Hollow Amens

5 December 2018

‘Come on, you folks! Do I hear an “Amen”?’

Pseudo-enthusiastic ‘amens’ from the preacher’s listeners placate — for now — his discomfort with their unresponsiveness.

amen brotherNow, it’s good that people be alert to the preaching and broadly responsive to it. But when speakers deliberately elicit a response like this, it is unhelpful, for several reasons.

For a start, a typical congregation includes a wide range of personality types. At one end of the spectrum is the excitable extrovert who starts gushing at the slightest provocation. He will ‘amen’, whether there’s something to ‘amen’ at or not. At the other is the thoughtful introvert whose natural bent is to keep her feelings — and her responses — to herself. So it’s unreasonable to expect a standard ‘Amen, brother!’ from everybody.

But there’s also a congregation’s ‘group personality’. This shows in learned behaviour moulded chiefly by the nation, race or society to which the individuals belong. In my experience, for example, Americans and Africans tend to be more vocally responsive than the British, who are famous for their ‘stiff upper lip’. That’s why some American preachers I have known, who are used to a certain type of response on their home turf, are thrown by the more subdued attitude they find when they first preach in Britain. That’s when you’re likely to hear the frustrated, ‘Do I hear an “Amen”?’

A second reason this is unhelpful is that it puts the preacher’s personal need above the message he is preaching. No matter what truth he is presenting, what comes over is, ‘I’m feeling a bit of rejection at your quietness. Please meet my need for reassurance by voicing your amens!’ But the aim of preaching is surely to inform, encourage and challenge the listeners, not to boost the preacher’s self-confidence.

And thirdly, calling for a vocal response is inevitably unproductive. Yes, the preacher-pleasers will dutifully call out, ‘Amen, brother. Preach it!’ or whatever. But it’s meaningless; they are only doing it because he asked for it, not because their hearts were stirred to do it by the power of the message. Even worse, the request will cause the less pliant personalities to dig their heels in and become even less responsive. Some might even mutter, ‘Not on your life, mate!’

Years ago, in my own preaching, I came to a place of peace about congregational response. I would work hard at preparing my message. I would pray about it earnestly. Then, when I stood to deliver the word, I would trust the Holy Spirit to apply it in his own way, and I was determined not to be either elated or disappointed by the people’s response. It’s a good place to be.

If some people got watery-eyed, or said a soulful ‘Yes!’, I’d press on regardless. If others got glassy-eyed or nodded off, I wouldn’t be fazed. Of course, a bit of clear positive response is gratifying, but the last thing I want is to be dependent on it. When I’m in my seat listening to another preacher, I’m not a greatly responsive person, at least outwardly. I listen carefully. I weigh what is said. And when something hits home with me, I quietly tuck it away, to be brought out, prayed over and put into practice later.

I went to a church to preach once, years ago, and it was a bad experience. I didn’t feel comfortable. My words didn’t flow well. There was a bit of an atmosphere and, afterwards, though I stayed for the cup of tea, I couldn’t get away quickly enough. The whole sermon had felt disastrous.

A couple a years later, to my surprise I was asked back. Remembering the previous bad experience, I went with some trepidation and much prayer. I arrived quite early, so was there as the people came in. One lady spotted me and did a double-take. Then she made a bee-line for me.

‘Hello,’ she said. ‘You came to preach here once before, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, I did,’ I replied, wriggling internally with embarrassment at the memory.

‘I’m so glad to see you,’ she went on. ‘I just want you to know that the message you brought last time was spot on for me. It was a major turning-point for the better in my life. Thank you so much!’

I learned a lesson that day: never to judge a sermon’s impact by the outward signs in the people, whether negative or positive. Do your best, and leave it to God. Yes, genuine amens are better than hollow ones, but none of them matter all that much.

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Review: Reading backwards?

25 August 2018

Yes, it’s another book about Bible interpretation—hermeneutics. This one examines how the writers of the four Gospels looked at the Old Testament in a completely new way in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is:

Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard B. Hays (Baylor University Press, 2014).

rbThe four Evangelists each had a unique approach to this task, while sharing a common overall approach, which Richard Hays calls ‘figural’ interpretation. Looking at their Scriptures in the light of Jesus, the writers saw in them clear ‘figures’ or pictures of him and his work—aspects of which the original OT authors were completely unaware.

Hays gives penetrating examples from each of the Gospels and makes a solid case for his thesis. In this, he is in line with much current thinking among biblical scholars, who are moving away from what they see as a previous over-emphasis on the original meaning and what is sometimes called ‘authorial intent’. In other words, the Gospel writers would probably fail a typical seminary exam on Bible interpretation!

When Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27). Too often we have taken that to mean a few isolated proof-texts. Hays shows clearly that, on the contrary, the whole OT canon is shot through with figural pointers to Jesus. The whole of it takes on a different hue in the light of him, and this is what excited the Evangelists.

The big question, of course, is whether we, today, should take the same approach to interpreting the Old Testament. Supported by the example of Paul, he concludes that we certainly should. His conclusions are another nail in the coffin of vocal right-wing evangelicals who use the OT to justify their views on, for example, today’s State of Israel and the application of prophecy to other current events. Instead, it’s all about Jesus.

This is a deep and thought-provoking book but, based as it is on an original series of lectures, it is lucid and easy to read. While it is unlikely to ever reach the best-seller list, it is, in my view, a key book in the current hermeneutical debate.

