Review: How the early church grew

19 October 2021

Church history is not everybody’s cup of tea. But some grasp of it, however weak, is better than none and prevents us from becoming rootless Christians. This fascinating book focuses on the first four centuries of the Christian era. It is

The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Alan Kreider (Baker Academic, 2016)

It builds its case around the words ‘patient’ and ‘ferment’. The early church never got up-tight about evangelism; it focused on living in line with Jesus’ teaching and example, and patiently trusted God to add to its numbers automatically. And he did just that! The ‘ferment’ idea is that of quiet change going on at the heart of things, like yeast in dough. And that, too, was a notable feature of the early church’s development and influence.

The word ‘habitus’ crops up a lot. It refers to the way of life of the believers in Jesus: their actions and reactions based on their convictions about what it means to live in a truly Christian way. Patience was a key element, in its broad sense that includes aspects like non-retaliation and the acceptance of societal pressure. In an age when violent persecution arose regularly, this was vital.

Their behaviour naturally posed a threat to a society based on military force and where people were entertained by watching gladiatorial combat. The Christians refused to take up arms or to attend the shows in the local amphitheatre. Their quiet resistance to these social pressures both annoyed their neighbours and attracted them.

It will surprise some modern Christians to know that, in these early days of the church, a three-year process of instruction and catechism was required, with many checks, before a would-be Christian was allowed to be baptised and participate in the Eucharist. This meant that the subsequent drop-out rate was low: people knew what they had signed up for. The book looks in some detail at the content of the catechism, then goes on to examine how the Christians worshipped together, once baptised and in full fellowship.

Huge changes touched the church, of course, when the Emperor Constantine became sympathetic to Christianity, early in the fourth century. For believers, respectability now replaced persecution. The book looks at the wide-ranging effects of this change for local churches across the Empire.

Kreider’s book is extremely well documented, with prolific references to the writings of early Christian leaders like Justin, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Augustine and others, some of whom wrote long treatises on the subject of Christian patience.

We can learn many lessons from the early church, and this book will highlight some of them. At the same time, our twenty-first century world is different in many ways, and we would not want to apply all of those lessons slavishly as the only way forward.

This is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking books I have read for a long time. If you are in any form of church leadership you will find it particularly helpful.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

The Christians believed that God is patient and that Jesus visibly embodied patience. And they concluded that they, trusting in God, should be patient—not controlling events, not anxious or in a hurry, and never using force to achieve their ends.  (p1)

When challenged about their ideas, Christians pointed to their actions. They believed that their habitus, their embodied behavior, was eloquent. Their behavior said what they believed; it was an enactment of their message. And the sources indicate that it was their habitus more than their ideas that appealed to the majority of the non-Christians who came to join them.  (p2)

According to the evidence at our disposal, the expansion of the churches was not organized, the product of a mission program; it simply happened.  (p9)

In 256 Cyprian wrote a treatise of encouragement for his people. “Beloved brethren,” he wrote, “[we] are philosophers not in words but in deeds; we exhibit our wisdom not by our dress, but by truth; we know virtues by their practice rather than through boasting of them; we do not speak great things but we live them.”  (p13)

Tertullian urges Christians, who live by Jesus’s precepts, to wear their oppressors out with patience: “Let wrong-doing grow weary from your patience.”  (p23)

French reflexive sociologist Pierre Bourdieu points us to another motivator that he believes is deeper which he calls habitus. Bourdieu contends that the knowledge that truly forms us is more profoundly a part of us than our intellectual knowledge. It is “corporeal knowledge,” a “system of dispositions” that we carry in our bodies.  (p39)

The Christian leaders recognized that, even after catechesis and baptism, there were profound continuities in the social reflexes of their people. Their wiring was almost hard. But not quite. Change was…not impossible.  (p41)

The worship of the Christian community, repeated week by week, shaped the worshipers’ habitus by giving them kinesthetic as well as verbal habits.  (p51)

It was not primarily what the Christians said that carried weight with outsiders; it was what they did and embodied that was both disconcerting and converting. It was their habitus—their reflexes and ways of life that suggested that there was another way to perceive reality—that made the Christians interesting, challenging, and worth investigating.  (p51)

