Thursday, November 30, 2006

How Much Redemption Can We Stand? (3 of 3)

It is fair to say, I think, that we in the church “are not in the business of legitimising the fallenness of things, but of ushering in the kingdom of God” (or we should be)! What does this mean for our reading of scripture? What we think scripture says should shape how we live and so how we read scripture is very important. We need to employ a hermeneutic that requires us to consider the overall direction of the text’s energy and intent. We need to look for the highest ethic that scripture is pushing toward, rather than legal concessions for our weakness or legislation to keep society (and the church) from getting worse than it already is, in determining what is the best and most ethical way to behave. This distinction between ethics and law is important. Law is never the highest aspiration of a society. Thus, upholding law is not the highest aspiration of the Christian, our highest aspiration is to push beyond the minimum the law requires to the maximum embodiment of love of God and love for neighbour. And this must underlie all our reading of scripture.

So, why am I harping on about this? Most of my observations are probably obvious. Yet, when we begin to consider scripture in this light, we find that scripture may be on a different trajectory than the one we are currently on. What are the implications of this hermeneutic that is based on the trajectory of scripture for “women’s issues” in the church? Is there perhaps, like with slavery, a cultural blinding that has kept us reading texts in a certain manner, not because it is the best way to understand the overall passage and message of the Bible but because this reading is the only one our cultural and historical lenses would allow?

What are the implications of this hermeneutic for our attitudes toward the poor and wealth accumulation? The trajectory of scripture on this issue is a bit different from slavery. Rather than ameliorating the condemnation of those who oppress the orphan, the widow, the alien, and the poor, scripture consistently, loudly and forcefully pursues a message of liberation for the oppressed, roundly condemning those who do not care for the poor and dispossessed. When we think about it, this consistent condemnation is also a very redemptive direction. It is the direction of generosity. It is the direction of loving others as ourselves. What is it to consider the law, the prophets, the teachings of Jesus in this light rather than to write them off as somehow not quite as applicable to us today?

The great irony is, we seem to continue reading scripture from our place of privilege, so sure of what it says that we may very well be missing the heart of the message. How much redemption can we stand as a people? Can we stand to have our societal structures, our churches, our economics redeemed? Or are we content to stop with our individual souls and let it go at that? Are we to be in the business of legitimising the fallenness of things? Or are we to partner with God in bringing about his kingdom?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hermeneutics and the Highest Ethic of Scripture (Part 2 of 3)

As a literature student and later an English teacher, I was always very aware that we never approach a text with a “view from nowhere.” We always carry our cultural, social, gendered, economic and political biases with us when we read. Granted, we can be aware of these and try to minimise their shaping effect, but it is impossible to completely escape our own experiences when approaching a text. This is one reason why it is so important that scripture be read within the community of believers, both current and from ages past. The larger and more varied the perspectives we bring to the Bible, the better chance we have of not only seeing our privilege and opinions reinforced. But what do we do then with slavery? The larger community was wrong. Perhaps this was, in part, because the culture wasn’t quite ready to hear that part of the Gospel. Perhaps it was simply because rich, white landowners kept reading and shaping the exegetical direction and they just couldn’t see beyond themselves. Perhaps they weren’t able to see the higher ethic that scripture was always pushing toward but that wasn’t yet, in the first century, a reality for the church.

Throughout the Bible, slavery is a fact of life. But, despite the ubiquity, slavery was not what God intended for his image bearers. We can see this clearly if we read with a bit of literary sophistication. The direction of both Biblical themes and the action push us toward a world where oppression, abuse, inequality, and exploitation are no longer a reality. We see this in that, while slavery was a societal given, scripture constantly takes steps to ameliorate the abusive nature of the institution. Be it in the laws in Leviticus that set up certain standards to for the treatment of slaves (which, by are modern standards are still shocking), Jesus’ willingness to associate with and accept everyone, Paul’s commands to slaves and slave-owners as to how they are to behave, or ultimately, a vision of a better time when we would be truly brothers and sisters and not slaves and masters, the Bible is always pushing toward an understanding that the human person is God’s image bearer, created for His glory. The story of God working with humanity is always pushing us forward to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbour as ourselves. This is the highest ethic of scripture. And so, I propose that, perhaps, we need our underlying hermeneutic to be one of love and grace, a hermeneutic that reads scripture in light of Christ’s work on the cross and the redemption and recreation going on even now and that is a testament to His kingdom breaking into the fallenness around us.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

And the winner is (Part 1 of 3) . . .


The quotes from the previous blog are from the mid-nineteenth century argument in America over slavery. John Henry Hopkins accused abolitionists of perverting the plain-sense meaning of the Bible to try to justify their liberal anti-slavery agenda.

Growing up in California, I knew that some crazy Christians in the past had tried to use the Bible to justify slavery, but I always assumed that their arguments were nothing more than proof-texting or a complete dependence upon archaic laws from Leviticus. Perhaps they were wilfully misreading scripture. Then, just recently, I read some of their Biblical exegesis of Paul and it made sense. In fact, their arguments were quite logically developed, looking not only at arguments from silence (Jesus never taught against slavery), but to a whole range of teachings in the Pauline epistles. The pro-slavery camp points out that Paul did not command Christian slaveholders to release their slaves, but rather insisted that slaves be obedient to their masters and that everyone is to continue to follow Christ in the same state in which they were called to Christ (1 Cor 7:20-24). So, if you were called to Christ as a slave, continue as a slave (although provision is made for those who could buy their way out of slavery). They also argue that when faced with a runaway slave who becomes a Christian, Paul does not commend the slave on his initiative for running away, but rather sends him back to his Christian owner (Philemon)! Clearly this is evidence that scripture is in no way opposed to the institution of slavery per se. Looking beyond Paul, pro-slavery arguments pointed to the institution of slavery in Israel by God in the Torah. To argue against slavery was, in their worldview, to argue against something that God has instituted, ordained and continued to approve of consistently throughout scripture. It was also to argue against the consistent interpretation of the church up until the current (19th) century, as slaves had been acceptable throughout Christendom.

They were Biblical. And they were utterly wrong.

This raises a very important question for us – how do we read scripture? How do we know that our Biblically based, historically accepted ethics and practices are not, like slavery, a terrible blinding by culture to the heart of Scripture. How do we know that we, like our brothers and sisters a hundred years ago, aren’t misreading the consistently redemptive ethic of scripture, reducing it to practices that reinforce our privilege rather than free the oppressed?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Take a Guess!

In the hopes of creating a participatory blog, please take a guess at the following (and post your guess as a comment - that's what makes it interesting)!

The quotes below refer to an important church issue. Can you guess the issue? (The * designates the missing issue in the first quote)

The Bible’s [stand on] * is very plain. St. Paul was inspired, and knew the will of the Lord Jesus Christ, and was only intent on obeying it. And who are we, that in our modern wisdom presume to set aside the Word of God . . . and invent for ourselves a “higher law: than those holy Scriptures which are given to us as a “light to our feet and a lamp to our paths,” in the darkness of a sinful and a polluted world.”

“The advocates of this doctrine are brought into direct collision with the Scriptures. This leads to one of the most dangerous evils connected with the whole system, viz., a disregard of the authority of the word of God, a setting up of a different and higher standard of truth and duty, and a proud and confident wrestling of Scripture to suit their own purposes.”

Happy guessing – more explanation to come!