[In the quotations that follow, the numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

These lectures follow the lead of the early church fathers, Irenaeus above all, in affirming both the legitimacy of figural interpretation of Israel’s Scripture and the complementarity of the four Evangelists. (116)

The sort of figural interpretation practiced by the canonical Evangelists is not a rejection but a retrospective hermeneutical transformation of Israel’s sacred texts. (167)

Only if we embrace figural interpretation, can we make sense of the Gospel of John’s assertion that the Scriptures bear witness to Jesus Christ. (321)

There is…a significant difference between prediction and prefiguration. Figural reading need not presume that the OT authors—or the characters they narrate—were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective… The two poles of a figure are events within “the flowing stream” of time, the correspondence can be discerned only after the second event has occurred and imparted a new pattern of significance to the first. (337)

Luke’s formulation [ch 24] suggests that testimony to Jesus is to be found “in all the Scriptures”, not just in a few isolated prooftexts. The whole story of Israel builds to its narrative climax in Jesus. That is what Jesus tries to teach them on the road. (547)

Even Jesus’ definitive peripatetic Bible study on the road to Emmaus does not produce understanding and recognition in the Emmaus disciples… The moment of recognition comes only as they sit at the table and Jesus breaks bread with them (vv. 30-32). This point, too, is significant for understanding how the Gospels teach us to read the OT. We come to understand Scripture only as we participate in the shared life of the community, enacted in meals shared at table. (564)

Mark’s way of drawing upon Scripture, like his narrative style more generally, is indirect and allusive. Mark for the most part works his narrative magic through hints and allusions, giving just enough clues to tease the reader into further exploration and reflection. (613)

Isaiah 40 prophesies the coming of the Kyrios (the Lord God) to reign, and Mark appropriates this prophecy to characterize John’s preparation of the way for the coming of Jesus. (671)

[Re Mark 6:45-52—Jesus walking on the water and making to pass by the disciples in the boat]  In Job 9 the image of God’s walking on the sea is linked with a confession of God’s mysterious transcendence of human comprehension: God’s “passing by” is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power… Mark’s mysterious statement in Mark 6:48, read as an allusion to the Exodus theophany, suggests simultaneously that Jesus’ walking on the water is a manifestation of divine glory and that it remains indirect and beyond full comprehension— as the disciples’ uncomprehending response amply demonstrates (6:51-52).

The importance of Mark 4:21-25 as a hermeneutical directive for the Gospel as a whole can hardly be overstated. (902)

The “meaning” of Mark’s portrayal of the identity of Jesus cannot be rightly stated in flat propositional language; instead, it can be disclosed only gradually in the form of narrative, through hints and allusions that project the story of Jesus onto the background of Israel’s story. As Mark superimposes the two stories on one another, remarkable new patterns emerge, patterns that lead us into a truth too overwhelming to be approached in any other way. (934)

Matthew is far more overt than Mark in his interpretative strategies; indeed, in many passages we find him providing explicit explanations of Mark’s hints and allusions. (970)

It is as though Matthew is producing an annotated study Bible, providing notes and references that will give the uninitiated reader enough information to perform the necessary interpretation. (986)

…a ringing quotation of Deuteronomy 6:13 LXX: “The Lord your God you shall worship and him alone you shall serve” (Matt 4:9-10). Once this commandment has been forcefully set forth in the narrative, readers have little choice but to interpret Jesus’ acceptance of worship from other characters as an implicit acknowledgment of his divine identity. (1166)

If Jesus is “God with us,” then his personal presence now takes the place of the Temple where the presence of God was formerly thought to dwell. (1166)

Genesis 28: “Behold I am with you… I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Matthew 28: “Behold I am with you all the days until the end of the age.”
The parallel cries out for readers to draw an obvious christological conclusion: in the ending of Matthew, Jesus now stands in the same role occupied by the Lord God in Jacob’s dream. (1265)

Matthew highlights the worship of Jesus for one reason: he believes and proclaims that Jesus is the embodied presence of God and that to worship him is to worship YHWH— not merely an agent or a facsimile or an intermediary. If we read the story within the hermeneutical matrix of Israel’s Scripture, we can draw no other conclusion. (1330)

We come to know Jesus in Luke only as his narrative identity is enacted in and through the story. An important element of Luke’s narrative art lies in the way in which he evokes echoes of Israel’s Scripture and thereby leads readers to a complex, intertextually formed perception of his central character. This is the decisive heremeneutical clue given in the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus “opens the Scriptures” to his followers. (1396)

John’s manner of alluding does not depend upon the citation of chains of words and phrases; instead it relies upon evoking images and figures from Israel’s Scripture. For example, when he writes, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up” (3:14), John is clearly alluding to the episode narrated in Numbers 21:8-9, but the only explicit verbal links between the two passages are the name “Moses” and the word “serpent”. His intertextual sensibility is more visual than auditory. (1833)

It is impossible to understand John’s Jesus apart from the story of Israel and the liturgical festivals and symbols that recall and re-present that story. (1917)

Passover symbolism is particularly pervasive in John’s Gospel, coming to a climax in the passion narrative, where Jesus’ crucifixion takes place on the day of preparation for Passover (19:14), not on Passover itself as in the Synoptic Gospels. (2016)