What the outsiders saw was not their worship. It was their habitus. According to Tertullian, the outsiders looked at the Christians and saw them energetically feeding poor people and burying them, caring for boys and girls who lacked property and parents, and being attentive to aged slaves and prisoners. They interpreted these actions as a “work of love.” And they said, “Vide, look! How they love one another.” They did not say, “Aude, listen to the Christians’ message”; they did not say, “Lege, read what they write.” Hearing and reading were important, and some early Christians worked to communicate in these ways too. But we must not miss the reality: the pagans said look! Christianity’s truth was visible; it was embodied and enacted by its members.  (p61)

Christians were uncomfortably aware that pagans often attributed problems to the presence of Christians: “Many are complaining and are blaming us because wars are arising more frequently, because the plague, famine are raging.” This analysis could lead to persecution.  (p64)

[Re the plague]  As Cyprian wrote, some Christians were upset when they observed that “the power of this disease attacks our people equally with the pagans.” Cyprian would have none of this; in his sermon he simply reminds the people that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, had said that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust, and by extension the plague could also descend on everybody without distinction.  (p66)

Christians followed their business opportunities or the imperatives of their jobs by moving from their home areas to new areas as merchants, artisans, doctors, prisoners, slaves, and (by the third century) soldiers. As they traveled, they often moved in existing networks of family, profession, and faith (not least communities of Jews). Taking their faith with them, in new places they founded Christian cells. One scholar has called this process “migration mission.”  (p75)

As the worldwide Christian movement gained in membership, women played an indispensable part in the story.  (p82)

The significance of women in the early centuries was not in their institutional leadership but in their sheer number. It may be hard to prove this, but I am convinced that from an early date the majority of Christians were women.  (p83)

Christian catechists and writers in other parts of the ancient world also gave prominence to the “swords into plowshares” text. According to Gerhard Lohfink, this is the prophetic passage the early Christian writers cited more often than any other.  (p92)

Michael Green, assessing the apologetic writings for their evangelistic success, has concluded that there is “no example of an outsider being converted to Christianity by reading an Apologetic writing.”  (p93)

In the ancient world, when Christians were at their best, they sensed a dynamic interplay between indigenizing and being pilgrim, between affirmation and critique. They lived in existential tension between being at home and being strangers.  (p98)

Nothing did more to make the Christian communities distinctive than their sheer heterogeneity. Not only were women and men together; so also were children and old people.  (p102)

Even into the third century, their meetings, although structured, seem to have been characterized by emotional intensity and unpredictability.  (p105)

Ancient writers…more often mention exorcism than anything else as a cause of conversion to Christianity.  (p112)

According to Henry Chadwick, “The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success.”  (p117)

Justin asserted that the church’s growth was a product of the Christians’ distinctive approach to enemies. Why do Christians love and pray for and persuade their enemies? So the enemies will become brothers: “so that they [our enemies], living according to the fair commands of Christ, may share with us the good hope of receiving the same things [that we will] from God, the master of all.”  (p118)

By the late second century many Christian communities had decided that outsiders—non-Christians—could not be admitted to their worship services.  (p134)

It was not Christian worship that attracted outsiders; it was Christians who attracted them, and outsiders found the Christians attractive because of their Christian habitus, which catechesis and worship had formed.  (p135)

Typically the earlier churches held their primary meetings in the evenings, but by the first half of the third century most had their main services in the morning. The churches had moved from being a meal society to being a worship assembly, and their primary meeting had moved from dinner to breakfast.  (p136)

The true prophets were not those who said inspiring things; they were those who “behave like the Lord.” The Didache notes, “It is by their conduct that the false prophet and the [true] prophet can be distinguished.”  (p140)

Christians have renounced their old habitus and entered an alternative, life-giving habitus in each of the four areas: in sex, continence; in place of magic, dedication to God; in wealth, “bringing what we have into a common fund and sharing with everyone in need”; in violence and xenophobia, “living together and praying for our enemies, and trying to persuade those who unjustly hate us.” This new habitus, Justin contends, is rooted in the teachings of Christ, “whose word was the power of God.”  (p143)

