Thursday, September 25, 2014

My Journey, Part 8: Back to the Gospel

This is part 8 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

Through all of this thinking about the nature of the Bible and what we do with it, I never lost sight of the goal. I sought to understand what this all-important "gospel" was all about now that I'd acknowledged that the pat answers I'd been hearing weren't sufficient. I faced questions like "Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?", "How do faith and works relate for the Christian?", the simple question "What is salvation, really?", and the big one: "How do the Testaments fit together?". Everything seemed open to revision, but somehow this no longer bothered me. After all that God had brought me through, I was beginning to trust Him even without having neat answers at the moment. It was while searching for answers to questions like these that I began the present series on the Gospel.

Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?
This is the classic question of atonement, for which numerous theories have been advanced. I began searching for ways to think about the atonement that view sin, salvation, etc. in more of a "relational" way, whatever that meant (certainly not in the oversystematized way I described last time).
When we say Jesus destroyed sin on the cross, to avoid spiritual object thinking, we must consider 'sin' to mean 'separation from God of those united with Him.' (2013-6-9)
The penal substitutionary atonement theory seemed dependent on the juridical, spiritual-object definition of sin that I had grown quite tired of, and I instead began taking interest in the atonement theories held by the early church; Christus Victor and ransom theory seemed especially promising. Having learned about atonement only through the Reformed tradition, though, it was hard for me to fully shift my thinking to these new lenses.

Somewhat related to this, I was trying to see the cross as just one part of Jesus' redemptive work, alongside the resurrection and perhaps His whole life. I realized that emphasizing the crucifixion exclusively above these things was not pious, but a distortion of the true gospel, whatever it was. Part of putting it into perspective was acknowledging a fact that we forget surprisingly easily by fitting the cross into a theological system of salvation: God was dead. And we killed Him. Before my Good Friday post on the oft-forgotten tragedy of the cross, I journaled:
By making Jesus' death seem inevitable, fitting into my theology like a neat puzzle piece, I lessen the shock value of the cross. God not only became a man, but we killed Him horribly. ... The crucifixion was a defeat, not a victory. (2014-1-12)
I overstated my point here, since (as I would learn) the victory of the resurrection can't be separated from the defeat of the cross, but I was on the right track by seeking a theology that affirmed both.

How do faith and works relate for the Christian?
With somewhat more success, I sought to see past the dichotomy we had set up between human and divine agency, to see what role works could play in a Christian:
Faith is not simply a reduced cost of admission, it is an openness and desire to live as God's covenant people. The problem with salvation by works, basically, is not that it is intrinsically bad or prideful, but that it is impossible. The pride comes in if you delude yourself otherwise. In other words, faith doesn't simply replace works for us. Rather, the faithfulness of Christ fulfills in us what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not—He makes us righteous, just as the law commanded. Faith is not a soteriological substitute for works, but a recognition and acceptance of the supremacy of Christ, to do in us what we couldn't do ourselves. Works are still important—but because of our union with Christ our actions are also the power of God working through us. (Phil 2:12-13) (2014-1-30)
I was slowly coming to a more integrated view of faith and works as partners, not opponents. Taking up faith doesn't have to mean setting aside our own effort as if it were something bad. Faith does not simply mean ceasing to try to save ourselves and trusting in Christ's work instead; it is not simply an alternative to human effort, and the two are not opposite poles. Instead (as Paul describes in those verses which are the clearest description of synergism I knew of), by faith we recognize and trust in the mystery that because of the Holy Spirit, our own actions and decisions also become God's "willing and working" in us for His good pleasure. I started to see the perfect union of divinity and humanity that Jesus embodied as a pattern for the Christian life.