Even more comprehensively than the other Gospels, John understands the Old Testament as a vast matrix of symbols pointing to Jesus. In contrast to Luke’s reading of Scripture as a plotted script showing the outworking of God’s promises in time, John understands Scripture as a huge web of signifiers generated by the pretemporal eternal Logos as intimations of his truth and glory. (2109)

From the perspective of figural interpretation, it would be a hermeneutical blunder to read the Law and the Prophets as deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus. But in light of the unfolding story of Jesus, it is both right and illuminating to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story. (2141)

[Luke] shows how the mission to the Gentiles is the outworking of God’s longstanding plan for Israel as a light to the nations. (2259)

One function of the church’s canon, a diverse collection of writings, is to model a repertoire of faithful ways to receive and proclaim God’s word. Particular voices within that canon will be more or less useful in different times and places, as the church discerns the points of vital intersection between the Bible and its immediate cultural situation. (2304)

If we had to choose just one of the Gospels as a hermeneutical guide for the long haul, Luke offers the most adequate load-bearing narrative framework for the church’s reading and proclamation of Scripture. (2319)

For the Evangelists the “meaning” of the OT texts was not confined to the human author’s original historical setting or to the meaning that could have been grasped by the original readers. (2349)

The Evangelists were convinced that the events of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection were in fact revelatory: they disclosed the key to understanding all that had gone before. (2349)

To read Scripture well, we must bid farewell to plodding literalism and rationalism in order to embrace a complex poetic sensibility. (2364)

A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic will pay primary attention to large narrative arcs and patterns in the OT, rather than treating Scripture chiefly as a source of oracles, prooftexts, or halakhic regulations. (2364)

Because the Evangelists are so deeply immersed in Israel’s Scripture, their references and allusions to it are characteristically metaleptic in character: that is, they nudge the discerning reader to recognize and recover the context from which the intertextual references are drawn. (2394)

The more deeply we probe the Jewish and OT roots of the Gospel narratives, the more clearly we see that each of the four Evangelists, in their diverse portrayals, identifies Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel. (2409)

The God to whom the Gospels bear witness, the God incarnate in Jesus, is the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Either that is true, or it is not. If it is not, the Gospels are a delusional and pernicious distortion of Israel’s story. If it is true, then the figural literary unity of Scripture, OT and NT together, is nothing other than the climactic fruition of that one God’s self-revelation. (2440)


New broom?

12 June 2018

I’ve seen a couple of sad scenarios recently, both in workplaces. A new boss or supervisor has been appointed. They arrive, and within a week or two have managed to create chaos and upset all their underlings. The result? Bad feelings all round, soured relationships between them and their staff, and a poorer service to the folk the business serves.

broomThis happens too often, so, from the wisdom that has accumulated in my old age, I offer some advice to you if you’re about to take on a new post that carries authority.

‘A new broom sweeps clean’ says the proverb. And that’s the problem. You go into your new post determined to make your mark, to stamp your authority on the setup and to crank up the levels of progress and efficiency. You’ll sweep out the way things were done before you arrived and lay a new carpet, one with your name woven into the design in capital letters.

Well, here’s the advice: don’t do it!

Why? Because it never works out well. In the end, people are what count, and your relationship with the employees you are now in charge of needs to be kept as sweet as possible. Over the years, many of them will have helped shape the way things are being done, so if you barge in and bin it all, you are effectively saying to them, ‘You’re a bunch of visionless incompetents’—which won’t make them like you.

Far better to let the existing systems carry on for a month or two, while monitoring them carefully. Focus on getting to know the employees under you and seeing what makes them tick. Yes, some of them might be lazy and self-serving. Take note, and bide your time. But most will be decent people, keen to do a good job for the company and to enjoy their work. Note them, too, and bide your time.

In due course you will be ready to make some changes. But evolution is always better that revolution. Introduce the changes gradually and carefully. Consult first with a few trusted folk, asking them how they would view it if you were to introduce this or that change. You won’t be able to please all of them all the time, whatever you eventually do, but the fact that you have at least consulted them will weigh in your favour.

Then check your own motives. Why do you want to make big changes? Could there be just a smidgin of pride in you that says, ‘Haha! I’m the one in charge now, and I’m going to show them who’s boss’? That’s not a sound reason for changing things. Are you secretly power-hungry, getting a dark sort of satisfaction from making people dance to your tune?

Or maybe there’s a level of deep insecurity in you that craves recognition and obedience from others. If so, you will be bound to over-compensate by becoming authoritarian to a degree unwarranted by your position. And that will alienate everybody.

So, be a new broom with soft bristles. Sweep slowly and sensitively. Keep people on your side. Let them see that you consider them more important than systems and targets. And so may the company prosper! Imagine the after-work conversation between two of your employees, where one says to the other, ‘Tell you what, it’s been tons better working here since [your name] came.’


Attitude

27 May 2018

I woke this morning with a prayer from one of David’s psalms in my mind: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51:10).

Ps 51 10It was the second bit that really grabbed me—the need for ‘a right spirit’. I take ‘spirit’ here to mean ‘attitude’, so it’s a prayer that the Lord will enable me to keep my attitudes right. That’s in keeping with the Holy Spirit’s work in us to make us more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18).