Unlike many churches today, the third-century churches described by the Apostolic Tradition did not try to grow by making people feel welcome and included. Civic paganism did that. In contrast, the churches were hard to enter. They didn’t grow because of their cultural accessibility; they grew because they required commitment to an unpopular God who didn’t require people to perform cultic acts correctly but instead equipped them to live in a way that was richly unconventional.  (p149)

Non-Christians were at times attracted by the Christians and interested in exploring Christianity further. The Christians could not take them to Sunday worship services—these were off limits to people until they had been catechized and baptized. But the Christians could invite their friends to go with them early on a weekday to meet the church’s “teachers.”  (p149)

Church leaders of a later age might have said, “Let’s admit them as they do their current jobs and eventually, when they have ‘heard the word,’ they will think their way into a new life.” The church of the Apostolic Tradition says in effect, “No, our approach is the opposite. We believe that people live their way into a new kind of thinking.”  (p151)

The theologian Origen likened the catechumens’ experience to the Israelites’ crossing the Red Sea; in this, they had left their bondage in Egypt but had not yet crossed the Jordan. Like the Israelites, the catechumens were in the wilderness, a place of unlearning and learning, of testing and deciding. In this liminal place, the catechumens had to choose—did they want to go back to their old life, or did they want to take the risk of being immersed in a new life?  (p153)

The catechists knew that people are profoundly formed by the stories they tell; therefore, many catechists made it a priority to present to the catechumens the Bible’s narrative, which would replace the pagan stories as their primary fund of memory.  (p157)

[Re Cyprian on catechesis]  Catechumens are to be nonviolent in their attitudes, words, and physical bearing; they are to be humble, to accept oppression, to overcome anger, to refuse to curse and slander, to accept martyrdom, and to forgive others.173 In five of his precepts, Cyprian specifically enjoins Christians to live with patientia.  (p168)

In North Africa, according to Tertullian, the bishops did allow candidates to discuss theology—at the right time. The right time was the weeks prior to baptism.  (p181)

[Re Origen on those just baptised]  And then for the first time they take part in the Eucharist, in which they receive milk and honey as well as bread and wine. They have entered the promised land.  (p183)

Christians claimed that through their worship services God changed them and strengthened them to cope with the precarious realities and daunting problems of daily living.  (p186)

Christians did not worry that absence of the pagans from their services constituted a lost opportunity. Their worship was not evangelistic; it was not “seeker sensitive.” Their intent in worshiping was to glorify God rather than to attract outsiders.  (p189)

There was encounter with the Bible and teaching by leaders with whom there could be interaction.  (p194)

According to Hermas, prophetic perception and exhortation were a normal part of the evening worship services of the Roman Christians, not the vocation of only one prophet.  (p196)

The early Christian writers gave exceptional attention to prayer, vastly more than to the sermon.  (p204)

There is no explicit record of the Lord’s Prayer being used in eucharistic services until the late fourth century.  (p206)

Origen in Caesarea saw it as natural that believers, rich and poor, would stand so close together in prayer that they would overhear each other; and because of what they heard, they could engage in acts of mutual aid, meeting each other’s needs… A doctor “is standing by one who is sick and is praying for health; . . . it is manifest that he would be moved to heal the one who prays.” A wealthy person “hears the prayer of a poor person who lifts up an appeal to God on account of his necessity. It is obvious that he will fulfill the prayer of the poor person.”  (p206)

Tertullian voiced another concern—the believers’ experience that the God to whom they passionately prayed did not always answer immediately. The church, he wrote, is like the little ship in Matthew 8:24 in which Jesus’s disciples are being tossed about by waves (persecutions and temptations), and the Master does not respond: “In his patience [he] is as it were asleep.” Tertullian urged believers to be patient. At the right time, in response to the prayers of the people, the Master would awaken, “calm the world and restore tranquility to his own.”  (p209)

Scholars have noted in bewilderment that the early Christians did not spend a lot of time praying for the conversion of outsiders.139 Instead, energized by the power of God that they experienced in worship, many of them lived interesting lives. And the rumors got out. Christian worship was a place of empowerment.  (p211)

The kiss of peace also shaped Christian witness. Believers, many of them poor, emerged from worship with the exhilarating knowledge that they had kissed unequals on the level. I, a struggling stoneworker, have kissed a decurion! Whatever others might say about them, the believers knew that they were people of worth, brothers and sisters in Christ. They knew this in their bodies. Outsiders would look at them and wonder what had happened to them in worship that gave them dignity and confidence.  (p220)