What is salvation, really?
Through this, though, I was still unsure about the nature of this salvation that we attained to through God's faithful working in us. I sought to thinking about it in a "relational" way, whatever that meant, not as a metaphysical "thing" that we simply need to get and defend.
I've been thinking about salvation as a spiritual object again, as something that God ties up with a proverbial bow and hands to us in exchange for either faith or good works. But again, this is a disconnected, non-relational way of thinking of it. (2014-1-30)
In our rush to "get in" (and to theologize about how "getting in" is easy and doesn't depend on us even though we have to make a decision, and about how once you're "in" it's impossible to come back "out"), could we be losing sight of just what "in" entails?
Protestants take a very minimalist view of salvation, like a student asking, 'what's the least I need to do to pass?' There are no right answers to wrong questions. (2014-1-24)
Admittedly, I was being unfair and overgeneralizing here. But I do think "salvation" is commonly thought of as something atomic, indivisible, all-or-nothing, devoid of degree, so we can slip into thinking that once we "have" salvation we're good and everything else is just icing on the cake, a little like how you can get a passing grade on that final exam and then forget everything you learned. It's the assumption behind "threshold evangelism". If this view of salvation is "minimalist" (in that we seek to reduce salvation to its essential essence and hold fast to that over everything else as what's truly important), I sought a "maximalist" understanding, whatever that looked like. I expected that it would do away with the distinction between salvation and sanctification and instead encompass both as part of the same process, and that it would not focus so much on individuals that it seemed to forget about the larger scope of God's redemptive purpose.

How do the testaments fit together?
The question of the testaments saw the most progress, partly because it was the number-one thing wreaking havoc on my faith so I spent the most time and attention on it. Presaging my entry on 2014-1-30 about how faith fulfills the law, I tried to see the law not as a list of dos and don'ts from which Christ sets us free, but as a covenant of God with a definite redemptive purpose, which Christ now fulfills.
Perhaps the law is not to be ultimately understood in terms of its provisions and requirements, but the kind of people and society it was meant to produce—perfectly bearing God's image, living in Shalom. So the 'righteous requirement of the law' in Romans 8:4 is not referring to doing all the rules, but the requirement to become this kind of people. And Christ's fulfilling it does not mean somehow checking all the boxes of the law, but enabling us to be transformed into His perfect, godly likeness. … In other words, what if the requirement of the law is not just to do certain things, but to be a certain people? (2013-8-25)
This helped to make sense of how Jesus could fulfill the law when he so cavalierly bent or broke the letter of it, and taught others to do the same. But more than this, what really helped answer my questions about how the covenants/testaments fit together was this wonderful thing called...

The New Perspective on Paul

Before I can define the New Perspective, I have to clearly define the "Old Perspective": it is the traditional (for Protestants) reading of Paul's letters (especially Romans, Galatians, and Philippians) as being, first and foremost, about how sinful people "get right with God" and go from the condemnation and death brought by sin to forgiveness and eternal life, which is considered to be the meaning of Paul's term "justification". In the Lutheran flavor of the Old Perspective, the law is something frightful and oppressive that constantly shows us our sin by contrasting it with God's impossibly high standards in order to drive us toward our savior Jesus, who fulfills this law on our behalf so that we can know God in His grace and receive Christ's "alien righteousness" by which alone we are justified. In the Reformed flavor, the law may serve this purpose, but we are not merely saved by Jesus from it but to it, to obey it not out of our dead, fallen sinful nature and feeble self-effort but by the life given to us by Christ and the empowering of the Holy Spirit, God working in us to do what we cannot do for ourselves. In this way "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes". (Rom 10:4)

This reading of Paul should be highly familiar for evangelicals, lying close to the heart of the "Gospel". The New Perspective, in contrast, reads these parts of Paul as being "about" something quite different: the destruction of racial and ethnic barriers between Jew and Gentile, and the creation of one united people of God from both groups when they were formerly enemies. "Works of the law", then, is read not as shorthand for "human moral effort", "works righteousness", or "pulling yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps", but as "boundary markers" in the Torah (remember that "Torah" simply means "law" and both are expressed by the same Greek word, nomos) that were being used to mark out a distinctively Jewish identity for the early Christians that left Gentile believers out in the cold. "Justification" is read not so much metaphysically, as "getting right with God" spiritually, but sociologically, as being shown to be right with God, adopted into His covenant people.

