, "God loves you, has a wonderful plan for your life, and wants a personal relationship with you." True, but in our emphasis on God's loving and personal nature let's not forget His majesty and sovereignty over all creation. At the same time, the Bible tells us, we have been selected by God to know and be known by Him (Ephesians 1:4), and yet he invites us into a plan no smaller than the total renewal of all created things (Romans 8:21). The personal side of the Gospel invites us closer to relationship with our loving Father, and the grandiose side draws our eyes further to the amazing plan He has for all of us. I know of no better part of scripture that describes the scale of Gospel redemption than Revelation 21:1-5:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

There is the personal part, the promise of God coming to live with us of which God in the flesh, Emmanuel, "God with us" was as much a preview as the Mosaic covenant was of Jesus: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God." But along with that comes a new heaven and a new earth, as God says, "Behold, I am making all things new." I don't believe this means God is going to destroy the heavens and the earth and then create new ones, which would call into question the point of doing so much in them to begin with. My favorite Christian blogger Morgan Guyton points out that in verse 24 "the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it", when according to a literal interpretation all of the kings of the earth have been destroyed by this point, along with the earth itself, several times over. If God is going to hit the reset button on the entire universe, our task of being good stewards over creation is pointless.

Instead, the story I see is God's redemption extending to every corner of creation (except those people and angels who tragically exclude themselves from it), so broadly and fully that the result of its completion can be described as "a new heaven and a new earth". It's like the book A New Husband by Friday, which claims to be not a guide to rapid divorce and remarriage but to changing your husband so he's like a new man within a week. (Whether this is possible is beyond the scope of this paper) This has had the effect of driving me to seek a view of God that makes sense of my whole life and makes visible the broken nature and hope for restoration of everything in it. Relating to the previous point, it's another step away from a purely abstract spirituality towards one that is just as grounded in the everyday things of life as Jesus Himself was.

This semester has been a time of a huge amount of change and growth in my relationship with God and the scripture, and looking back I'm honestly amazed at all He's done. It's a reminder to me of the power and importance of regularly confronting myself with scripture, not simply as part of a routine or "discipline" (which often means a routine) but because I feel a need to be filled that it is able to meet, just like needing to eat every day. "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Matthew 4:4) As I start studying theology and Biblical Greek, I hope to continue increasing my love for the word of God and the Word of God behind it.

No comments:

Post a Comment