The Didascalia’s authors were not particularly concerned about mission. They assumed the churches were growing but didn’t write much about growth. Significantly, they didn’t urge the clergy or laity to evangelize. According to their understanding, spreading the message was God’s work, and it was their calling to be “helpers for God.”  (p226)

Late in the second century the church reached a tipping point. According to Georg Schöllgen, the church’s numbers had grown to the point that their patterns of order and behavior were no longer working well and needed to be changed.  (p231)

[Re the Roman emperor Constantine]  In my view, Constantine became a Christian, but not until just before he died. And his conversion did not come in a moment but was the culmination of a process of conversion. Constantine became a Christian when he, like the Christians for centuries before him, submitted himself to catechesis and baptism.  (p251)

[Re the views of Lactantius]  Religion cannot be promoted by compulsion. The advocates of a religion must make their case by patience. When people seek to defend a religion by bloodshed and torture, the religion is “polluted and outraged.”  (p259)

Constantine was saying to the “saints” that because he wanted life to be governed by reason, there must reasonably be more than one habitual way to be Christian—and that it would be legitimate for some Christians to kill judicially and in battle.  (p262)

These examples indicate an emperor with a short fuse and unreconstructed habitus; he was still reflexively in the thrall of dignitas and violence. So it’s not surprising that in 326, whatever offenses his son Crispus and his wife Fausta may (or may not) have committed, Constantine responded not by forgiving them but by contriving their execution. If Constantine had experienced a conversion of lifestyle and habitus, he could have responded differently to these agonizingly broken relationships—and given a moving Christian witness to the empire.  (p264)

Constantine did not approach religious policy as a baptized believer in the Christian tradition. Instead, he approached it as a traditional Roman with Christian affinities who was convinced that the religious cult played a central role in unifying society.  (p267)

Constantine’s use of state power was not to root un-Christian behavior out of the church but rather to root heresy out of society. This was the aim of the council at Nicaea to which Constantine summoned the bishops in 325, and whose creed and canons he backed up by banishings.  (p268)

The move to crush illicit Christian groupings was rooted in Constantine’s anti-heresy edict of 330, which according to Stuart Hall was “an imperial assault on voluntary Christianity.  (p276)

For earlier Christians patience had been the “highest virtue”; for Augustine it has become an ambivalent virtue: it “might be bad—if not directed to a just cause—or good, if it was.”  (p282)

As Augustine preached his sermons, always open to dialogue, the people repeatedly interjected “their usual cry, ‘One is free to believe or not to believe. With whom did Christ use force? Whom does he compel?’” Augustine knew how to respond to this usual cry. He pointed to Christ who used force, who coerced Paul into conversion by blinding him, as a result of which “the Church, then, imitates its Lord in forcing the Donatists.”  (p288)

Augustine confronted the apparent effectiveness of force; what he repeatedly called exempla—experiences, facts—demonstrated that a just impatience works!66 In light of the evidence, Augustine was convinced that he should turn away from the traditional Christian missional approach that was saturated in patience. His On Patience rationalized his turning.  (p295)


Review: Reading Scripture the Emmaus way

10 September 2021

This is the last of a trilogy of related works by Canadian theologian Bradley Jersak, following on from A More Christlike God and A More Christlike Way. It is

A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way by Bradley Jersak (Whitaker House, 2021).

It has a foreword by Peter Enns on five aspects of biblical interpretation.

Jersak’s emphasis in all three of his books is the supremacy of Christ, to whom all other aspects of faith and doctrine must bow, since he alone is ‘the exact representation of God’s being’. The ‘Emmaus’ reference in the title is, of course, to Jesus’ dialogue with two disheartened disciples in Luke 24, where ‘he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’

The author is wary of calling the Bible ‘the word of God’, in the conviction that only Jesus himself can claim that title. The Bible is a witness to him, no more. In the light of that, some of the notions of biblical inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy common in evangelical circles are open to question. He addresses them all in depth, along with the concept of the ‘canon’ of Scripture. In doing so, the author is open about his personal journey from dispensationalism, via Calvinism, to a more Christ-centred position, and how that has altered his approach to such issues.