A quick tour of the New Perspective

I first learned about the New Perspective through the writings of the former Anglican bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, who I already knew and respected even before that. In his book
Justification (in which he responds to John Piper's critique and makes the case for his understanding of the New Perspective), Wright explains that first-century Jews (such as Jesus, His apostles, and His Pharisaic opponents) were not given to theologizing about what happens after you die or how to be accepted into heaven. Their concept of heaven was not otherworldly, but pointedly this-worldly. The narrative in which they saw themselves was not one in which all people are innately sinful and justly condemned to hell unless they could acquire some kind of salvific righteousness to cover their sins. All of these were concerns of Luther and the late medieval Catholic Church, but not of first-century Judaism.

Instead, their narrative was one in which they, the children of Abraham, had been chosen by God out of all the nations (ethnoi, also translated "Gentiles") to be His people, His treasured possession, given promises of divine blessing and favor and an unending line of Davidic kingship (1 Kings 2:4). This was drastically at odds with Israel's present situation, kingless and instead subjected to rule by one foreign power after another. In a very real sense, even though the Jews were back in the promised land with a rebuilt temple, their exile was still ongoing. The fulfillment of God's promises to them had still not come. So they eagerly hoped to see God prove true to His promises; some took a more passive, fatalistic view (especially the sectarian Essenes) while others (e.g. the Zealots) took a more active approach, seeking to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel's place by violent uprising. The Jews awaited the coming of the Messiah to bring about this fulfillment, though the person of the Messiah was actually not as essential as the promises themselves, however God chose to fulfill them. All clung jealously to "works of Torah", the signs of their election by God (especially circumcision and the law), to show that they belonged not to the ethnoi but were the chosen nation of God who would soon be vindicated (or justified) when He restored them.

What Paul was doing, then, was presenting Jesus was the fulfillment of God's promises, albeit in an unexpected way. (Hence the controversy among the Jews, messianic and non-) But he was not simply answering Israel's cries for national liberation and promised (tangible) blessings with a metaphysical system for salvation from sin and death through individual reconciliation with God. If that was what Jesus had come to inaugurate, He would not have been crucified because no one would have understood Him enough to be angry. Instead, Paul argued, God's promises had been fulfilled not at the end of the age but in the middle of it, and not for all of Israel but for one man, Jesus. What was the meaning of this? In particular, what was the meaning of Jesus' surprising acceptance of Gentiles? Had He forgotten to whom the promises had been made? In response, Paul takes a step back and reminds his readers that before the law had been given, even before circumcision, Abraham found favor with God—by faith. And God's promises to Abraham which he believed never promised some kind of exclusive blessing of Israel and Israel alone. Rather, God told him that "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Israel was supposed to be the means by which God's promises and blessing would come to the whole world. Salvation of the Gentiles is not some unexpected development, argues Paul; it was the plan from the start. The law was given as a tutor and guide for Israel, but it was not meant to permanently separate her from the nations; it was supposed to shape her into God's blessing to them.

But because of Israel's misconception that God's promises were for her instead of through her, the promises had gotten "stuck" and did not come to fruition. Israel became part of the larger problem of sin and death rather than its solution. What was needed was a faithful Israelite who would lead the Jews to their intended obedience and bring God's blessing to the whole world. And this is just what Jesus came to do. So, trying to sum up, when Paul talks about justification, he is not referring to the process by which an individual is "made right" with God. Again, this would have been a total non-sequitur for Paul's audience. He is talking about who is part of God's covenant people, and how you can tell. Formerly the Gentiles had been excluded; now they were invited, apart from the law that had been used to exclude them. Paul's Judaizer opponents in Galatians, like many other Jews, believed that the law of Moses was what marked out those who would be vindicated/justified by God; it was not what "made them right" with God but simply how they stayed in His covenant and demonstrated their membership. But, Paul argues, the boundary marker of God's people is not obedience to the law, but faith in Jesus Christ, the one God has chosen to unite His people and fulfill His promises at last.