As for Part 1, sometimes I think Christians get a bit over-fixated on sin. Jesus has dealt with the root issue there, and any follower of his who takes sanctification seriously will hopefully have grooved into a way of life where sin is no longer a major thing. While I’m far from perfect, I don’t spend much time examining my inner self with a torch to see if I can find any dreadful sins lurking there, like slugs under a stone. There are better things to do, and more positive approaches to adopt.

But the dodgy attitudes of Part 2 can hang around like a bad smell when all the known sins have been swept up and binned. A ‘right spirit’ can be hard to maintain. All too easily I can have bad attitudes towards people I disagree with, people who rub me up the wrong way, people with personalities different from my own—and lots more. Spotting this ‘wrong spirit’ in my heart, and doing my best to deal with it, is a full-time job for me.

Thankfully, God is loving, gracious and kind. Every time I pray, ‘Renew a right spirit within me’, he says, ‘Will do, son. I’m not giving up on you. Thanks for asking. Between us, we’ll crack this one! Now get up, look up, and start walking again.’

Purists will point out that many versions have ‘a steadfast spirit’ instead of a ‘a right spirit’ and that that’s the gist of the Hebrew word. Fine, but I still want my attitude to be ‘right’ before I adopt it as the direction of my steadfastness. I want the painting to be finished before I frame it and hang it on the wall. So I’ll continue to pray for that ‘right spirit’ and keep a picture-hook handy.


God only has ‘Plan A’

2 April 2018

In a recent Bible-study group, a friend observed that, as he saw it, God started out with the nation of Israel. But they messed up, failing to go along with his intentions for them. That’s the Old Testament story—the bad bit. So God started again with Jesus and the church—which is the New Testament story, and the good bit.

noplanbNot true! The following is an extract from my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, that explains the ins and outs of it…

‘Too many Christians have lost touch completely with the Old Testament. They think that, because it is all pre-Jesus, it is unimportant. One outcome is that they separate Israel from the church. Their unspoken assumption is that, while God in Old Testament days dealt with the nation of Israel (Plan A), due to their failure he turned his attention to an alternative community, the church, founded by Jesus (Plan B).

‘This is not right at all! God has never had a ‘Plan B’. His ‘Plan A’, as we have seen, was the calling of Abraham and his descendants to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’. By this means, he would reach everyone and in due course put the whole world to rights. Paul constantly has this Old Testament narrative in mind in his writings. He insists that the fact that the Jews failed so signally in their mission did not throw God’s plan off track at all. The Messiah, Jesus, proved to be the true Israelite. He embodied everything that the nation had been called to be and, through him, Plan A remains on track. His resurrection vindicated him as God’s chosen one, through whom all who believe — Gentiles as well as Jews — are justified and partake in the new age he had inaugurated.

‘According to Paul, Israel thus continues but has been redefined. The children of Abraham — or to use synonymous terms, ‘Israel’ or ‘the people of God’ — are now all who believe in Jesus, regardless of their ethnic background. Justification breaks down the barriers. In this way God has honoured his covenant with Abraham. This is the message of Paul’s letter to the Romans, whose fundamental topic is ‘Who are the people of God?’

‘All this means, of course, that the obsession of some Christians with Zionism and the current State of Israel, in the belief that the Jews have some separate role in the purpose of God, is completely misplaced. If you have held Zionist sympathies, that could be a wobbler.’

There’s more where that came from, and you may be wanting chapter and verse to back up the thesis. It’s all in the book, which you can download for free at http://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/apitfdownload.htm

And if you want more on the role of today’s State of Israel, you will find food for thought in my blog post, Red Herring In Galilee.

Enjoy!


Review: Radical thinking on the church

29 March 2018

Lots of people these days seem to be saying Yes to Jesus but No to church. While some have given up on church completely, others still hope to find an expression of it that they can live with and find satisfying. Maybe they should read this book:

Reimagining Church: Pursuing The Dream Of Organic Christianity by Frank Viola (David C. Cook, 2008).  

rclargeOrganic Church is an attempt to embrace the simplicity of church life as portrayed in the New Testament. That life, the author maintains, reflects at a human level the ‘community life’ of the Trinity. The Organic Church, therefore, means no ordination, no officially-recognised leaders, no hierarchy, no purpose-built buildings, no formal sermons, no denominations. Instead, only Jesus is recognised as Head of the church, meetings take place in homes, and everybody contributes on an equal basis, yielding to the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is church that attempts to measure up to the NT’s primary metaphor for it: family.

The author is no mere theorist. He has many years of working with churches that operate this way. He has helped them work through the inevitable difficulties to arrive at a place of vibrant viability, and he shares his insights with warmth and passion.

Ironically, while he insists that the NT contains no blueprint for ‘how church should be’, his own approach assumes that the NT’s presentation of the early church is itself a blueprint to follow. Whether or not he is right is for you to decide.

He admits that, for many of us, the transition from our familiar traditional patterns of church life to Organic Church will require an enormous adjustment, and that many will find it too much. He may be right. But even for those who can’t go the whole hog there are valuable insights here that could benefit us all. This is a book worth reading.

Here are some quotations. [I read the book in Kindle format, so the numbers are Location, not Page, numbers.]