He looks frankly at the brutal, genocidal passages in the Old Testament, concluding that God never commanded them, even though his people at the time thought he did. From there, it’s a short step to a critique of PSA (penal substitutionary atonement), where God allegedly killed Jesus, using violence to achieve his ends, and to a different (and now widely accepted) understanding of God’s ‘wrath’. In all this, he leans heavily on patristics (the church leaders of the first few centuries, and their hermeneutics), lamenting the fact that modern evangelicalism tends to ignore almost everything between Paul and Martin Luther.

In addressing his theme, Jersak anticipates the objections that some readers will interject, and he deals with them thoroughly, and with grace. These include charges of supercessionism, eisegesis and the ‘spiritualising’ or ‘over-allegorising’ of Scripture.

In addition to rejecting the ‘flat reading’ of the Bible associated with modern concepts of inerrancy, he questions the ‘progressive revelation’ approach. Instead, he prefers ‘progressive illumination’—spelling out the differences and making a good case for it. He also looks with favour on the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament), which was the version of the OT used by the NT writers. He illustrates how it often undercuts evangelical ideas like God punishing Jesus at Calvary (see the LXX of Isaiah 53:10).

He looks in detail at some literary features of the Bible often overlooked, such as allegory, ‘myth’, rhetoric, diatribe, phenomenology and anthropomorphism, with examples of each. He maintains that without some grasp of how the NT writers, in particular, used these stylistic devices, we cannot hope to get a clear understanding of what they are saying.

Evangelicals have tended to look down on church calendar-based practices revolving round liturgy and the lectionary. Jersak makes a strong case for a return to such approaches as guarantees that we get a rounded picture of God’s redemptive purpose instead of just pecking around the Bible for an interesting sermon-topic or a ‘blessed thought’.

To the huge current discussion about the nature of the Bible this book brings a helpful contribution. It’s not an easy bedtime read, but the effort of working your way through it will be a worthwhile challenge.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

When we stand firm on Scripture’s central revelation—that Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh, is what God finally says about himself—biblicism (the notion that the Bible is our final authority) presents a thousand objections in the form of contrary biblical proof texts.  (p20)

Reading the whole Bible as a testimony of Jesus and as the grand narrative of redemption will require us to revisit our patterns of interpretation and layers of reading—attending to the literal, moral, and spiritual sense described by the early church.  (p24)

The Word of God is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. And when he was about eighteen years old, he grew a beard.  (p26)

The Word is a person. The confusion or conflation of inspired texts with the eternal Son of God is deeply problematic, especially when the Bible displaces Christ as the “Word of God” and “Scripture alone” becomes our “sole and final authority” instead of him.  (p27)

When I reoriented from Bible to Christ as the locus of the Word of God, Scripture became my map—or an inspired compass—rather than my destination, its authors, narrators, and events all employed by God’s Spirit, directing me to pursue the Person.  (p36)

…the difference between reading the Bible as a flat text (where every word has equal authority), progressive revelation (where all the words accumulate in a crescendo of consistent truth), and the Christocentric view (where Christ is the pinnacle of revelation, and every word must finally submit to him).  (p38)

[Re Numbers chapter 31]  Could the Abba Jesus revealed say, “Wipe out the foreigners. Take their women and sort them into virgins and nonvirgins”? (Who checked? How?) “Slaughter the nonvirgins and keep the virgins for yourself. But tithe a tenth of them to the Levites for their use”? (What use?)  (p39)

Following N. T. Wright and others, I no longer capitalize satan. Brian Zahnd says “the satan” is less than a person, more than a metaphor. It is the real phenomenon of evil, rooted in human sin, and verges on self-awareness. Most importantly, the satan phenomenon is undone by Love.  (p42)

“You mean in Eastern Orthodox churches you don’t have to believe in penal substitution?” I asked, hopeful.  “No, I mean in the Orthodox church you are required not to believe in it,” he replied firmly, adding, “And there are 350 million of us who have never believed it.”  (p49)