Later, I also read Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles by Francis Wright, which offered an interesting attempt to move "beyond the New Perspective" (the book's subtitle). Watson very consciously calls attention to the immediate context and specific purpose of Paul's letters; he tries to show what, specifically, Paul was saying, addressing, and doing through them, in response to the tendency to read them as systematic theology. Specifically, he argues that Paul is trying to establish Christianity as a new religion and not simply a new sect of Judaism, hence his rejection of the Jewish law and embrace of the faith of Jesus Christ as its foundation. He is rightly wary of the possibility of overcompensating for the Old Perspective and understanding "justification" only sociologically. Watson does seem to go too far toward portraying Paul as opposing Judaism simply because it is not Christianity (rather than opposing it insofar as it has rejected and excluded itself from God's redemptive plan), but he offers an interesting and valuable counterbalance to Wright.

The value of the New Perspective

My study of the New Perspective on Paul was very helpful for understanding the gospel, more than anything else, for three main reasons:

First, the New Perspective reading of Paul is much more contextually sensitive than the Old—to both Paul's historical context and the literary context of his letters. I think Wright's criticism that the Old Perspective today is a result of reading Scripture with "nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions" is accurate. We assume that Paul shared Luther's late medieval concerns with the metaphysical salvation of the soul, along with his heavily Catholic-influenced definitions of "works" and "merit". I began to become suspicious of this, and saw a possible key to resolving the seemingly inescapable tension between the Testaments:
The 'life' promised in Lev 18:5 can't be eschatological life. This wasn't anywhere on Israel's radar. (2014-2-3)
But I repeat the question I asked before: what if Paul is not simply laying down abstract doctrine for the church to believe at all times, but is writing contextually to particular churches facing particular problems? The New Perspective (especially as represented by Watson) takes this question seriously. It recognizes the historical realities of Paul's situation and his purpose in writing his letters and reads them through this lens, not our modern concerns about how one "gets saved". It recognizes that Paul was not writing systematic theology in his letters. Rather than taking people for a ride along the "Romans road" or calling a collection of prooftexts from all over Paul's letters "the gospel", the New Perspective sagely fits them into Paul's larger situation as the apostle to the Gentiles. It makes a serious, honest attempt to find what Paul was actually trying to say and do through his letters, getting beneath how we have interpreted him through the centuries.

Second, as I mentioned in my post on the impersonal gospel, the New Perspective recognizes that justification, and the gospel in general, is not about us. Of course any evangelical will be the first to stress that "it's not about us, it's about God"—but does the theology really show that? The "gospel" as commonly stated is about what God does—for us. It is too often seen, primarily, as a message of personal, metaphysical salvation. We view it as a sign of Jesus' great love for us that we can consider His sacrifice on the cross to have been "for" us, personally. As I expressed on 2013-1-10, I was getting tired of this kind of individualism.
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)
I thought about all the historical narrative and Jew/Gentile language as if it were the backdrop to God's continuing mission of saving individual souls—which He doesn't always succeed at! (2014-2-25)
The grand gospel narrative, for Paul, is not metaphysical but historical. (2014-2-25)
The New Perspective, in contrast, doesn't just say that it's all about God, it demonstrates it. By situating Paul's message firmly in its historical context it reveals the historical and cosmic dimensions of salvation as well as the metaphysical, as something grand and epic that doesn't just boil down to you and Jesus. Rather than making the gospel somehow less personal, this change makes it into something superpersonal, that draws me up out of myself and my own life into an unimaginably vast and ongoing historical salvation plan for the whole world that I am called to take part in.