I took the daring step of leaving the institutional church. That was in 1988. Since that time, I’ve never returned to institutional Christianity. Instead, I’ve been meeting in what I call “organic churches.”  (36)

It’s the present practices of the church that I’m seeking to reimagine, not the church itself…  The church as we know it today evolved (or more accurately, devolved) from a living, breathing, vibrant, organic expression of Jesus Christ into a top-heavy, hierarchical organization whose basic structure is patterned after the ancient Roman Empire. Tellingly, most churches today still hold that structure.  (63)

I’ve met countless believers who have said, “The church is an organism, not an organization.” Yet as they formed those very words, they continued to be devout members of churches that were organized along the lines of General Motors and Microsoft.  (116)

This book reimagines a vision of church that’s organic in its construction; relational in its functioning; scriptural in its form; Christ-centered in its operation; Trinitarian in its shape; communitarian in its lifestyle; nonelitist in its attitude; and nonsectarian in its expression.  (245)

I have a dream that the clergy/laity divide will someday be an antique of church history, and the Lord Jesus Himself will replace the moss-laden system of human hierarchy that has usurped His authority among His people.  (245)

The DNA of the church is marked by the very traits that we find in the triune God. Particularly, mutual love, mutual fellowship, mutual dependence, mutual honor, mutual submission, mutual dwelling, and authentic community. (336)

Neither “going to church” nor “church services” appear in the New Testament. Both of these terms emerged long after the death of the apostles. The reason is simple: The early Christians had no such concept. They didn’t view church as a place to go. Neither did they see their gatherings as “services.” (544)

Today, the weekly “church service” is designed for worship, the hearing of a sermon, and in some cases, evangelism. But in the first-century church, the governing purpose of the church meeting was quite different. The purpose was mutual edification. (562)

Perhaps the most startling characteristic of the early church meeting was the absence of any human officiation. Jesus Christ led the gatherings by the medium of the Holy Spirit through the believing community. The result? The spirit of “one-anothering” pervaded the entire meeting. (612)

The Reformation recovered the truth of the priesthood of all believers. But it failed to restore the organic practices that embody this teaching. (665)

The only sustaining force of the early church gathering was the life of the Holy Spirit. The early Christians were clergyless, liturgyless, programless, and ritualless. They relied entirely on the spiritual life of the individual members to maintain the church’s existence and the quality of their gatherings. (731)

One of the tasks of an apostolic worker is to equip God’s people to function together in a free-yet-orderly meeting that expresses Christ in His fullness. (797)

There is a natural affinity between the home meeting and the family motif of the church that saturates Paul’s writings. Because the home is the native environment of the family, it naturally furnishes the ekklesia with a familial atmosphere—the very atmosphere that pervaded the life of the early Christians. (1066)

The ghost of Protestant individualism haunts the average postwar evangelical church. And until it exorcises that spirit, it will continue to see little spiritual formation in its congregants. (1300)

Because we are made in the likeness and image of God, we are only truly human when we are living in community. A church that is hierarchically structured or that relegates its fellowship to a weekly religious service violates this spiritual reality. (1333)

The church that’s introduced to us in Scripture is a loving household, not a business. It’s a living organism, not a static organization. It’s the corporate expression of Jesus Christ, not a religious corporation. It’s the community of the King, not a well-oiled hierarchical machine. (1365)

Anytime a group of Christians undercuts the biblical basis for fellowship by excluding those whom God has accepted—whether explicitly or implicitly—they are a sect. (1492)

The division of the Christian church is rooted in the evolution of the clergy/laity class distinction. This distinction began to crystallize around the third century. The emergence of this hierarchical system, which violently ruptured the priesthood of all believers into a clergy class and a laity class, was the first major division known to the body of Christ. (1511)

Many evangelicals have been taught that when Adam and Eve fell, God decided to scrap the earth and redeem a small group of people out of it that He will take to heaven. But God loves the earth, and He wishes to redeem it (Ps 78:69; Eccl 1:4; Rom 8:20ff.). He has promised to fill the earth with His glory as the waters cover the sea (Isa 11:9; Hab 2:14). Ultimately, God will bring heaven to the earth (Rev 22), just as it was in the garden of Eden. (1837)

Whenever the church gathers together, its guiding and functioning principle is simply to incarnate Christ (1 Cor 12:12). (1887)

Leadership in the New Testament places a high premium on the unique gifting, spiritual maturity, and sacrificial service of each member. It lays stress on functions, not offices. It emphasizes tasks rather than titles. (1920)

Whenever the New Testament describes people who are chiefly responsible for spiritual oversight, it does so by mentioning the work they do. Functional language dominates. Verbs are prominent. (2002)

The clergy profession is little more than a one-size-fits-all blending of administration, psychology, and oratory that’s packaged into one position for religious consumption. (2021)

“Elder” means mature man. “Shepherd” means one who nurtures and protects a flock. And “overseer” means one who supervises. Put plainly, the New Testament notion of oversight is functional, not official. True spiritual authority is rooted in spiritual life and function, not title or position. (2236)

Every time Paul wrote to a church in crisis, he always addressed the church itself rather than the elders. This is consistent from Paul’s first letter to his last. (2288)

The New Testament consistently rejects the notion of ecclesiastical officers in the church. It also greatly downplays the role of elders. (2340)

What was the New Testament pattern for decision-making in the early church? It was simply by consensus. “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church,” and, “it seemed good to us, having become of one mind” was the divine model for making corporate decisions (Acts 15:22, 25 NASB). In other words, the decision-making of the early church was not in the hands of the elders. It was in the hands of all the brothers and sisters. (2470)