Once PSA fell, every doctrine related to divine retribution began to topple in turn. If God truly is Love in his essential nature, the necessity of eternal conscious torment, acts of divine genocide, and literalist interpretations of wrath fall too.  (p50)

I read 1 Samuel 15 to Vladika and asked him how the Abba whom Jesus Christ revealed as perfect love and unfailing mercy could possibly issue such a command. Without hesitation, he replied, “He didn’t.” I countered, “But the Bible says he did.” He parried with these surprising words: “No, these are the words of Samuel, a cantankerous old bigot who would not let go of his prejudice, projecting his own malice, unforgiveness, and need for vengeance into the mouth of Yahweh.”  (p51)

What the Bible calls “God’s wrath” is a metaphor for the self-induced consequences or intrinsic judgment of our own turning from Perfect Love.  (p52)

I am especially taken with Pete Enns’s “Christotelic” interpretation, which is why I asked him to explain it in the foreword to this book. In fact, he’s answered one of my most bewildering questions in one sentence: Why does the Bible contain so many bizarre, offensive, and un-Christlike depictions of God? Pete’s answer: “Because God let his children tell the story.”  (p53)

How you see the Bible changes your relationship with it. As I keep insisting, Christ gets the final word, and the Scriptures testify to his authority. I relate to Christ as God’s Word and to the Bible as one (and not the only) venue where I can hear the living Voice.  (p57)

I personally receive the Scriptures as authoritative insofar as they testify to Jesus. But I don’t see them making authoritative claims on matters of history, science, or even religion (e.g., I don’t submit myself to the purity laws of Leviticus). Rather, I ask, “How are the Law and Prophets not abolished but fulfilled in Jesus?” I let the authors say what they say on their own terms and then ask what the message is saying to me about Christ, his gospel, and his call for me to grow in love, by grace, toward God and my neighbors.  (p72)

The canon of faith was established by Christ and his apostles from the beginning, but the canon of Scripture has always been hotly contested. In fact, the canon of Scripture differs from Protestant to Catholic to Eastern Orthodox to Coptic Orthodox to Ethiopian Orthodox and beyond…to this day!…  The ecumenical councils felt it essential to be led by the infallible Holy Spirit to remember the gospel and articulate it infallibly in the first creeds—even before they finalized what books were canonical.  (p74)

[Re 2 Cor 3:5-18]  The veils are not only being removed from our own hearts as we read Scripture. Over the millennia, veil upon veil has been progressively removed within the Bible itself. That is, the authors who produced the Scriptures by the Spirit were themselves subject to temporal veils. Their veils glorified tribalism and nativism, militarism and violence, racism and misogyny, imperial and colonial ambition, and so on. Just like us!  (p79)

Prior even to opening the scrolls, the famous rabbi Philo understood that God is all-good and all-merciful. That understanding became his first interpretive principle. It predetermined how Scripture was to be understood and applied. Where God is portrayed as good, Philo instructs us to read that as a revelation of the good God. Where God is not portrayed as good, he instructs us to read allegorically, because we must never allow a literalist interpretation to negate our understanding of God’s goodness.  (p89)

I would suggest that the liturgical reading of the Scriptures in the context of community worship and the lectionary cycles, with its connections of linked texts, provided an essential medium for understanding the message that preceded the Bible—an understanding that is not as obvious in the printed version. In other words, the “divine liturgy” of the church is a medium that functions to frame the Scriptures within the canon of faith—the message of the gospel—showing how they work together within the drama of redemption that inexorably points to Christ crucified and risen. So, too, the lectionary cycles: these frame the Scriptures within the church calendar precisely in order to lead us to Christ and his gospel.  (p94)

I have often seen people, through a flat reading of the Bible, use particular Scriptures to argue against the very teachings of Jesus Christ, justifying from the idolized text that which the Word himself forbade. When the Bible becomes our final authority, Jesus is demoted to a mere episode in the Good Book.  (p95)

The next time you make eye contact with another human being, look through their eyes to the depths of their heart, to the treasure that is their true self, and then look to the deep joy of Christ’s adoring gaze. Leave behind the worm theology that judges another person’s deepest heart as deceitful and desperately wicked. Value them as you would a priceless gem—because Jesus did.  (p103)

When you compare translations side by side, the question is NOT necessarily which one best represents the first manuscripts, but which one best represents the gospel.  (p108)