Third, and most obviously, the NPP alleviates most (if not all) of the confusion I'd been having about how the Old and New Testaments fit together. By showing how the Mosaic law was a gift in its original context, how the Jews could be called to obey it without this constituting a call to seek "works righteousness", what place deeds have in the life of Christian faith, and how Paul's opposition of "works of the law" and "faith of Jesus Christ" doesn't mean that the Mosaic law itself is a bad thing but that it had been misused, it effectively cured the confusion I was having about the gospel apparently being a God-given solution to a God-given problem.

In such possibilities I saw the seeds of a new, better theology, one that would be an effective answer to the doubts that had sprang up like weeds and would help me to live out the gospel more authentically than I had ever been able to before. But this vision of the gospel seemed like just that—a vision, an ideal, something expressed in airy theology that we can and should strive for but shouldn't expect to see consistently realized in the real Church, work in progress that she is. It seemed like I would have to work out this theology myself essentially from scratch. I didn't know of any church that demonstrated it, certainly not in the Twin Cities.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My Journey, Part 7.5: Excursus on Oversystematization

This is part 7 .5of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

Sadly, this interlude isn't for as high a purpose as the interlude of my series on God's providence two years ago, which marked a major turning point in my struggles with doubts about God's goodness (already related in post 3 of this series). This is just some extra material that was supposed to go in post 7, but which required enough explaining, unpacking, and digressing from the main trajectory of my story that it seemed best to split it off. (This way you can skip it if it puts you to sleep)

Somewhat relatedly to my thinking about epistemology, I kept wrestling with a theological habit that I've noticed for years, but have had a lot of trouble clearly defining. I call it "spiritual object" thinking. I saw it in a lot of the theological "big important words" that form the building blocks of evangelical theology.

Pinning it down

After a good deal of reflection, I think I can take a stab at defining it. I think that at the root of spiritual object thinking is the assumption that our theological terminology corresponds to clearly-definable theological concepts on a one-to-one basis—a simple form of the view that truth is "that which corresponds to reality". These term/concept unities are what I call "spiritual objects". They are assumed to have some kind of substantial existence or "life-of-one's-own" as opposed to being human constructs, somewhat like Plato's forms, and so are kept conceptually separate from one another with careful definitions. (For example, "righteousness" and "justice", which are translated from the same word in biblical Greek, dikaiosyne, though krisis, "judgment", is a different word and can sometimes translate to "justice" as well)

From there, the way these concepts/terms are used goes in two different directions. First, we specify a large amount of meaning for them, so that concepts like "salvation", "gospel", "the glory of God", etc. become very rich and deep. But at the same time, we try to pin down and establish these meanings very precisely. Normally, words can take on a range of possible meanings, determined by their usage and context, centered around what we would consider their definition. For example, the verb "plan" takes on different connotations when it is used to describe a shopping excursion vs. a military operation; the two meanings coincide at a certain level of abstraction. Words can also be used in more concrete or more metaphorical/analogical ways, like "concrete". Normally rich, deep words like "love" have a very wide range of possible uses on multiple levels; it's part of what makes them so rich.

But theological concepts that we treat as spiritual objects are different. While we specify lots of meaning for them, we do so in a narrow way. Their "conceptual space" (to borrow a term from Douglas Hofstadter) is small or nonexistent; they mean basically the exact same thing regardless of context, like technical terms or symbols in formulas. Their meaning is self-contained; the only context they require to be fully meant is other abstract spiritual objects. When we encounter the "regular", more concrete versions of these concepts, we don't treat them independently but subsume them under the spiritual object version, which is seen as more important or simply more real, again something like Plato's forms.