When the church reaches a consensus, murmuring and complaining are eliminated. Why? Because every member has had an equal share in the decision. The church owns the decision. It was made by and for the church under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. (2502)

The New Testament knows nothing of an authoritative mode of leadership. Nor does it know a “leaderless” egalitarianism. It rejects both hierarchical structures as well as rugged individualism. Instead, the New Testament envisions leadership as coming from the entire church. The brothers and sisters supply direction and decision-making by consensus. Seasoned brothers supply oversight. (2535)

If we strip it down to its bare roots, the idea of “covering” rests upon a top-heavy, hierarchical understanding of authority. This understanding is borrowed from the structures that belong to this world system. It in no way reflects the kingdom of God. (2573)

The Bible never teaches that God has given believers authority (exousia) over other believers. Recall our Lord’s words in Matthew 20:25–26 and Luke 22:25–26 where He condemned exousia-type authority among His followers. (2736)

Those exercising organic authority never demand obedience to themselves. They rather seek to persuade others to obey God’s will. Paul’s letters are wonderful examples of this principle. They resonate with appeals and pleas rather than commands. They’re littered with the language of persuasion. (2788)

God’s idea of accountability works from community to person. Not from parson to person. (2958)

Many so-called nondenominational, interdenominational, and postdenominational churches are just as hierarchical as mainline denominations. (3023)

My experience suggests that unless the extrabiblical clergy system is dismantled in a particular church, efforts to recover the organic nature of church life will be handcuffed. (3309)

The megachurch movement is built on a corporate business paradigm that utilizes a market-driven approach to building the kingdom of God. It’s no wonder that churches of this ilk are successful at swelling their ranks. (3324)

When individuals taste body life, they will be forever cured of the unbridled urge to travel “to and fro ” to attend the latest “hot spot” of renewal. Instead, they will discover true and lasting refreshment and stability within the local assembly that’s captivated by a revelation of Jesus Christ and God’s eternal purpose in Him. (3389)

It seems to me that many of us are willing to tip over any sacred cow except the modern pastoral office and the Sunday-morning Protestant ritual. Regardless of how unbiblical these two religious traditions are, they seem to be off limits even to the most radical thinkers. (3457)

The church doesn’t need renewal. It needs a complete overhaul. That is, the only way to fully renew the institutional church is to wholly disassemble it and build something far different. (3596)


Review: Is God violent?

24 March 2018

Several writers have recently tackled the delicate question of how to reconcile the violence practised by God in the Old Testament with the forgiveness and non-violence taught and modelled by Jesus Christ.

The definitive work on this is without question Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. But that is 2 volumes, 1500 pages, and is written for a scholarly readership. Happily, he has also produced, for ordinary folks like us, a slimmer and simpler version. It is:

Cross Vision: How the crucifixion of Jesus makes sense of Old Testament violence by Gregory A. Boyd (Fortress Press, 2017).

cvlargeBoyd holds to the divine inspiration of the whole Bible. At the same time, he recognises the shortcomings of the human authors, who were men of their time, with a typical Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mindset and cultural conditioning. As we would expect, they often portrayed God as a ‘man of war’, helping his people in their conquests and rejoicing when they slaughtered their enemies on his orders. God accommodated them in their twisted thinking as, in love, he met them where they were, in order to take them into deeper revelation about his nature.

If Jesus alone is ‘the exact representation’ of the Father’s nature—and this is the truth on which everything else depends—there’s no way God is really the genocidal deity portrayed in some parts of the Old Testament. The cross gives us a clue as to how we can resolve the problem. There, we not only see the immense love of God reaching out to reconcile the world to himself, but his amazing condescension in allowing his enemies to crucify him. God was acting on humanity, but also permitting humanity to act upon him.

The author applies this broad principle to a substantial cross-section of OT incidents where God is portrayed as bloodthirsty and violent. He does it in great detail and with careful exegesis of the relevant passages. He explains the meaning of the ‘wrath’ of God, and tackles incidents of violence by Israel’s enemies (like the Babylonians, who were his outstandingbookinstrument of judgment), by cosmic forces of evil (like the Flood and the Red Sea crossing), and by his servants (like Elijah, Elisha and Samson). To my mind he has a sound case from start to finish.

But you must read it for yourself to get the full picture. If it will help, I have prepared a synopsis of the book, which you can read/download here: Cross Vision synopsis.

Meanwhile, here is a selection of quotations.