[Quoting David Bentley Hart]  Fundamentalist literalism is a modern heresy, one that breaks from Christian practice with such violence as to call into question whether those who practice it are still truly obedient to the apostolic faith at all.  (p112)

Biblical literalism and inerrancy predetermine limits on what the Bible cannot do or say before even reading the text or allowing it to speak for itself. The result is an unwitting assault on the authority of Scripture, which itself is subordinate to Christ the Word. Inerrancy, then, is a modernist ideal that stands over Scripture (and over Christ!), attempting to master the text—to dissect it with the scalpel of literalism.  (p113)

We’ve learned that the Epistles are more than propositional teachings and ethical letters. Ben Witherington III and David deSilva have helped us to see these New Testament Epistles as sermons, written to be preached and crafted by masters of first-century rhetoric.  (p122)

The early masters of Scripture such as Origen in the East and Jerome in the West were simply following Jesus’s own hermeneutic and training us to emulate our Master-Teacher. And while literalists are skittish of allegory, Jesus makes it necessary for an Emmaus-Way interpretation. Contrary to my training, early church fathers didn’t come up with allegorical interpretation—Jesus and his apostolic successors were already adept at using and modeling it to unveil the gospel.  (p134)

Many disillusioned Christians, embittered ex-Evangelicals, and haughty New Atheists denigrate the Bible in the easiest possible way: they continue to read it as fundamentalist literalists—then use their misinterpretation of the sacred Scriptures against it as ammunition.  (p135)

Yes, I believe Jesus actually performed a wedding miracle in Cana, met with Nicodemus under the stars, and sat with a Samaritan woman who had been divorced five times. And I also believe the water-to-wine miracle is a parable of our transformation, that Nicodemus’s born-again transformation and the Samaritan woman’s inner spring are stories about us. I am/we are the morphing water. I am/we are Nicodemus. I am/we are the Samaritan. I am/we are the woman caught in adultery, and the blind man, rescued and healed by Christ. This dual reality of history and allegory is what Lewis meant by “true myth.”  (p151)

We can be liberal in saying, “I see Christ foreshadowed here,” without claiming, “God told me this verse means that.” This is not an “anything goes” hermeneutic. Rather, we’re reading with an open ear for intimations of the gospel itself within the Scriptures.  (p159)

A great many details of our sacred text still surprise and bewilder me. I can’t get my head around great chunks of it. But I trust that God is good, that Jesus is Lord, and that the unsearchable ways I read about are riches to be cherished. For me, being stumped has become an invitation to worship and to perpetual discovery.  (p168)

Hosea is one of our clearest revelations of the radical freedom of God to forgive sin without punishment, payment, sacrifice, or even repentance.  (p174)

[Re Deuteronomy 20-21]  I know Christians who are so hateful to Muslims that if I showed them this passage and said it was from the Qur’an, they would not hesitate to condemn and burn it. But if it’s in the Bible? Does the binding and title on the book suddenly make it defensible?  (p183)

The average Christian is now less biblically literate, and the average atheist is significantly more biblically aware, now than in the twentieth century.  (p190)

Worship precedes theology, often by several decades. As we experience the presence of God in prayer and worship, we begin to compose liturgies and songs that express what we have come to see. Eventually, theologians become observant and follow suit. Teachers may begin to confirm the implications of what the congregation has already been singing and praying (which is to say, believing) over the past decades. Ironically, the first generation of these teachers are often regarded as heretical, sometimes even by the very congregants who spawned the original revelation.  (p191)

The Bible is a revelation about us and about God. What the Bible reveals about the fallen human condition is our “sin.” This includes the depth of our “death anxiety,” the nature of “mimetic desire” and the “scapegoating mechanism,” and our human propensity to demand retributive justice and then sacralize retribution through sacrificial religion.  (p196)

[Re the book of Job]  Would the story have been better if we had simply skipped the first thirty-one chapters? After all, God himself tells us that virtually everything to that point was folly! Then why not just delete it? Why fill our minds with flaws? I used to flip right to the “good stuff” in Job until I started seeing how “good” the foolish counsel seemed to me. Some of it appears to make good sense. Exactly! The important function of the friends’ speeches is to shine a light on our own idiocy. The friends’ speeches are an inspired revelation of our own error, not a divine thumbs-up to their error.  (p203)