Some examples:
  • When we think about (say) sin in a spiritual object manner, we can do so without reference to a particular sin committed (which could be anything) or the one doing the sinning (who could be anyone); the one sinned against is always the same. We refer to an abstracted concept of sin, apart from particulars, as the human condition of alienation from God and an inability to do good on our own, inherited from Adam.When we do get to talking about particulars, we still use our self-contained, context-free understanding of sin. Rather than focusing on our particular sins, we mostly see this spiritual object of sin that has to be dealt with by the spiritual object of justification so that we can receive the spiritual object of salvation, etc... After being saved, though we still commit sins, our "sin" has been taken away by Jesus, which is considered the important part but which shows the difference between the definitions.
  • When we talk about "salvation", we mean the very specific process where our "sin" (see above) is exchanged for Christ's righteousness via imputation. Again, we can do so without reference to the person being saved; the one doing the saving and what he/she is saved from are always the same. We see it as a spiritual object that God gives us in exchange for "saving faith", and can (or definitely can't, depending on your tradition) be "lost". The theological concept of salvation is quite consciously held distinct from lesser salvations (individual instances of deliverance or rescue from something). For example, we make clear that though an important sacrament, the act of baptism is not salvific in itself; it is merely a signifier of the true act of salvation which happens by faith alone. Similarly lesser biblical salvations (like the Israelites from Egypt and Babylon, or Noah from the flood) are seen as "foreshadows" of the true salvation that comes from Christ.
  • "Inspiration" is a spiritual object that the books of the (Protestant) biblical canon are believed to have which automatically makes them (or our interpretation of them) "authoritative" over any other source of truth. We can talk about it without reference to what, specifically, it means for a certain book of the Bible to be inspired; it just is, what what we may say about specific books is subsumed under it. It is intentionally differentiated from lesser instances of brilliance (literary or otherwise) that we might call "inspired" in other contexts. Either a book is inspired, or it merely human words.
This way of conceptualizing theological truth is more prescriptive than descriptive; the realities we talk about are established abstractly and then used as a pre-formed mold into which we expect our own situation to fit. It is more universal and propositional than particular and personal. It tends to view concepts more as nouns than verbs, even ones like "salvation" or "inspiration" that start as verbs. Because they are thought to be based on God's infinite nature, they are thought of as absolute, all-or-nothing, totally present or totally absent. The practice of typology is not dependent on spiritual object thinking, but with its casting of biblical people and events as "shadows" of the life and work of Jesus, it lends itself easily enough.

I stress that these are tendencies, not certainties and certainly not hard-and-fast rules that theologians are taught to follow. But that doesn't mean they aren't real. I think this kind of "spiritual object" thinking describes a fair deal of how evangelical Christians process and handle the gospel, at least at the lay/semi-academic level. I think it boils down to the bad habits of oversystematization and overabstraction in academic theology. It is what happens when the systematic descriptions of theological truths become our definitions for them. It can induce us to read the Bible as a systematic theology textbook rather than the diverse, often-messy, always-surprising collection of inspired books that it is.