I am not going to try to minimize the moral awfulness or put the best possible spin on the OT’s violent depictions of God, as Evangelical apologists typically do. (p7)

The biblical authors believed they were complimenting God when they proclaimed that “the Lord gave David victory wherever he went” (2 Sam 8:14), which meant leaving no man or woman alive. (p11)

While I continue to affirm that the whole Bible is inspired by God, I’m now persuaded that the Bible itself instructs us to base our mental representation of God solely on Jesus Christ. (p19)

To say that a passage is divinely inspired is not to say that it necessarily reflects an unclouded vision of God. (p21)

Augustine defined love as an inner attitude that did not have any necessary implications for how we actually treat others. He went so far as to argue that Christians could imprison, torture, and, if necessary, even execute heretics in the name of love. (p35)

If Jesus is the center to which all Scripture points, then the cruciform character of God that was supremely revealed on the cross must be regarded as the epicenter of this center. And if all Scripture is about Christ, then all Scripture is more specifically about Christ crucified. (p38)

Whereas the OT consistently presents people who are victorious in battle as being blessed by God, Jesus taught that it is the peacemakers who will be blessed (Matt 5:9). (p41)

Paul didn’t view the cross merely as God’s means of achieving salvation. It was for him also the clearest expression of the power that God uses to rule the world and to defeat evil…  This cross-centered understanding of God’s weak-looking power and foolish-looking wisdom is so radical that even the majority of Christians throughout history have not been able to fully accept it. (p45)

Putting the best possible spin on the OT’s violent portraits of God isn’t going to cut it. In fact, the very attempt to defend the violence ascribed to God in these portraits indicates that we still believe that God is capable of this sort of behavior, which in turn indicates that we do not yet fully trust that the crucified Christ is the full revelation of God’s true character. (p46)

[Re Jeremiah 13:14]  When read in light of the cross we are able to look through this ugly sin-mirroring surface to behold the beautiful cruciform God stooping to bear Jeremiah’s sinful conception of him, which is why God takes on this ugly appearance in Jeremiah’s contribution to the biblical narrative. Interpreted through the looking-glass cross, violent divine portraits like Jeremiah’s become both beautiful and revolting for all the same reasons the cross is both beautiful and revolting. (p53)

Insofar as the cross is beautiful, it reflects God acting toward us…  But insofar as the cross is ugly, it reflects God humbly allowing other agents to act upon him. (p55)

God allowed the sin of humanity to act upon him and to condition the way he appeared when he breathed his supreme revelation on the cross. And this is also why God has always been willing to allow the sin of his people—including their sinful conceptions of him—to condition how he appears whenever he breathes revelations of himself. His breathing always reflects the reciprocal give-and-take of a noncoercive, authentic relationship. (p58)

While the cross-centered interpretation of the OT’s violent divine portraits that I’m proposing in this book has clear precedents in the early church, I nevertheless concede that it runs counter to the way the church has interpreted these portraits for the last 1500 years. (p63)

…my conviction that we should interpret the OT through the lens of the cross instead of restricting ourselves to the authors’ originally intended meaning. (p65)

The supreme revelation of God in the crucified Christ requires us to conclude that the author of the biblical Flood account (Genesis 6–8) was reflecting his fallen and culturally conditioned view of God when he portrayed God as the agent who caused this flood. Yet, my commitment to the Conservative Hermeneutical Principle nevertheless compels me to affirm this author’s claim that a flood occurred and that it was indeed a judgment of God. I must therefore give an account of how the Flood could be a judgment of God while denying that God was the agent who brought it about. (p67)

Given that God created people free and thus with the potential for love, he must work by means of a loving influence rather than coercion. God has therefore always worked to reveal as much of his true character and will as was possible while accommodating the fallen state of his people as much as was necessary—though…it certainly grieved God deeply to do so. (p84)

Even the Ten Commandments reflect highly accommodating elements, however. For example, they reflect the common ANE assumption that women are the property of men. Men are told not to covet a neighbor’s wife, nor his house or male or female servant, nor his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to their neighbor (Exod 20:17). In other words, men can’t covet their neighbor’s wives because they are his neighbor’s property, which is why there’s no similar prohibition on wives coveting husbands. (p93)

Let us settle on this guiding principle: Insofar as any law reflects an improvement over the prevailing laws of the ANE, I submit that it reflects God acting toward his people. As barbaric as many of the OT laws are, most reflect an improvement, and sometimes a significant improvement, over the laws of Israel’s neighbors, and this surely is the result of the influential work of God’s Spirit. But insofar as any law falls short of the character of God revealed in Jesus’s cross-centered ministry, it reflects the point at which the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his people resisted the Spirit and, therefore, the point at which God stooped to allow his people to act upon him. In my view, all portraits of God in the Bible should be assessed by this criterion. (p98)

In light of the material we’ve covered, it seems that when Yahweh said, “I want my people to dwell in the land of Canaan,” what Moses’s fallen and culturally conditioned ears heard was, “I want you to slaughter the Canaanites so my people can dwell in the land of Canaan.” For again, in Moses’s ANE worldview, acquiring someone else’s land and slaughtering the inhabitants of the land were two sides of the same coin. (p117)

One of the primary ways we battle cosmic foes is by refusing to battle human foes, choosing instead to love and bless them. (p125)

All ANE people believed their chief warrior god lived on top of a sacred mountain, and we find this belief reflected throughout the OT. (p127)

If the violence that biblical authors ascribe to God reflects their cultural conditioning, does this mean that God never actually judged people? If so, does this imply that we must interpret every story of God bringing judgments on people to be nothing but a reflection of the fallen and culturally conditioned imaginations of biblical authors? In short, have I erased God’s judgment with my interpretation? While there are some Bible scholars who accept this conclusion, I cannot. (p131)

Sometimes love leaves us with no other choice but to let go of a loved one and allow them to suffer the consequences of their own self-destructive decisions. And this is as true of God as it is of us. (p136)

It surely is not a coincidence that soon after the “myth of redemptive violence” was introduced into the church’s thinking about the atonement in the 11th century, there were five centuries of almost nonstop, church-sanctioned, violence. (p138)