When we read the psalmist’s blessing on infanticide in Psalm 137:9, no sane person who has experienced the Father’s love honestly believes this is a revelation of God’s will. We know instinctively that we have here a revelation of the psalmist’s real but misguided demand for justice.  (p204)

We ought to bear in mind that just like Abraham, Moses, and David, so too the apostles of Christ and the authors of the New Testament were people in the process of transformation and discovery, not omniscient angels with magical pens. Their works, too, reveal both the human condition and faith culture of their era…and the divine solution—Jesus Christ, to whom all Scripture (before and after) points.  (p208)

We have often imagined that when we disobey a divine warning, God, rather than our own disobedience, becomes the threat and the source of harm. We confuse the wages of sin (intrinsic consequences) with the wrath (violent anger) of God.  (p221)

God deals with sin through correction, not punishment. That’s Clement, that’s Hebrews, that’s Hosea. The chastisements of God are disciplinary—not because divine justice demands satisfaction, payback, or wrath, but because a patient God is raising beloved children who tend to learn the hard way.  (p226)

I would argue that the number one genre error in biblical interpretation occurs when we mistake epistles for straightforward didactic teaching when, in fact, they are rhetorical sermons, designed to be preached aloud in the congregation.  (p233)

[Re Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats]  We literalize the parable into an eschatology. And since we can’t work out why the criterion of judgment is mercy rather than faith in Christ, we sit around reworking our end-times timeline instead of welcoming the stranger or visiting those who are sick and in prison.  (p244)

The Bible says God DOES change his mind. Some examples are Exodus 32:12–14; 2 Samuel 24:16; Jeremiah 18:8–10; 26:13, 19; 42:10; Ezekiel 7:22; Jonah 3:9–10; 4:2; and Amos 7:3–6. The Bible also says God DOESN’T change his mind. Examples: Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Isaiah 31:2; 2 Corinthians 1:19; and James 1:17. Does the Bible contradict itself? Yes, these verses are contradictory if we read them literally. If we forget to account for worldviews and phenomenology…  (p251)

What, then, shall we say to those texts that announce God’s wrath? I argue that to avoid regressing to pagan images of God, we must read them as anthropomorphisms—i.e., figures of speech projecting human characteristics onto God.  (p254)

It’s not as though God is some heartless Stoic in the sky or the “unmoved mover” of Aristotle’s philosophy. No, God is LOVE. And God is relational and responsive to us—infinitely so. It’s just that God’s love is not reactive, subject to or contingent upon our drama, shame, or performance. Rather, God’s love flows as the infinite, constant, and unfailing spring of his own nature. Does God grieve with us and rejoice with us? The incarnation reveals God’s limitless empathy. Yes, God sympathizes with our weaknesses and knows the human condition from within—but not as one whose character (love/goodness) is jerked around by external forces.  (p266)

These patristic giants defined orthodoxy and defended it against some of the same heresies that pass themselves off as mainstream Christianity today. Their dogmatic teaching on the Christlike God of unswerving goodness and cruciform love is the gospel through which all Scripture must be read. I commend them to you as the pinnacle of biblical interpretation, without whom we would have no Bible at all.  (p268)

I see the deconstructionists exiting their churches and walking away from faith by the tens of millions. One reason for this is that they’ve been indoctrinated with false images of who God is and what God requires. The wrathful God who threatened to burn them in hell forever if they don’t believe right or behave right is not the Abba whom Jesus revealed—not the gracious and gentle Shepherd who descends into hades to rescue lost sheep, who are too entangled in briars to find their way home.   (p271)

The parable of the prodigal son(s) is the clearest picture we have of what wrath is, how it works, what causes it, and how it is and isn’t “God’s.” The Prodigal Son woke up in a pigpen of his own making and came to his senses. The father did not send him there. Were his days or years or life of misery literally God’s wrath (anger expressed as violence)? No. But his trials were transformed by God’s grace into the big story of the son’s redemption.  (p274)

My reviews of other books by Brad Jersak:

  • A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel – here
  • Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope and the New Jerusalem – here

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