Words break

The problem (besides the fact that we're digesting Christian theology into a form that bears little resemblence to anything in the Bible) is that language (certainly theological language) doesn't work the same way as mathematics. You can't expect to encapsulate theological concepts into self-contained definitions that simply interact like variables in a formula. Trying to pack so much meaning into isolated words risks making them meaningless and largely disconnected from experience—at least for me. I'm reminded of a poem that N.T. Wright cited to illustrate the weight that gets placed on on the word "justification".
                    Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still.
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, I.v)
In one journal entry, I objected to the "spiritual objectification" of the "glory of God", which I frequently heard thrown around as little more than the generic justification for God to do anything. Is this really the place the glory of God should occupy in our theology?
'The glory of God'—three simple words behind (or within) which much can be hidden. It's as if a breathtaking mountain landscape could be packed into a suitcase and carried off, bought and sold, changing hands dozens of times while its handlers remain blind to its contents. (2013-9-9)
If I wrote this entry today, I might have the suitcase be full of dynamite instead. In another entry, I was becoming suspicious of how oversystematization tends to make us read concepts like "gospel" as technical terms, always referring to the same thing. I observed the potential for misreadings of Scripture this could cause:
Galatians 3:8 reminded me of how much we have turned 'the gospel' into a technical term, a bit of Christian jargon. But Paul seems to be using it to simply mean 'told good news' here. Our technical definition forces us to read all kinds of meaning into simple passages so 'the gospel' as we define it can be found there. (2013-11-27)
I also observed how it sets us up to see "tensions" where there need not be any. By trying to nail down clear, context-free definitions of things, it can unnaturally separate things that come together in the Christian gospel.
Spiritual object thinking tends to miss how the various parts of our salvation and new life can paradoxically combine—God's grace and our effort/works, the divine inspiration and humanity of Scripture, the divinity/humanity of puts these concepts in airtight compartments. We can talk about how they interact as from a distance, but this doesn't go far enough, as a relational model does, which views them as dynamic parts of a relationship. It [spiritual object thinking] also leaves the question of how to apply things like 'life by grace' rather open to hidden tradition. Relational theology sees these things as their own application. (2014-1-5)
Such important parts of the Christian message, viewed as spiritual objects, seemed to be always held at arm's length; you had to authentically understand and believe them, then somehow apply them to your own life. I longed for a more immediate theology where definitions did not abstractify and isolate from our experience, where the simplistic model of belief -> application was shaken up, if not done away with entirely. I nebulously termed this ideal "relational theology", but I had trouble specifically describing it, much less envisioning it.

A better way?

I'll get to how I went about finding a way past this kind of oversystematic thinking later. But for now, in light of how I've defined it, some suggestions present themselves.

First, we can realize that even though we have the Bible, we are still only human. We have no God's-eye perspective on spiritual realities; there is much beyond our purview, and our terminology doesn't necessarily map directly to tidy, noun-like concepts, even if it is from Scripture. The limitations of our knowledge don't just mean that we can't always find answers to our questions—the questions themselves, and the categories/patterns of thought that underlie them, may need correcting.

We should strive to be descriptive rather than prescriptive in our theology, realizing the fine distinction between understanding something and controlling it, if only in our minds. We should be open to redefining and expanding our theological concepts, even radically, and not exclusively holding onto the definitions we've built as "the way things are". Realizing that our terms and definitions will never fully encompass the things of God frees us from expecting them to pull so much weight and from using them as technical terms. We are able to use them in smaller (but still important) ways, like calling the manifestations of grace by which God delivers us from sin "salvific" without detracting from Christ's "finished" work of redemption by doing so.

In light of Jesus' identity as the ultimate Truth God reveals to us (Jhn 14:6, Hbr 1:1), we do well to pay attention to the personal, experiential side of truth as well as the propositional, even though it can be much messier. This doesn't replace the propositional aspect of Christian belief—there are plenty of definite things about Him to proclaim—but it puts doctrine in its proper place and makes our theology dynamic not static; personal not mathematical. We can never define a human person completely with propositions; how much less God Himself! Persons can always surprise us—though we can trust that, being perfect, Jesus will only do so positively. Trusting God to be Himself even on admittedly imperfect knowledge is a crucial part of what faith is. What we say and believe about Jesus avails us nothing if it isn't informed by our knowing and being known by Him.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

My Journey, Part 7: Explorations in Epistemology

This is part 7 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

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 and Emmanuel Sander, one of my favorite authors. Their reflections got me thinking a lot about language and how it correlated with reality—but loosely, not neatly. They deploy a visual metaphor of a three-dimensional "conceptual space" of possible concepts/meanings, with each language filling part of this space as a fuzzy blob. Not every language has convenient language to a given concept, and the correlations between languages may be tenuous. This model compellingly illustrated the conclusions I was coming to about the underlying fuzziness of the reality that our words refer to.
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 journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

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?