Prior to the eleventh century, most Christians believed that Jesus died not to free us from the Father’s wrath, but to free us from Satan’s wrath. This is known as the Christus Victor view of the atonement, and in contrast to the penal substitutionary view, this view doesn’t implicate God in any violence. (p139)

God longs to mercifully protect people from the destructive consequences of their choices, like a hen protects her chicks. But when people are not willing to be protected, and when God sees that his mercy is simply enabling their sin, he has no choice but to “hand them over” to suffer these consequences. (p140)

God wisely used the evil of Satan’s loveless heart and inability to understand love to get him to orchestrate the destruction of his own evil kingdom. In other words, God used evil to vanquish evil! This was God’s Aikido strategy in action. (p145)

Contrary to what many people think, the Bible generally construes God’s punishment of sin as organic in nature. God doesn’t impose punishments on people. The destructive consequences of sin are built into the sin itself. And this is why God only needs to withdraw and let sin run its self-destructive course when he judges people. (p148)

Some of God’s judgments in the Bible did not unfold quite the way God intended, and the attack on Israel by Nebuchadnezzar is a case in point. Scripture tells us that this king and his army went beyond what Yahweh had intended. “I was only a little angry,” the Lord said, “but [the Babylonians] added to the calamity” (Zech 1:15). This sort of thing actually happens quite often in the Bible, and each instance makes it clear that God doesn’t micromanage the agents he uses to express his judgments. (p157)

The very narratives that attribute violent actions to God usually provide clues that this violence was actually carried out by other agents who were already bent on violence. (p160)

Like all other ANE people, the Israelites assumed it was an insult not to “credit” God with the violence that resulted from his judgment. And this is reflected in the fact that God and God’s agents are frequently made “the subject of the same destructive verbs” in the writings of many biblical authors. In other words, the cloudiness of their vision of God is reflected in their dual speech pattern of depicting God simultaneously doing and merely allowing the same violent actions. (p166)

When the violence that an author ascribes to God can’t be attributed to humans, it must be attributed to violent cosmic agents. (p179)

The Gospels uniformly attribute afflictions not to the mysterious providence of God, as so many do today, but to the corrupting influence of Satan and demons. (p181)

It is the narrative that is divinely inspired, regardless of what we think about the historical event it is based on. (p194)

[Re Genesis 6:12-13]  The same root word (sāhat) is used to describe the sinful condition of humans, the effect their sin was having on the earth, and the punishment for this sin, which indicates that all three are organically related. And this means that the Flood was an organic, not a judicial, divine judgment. (p196)

The Flood was not the result of something God did, but of something God stopped doing. (p200)

While the author of the Exodus narrative believes he is exalting Yahweh by attributing the violence involved in each plague to him, these passages provide further confirmation that Yahweh merely permitted a band of cosmic agents that were already bent on destruction to do what they wanted to do. (p214)

Moses later struck a rock with his staff out of anger, causing water to gush out of it in order to quench the thirst of the complaining Israelites (Num 20:11). Yahweh was so angry with Moses and Aaron over this outburst that he did not allow them to enter into the Promised Land (v. 12). Yet the supernaturally endowed staff worked, in spite of the fact that it was used in a sinful way! (p220)

[Re 2 Kings 1:10-12; Luke 7:51-56]  It seems that Jesus attributed violent supernatural feats like Elijah’s incinerating fire to “the way of the devil, rather than the way of God.” (p222)

At no point does the author show Samson seeking God’s will about the use of this supernatural power. Nor does the author ever depict Samson aspiring to use this power for the glory of God. Samson rather uses the divine power that was entrusted to him for personal gain and personal retaliation. (p229)

If we are to believe that the God who is fully revealed on Calvary went to the extreme of uttering this barbaric command [for Abraham to kill Isaac], we must assume that he had sufficient reason for doing so. And for me, the suggestion that God was merely trying to find out if Abraham trusted him doesn’t suffice. (p235)

I’m suggesting that Yahweh didn’t merely stoop to allow Abraham or others to believe he gave this command. In this one instance, the heavenly missionary stooped to actually give it! And Yahweh did this to have Abraham undergo a highly emotional paradigm shift in his view of God that removed any doubt that Yahweh might be like other ANE gods who required this ultimate sacrifice. Indeed, far from demanding this sacrifice, Abraham needed to learn that Yahweh is a God who makes sacrifice. (p236)

In Abraham’s pagan upbringing, sacrificing one’s firstborn child was the ultimate “work” a human could perform to prove their loyalty to a god or to court a god’s favor. So if there remained any suspicion that Yahweh was in any respect like other ANE gods, it would be about this. As a means of finally freeing Abraham from every remnant of this cursed view of divinity, God humbly stooped to temporarily take on the likeness of this cursed view. As we’ve seen throughout this book, God was once again stooping to meet his covenant partner where he was at in order to lead him to where he wanted him to be. (p240)

The test boils down to this: Will we trust God’s loving character even when God appears to be acting in ways that contradict this character? This is the question all followers of Jesus must face. (p243)

The cross only functions as a looking-glass that enables us to discern what else is going on behind the scenes of the OT’s violent divine portraits when we remain fully confident that Jesus’s cross-centered life and ministry fully reveal what God is like. (p246)


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