Reading Companions?

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This is an excerpt from a lecture at a local Christian College class taught by community pastors – my assignment was Neo-Orthodoxy to what is going on now!  The following introduction has to do with our reading companions – who do we consciously or subconsciously rely on to interpret the scriptures?

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Theology is written by very human theologians.  The truth of God is eternal and unchanging but our understanding is often tied to the other things we know, or think we know.  We interpret the Word of God by our world, our experience and through our culturally conditioned eyes.  We read the Bible through cultural lenses.  So we see that:

  • The Church Fathers were very influenced by Plato and Neoplatonic thought.
  • The Medieval theologians were influenced by Aristotle.
  • Modernist Theologians were influenced by science, Darwin and a view of human progress.
  • This is seen in how we view Creation, for example. Galileo did not so much challenge the Bible, but a consensus view that was based on Aristotle, Ptolemy and the Bible.
  • This is seen in how we view Revelation – is the Bible a Divine Book only (Neoplatonic church fathers), a human book only (higher critical modernists) or both ( Evangelical – e.g. Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy)
  • This is seen in how we view Salvation – The Christ pictured in the Sistine Chapel is unapproachable and busy sending sinners to hell and saints to heaven (is it any wonder that the people turned to Mary?); the Christ of Liberalism is kindly and humane. Albert Schweitzer said of the “quest for the historical Jesus” that European scholars searched carefully and found that Jesus was just like themselves.

C. S. Lewis said that one should alternate reading current books with old ones. This is one way we help see the trap that is the world view of our own times. Reading church history raises this question for us.  Who or what do we use to stand next to the Bible to interpret it?   Tradition (officially co-equal to scripture in Catholic Theology); Theological schools (Calvin v. Arminius); Popular Culture (church should entertain); the Business world (Pastors are CEOs); Social Media; Psychology (as practiced by Oprah, Dr Phil);

Question: What lens do you use to understand the Bible?

(Full notes – NeoorthodoxyEtc.notes )

Circular* Reasoning in John

john-9-healing-blind-man-mosaic

The Johannine books (John; I,II, III John) share a number of characteristics in style.  This is why John the Apostle was held until modern times as the author of all of them.  Of course there are as many other theories as there are scholarly treatises on that.

I’ve been struggling in John’s Gospel with the discourse sections.  There are two that are fairly easy to track: John 3 with Nicodemus, and John 4 with the Woman of Samaria.  But the discourses in chapter 5 Miracle at Bethesda; Chapter 6, Feeding the 5000; Chapter 7, at the Festival of Booths; John 8; John 9 with the healing of the man born blind are all more difficult.

Even the discourse in chapter 4 is rambling – Jesus and the woman talk about water and worship and the holy spirit before all is done.

I’ve struggles to make sense of the shape of these discourses.  They seem to ramble or on occasions bounce between Jesus and some opponent or opponents.  So there is no neat or linear way to represent the discussion.  You know that outline method you learned in school? throw it out!

In desperation I went to my library.  There I found a book I had not spent much time with.  “John: Evangelist & Interpreter” by Stephen S. Smalley.  Smalley made some helpful observations. In the “first act” of John, there are a number of sign/miracles which are followed by discourses.  He describes their structure as being “spiral” in nature.

“John…structures his discourse material so as to advance his subject, almost in spiral fashion, through a series of dramatic disclosures towards a climax.” p. 147

So we have this: a sign/miracle followed by a discourse or disputation with Jesus and another party or parties. The theme of the discourse tends to be repeated in some way in each division in the discourse.

In John 9, the man blind from birth is healed by Jesus who anoints his eyes with mud and asks him to go and wash.

Then there these sub sections, each one except the concluding two repeating something about the man born blind: (p. 143)

  • v. 8-12 Man and Neighbors
  • v. 13-17 man and Pharisees
  • v. 18-23 Man’s parents  and “Jews” (i.e. Authorities)
  • v. 24-34 Man and “Jews”
  • v. 35-38 Jesus and Man
  • v. 39-41 Jesus and Pharisees

The last two parts leave to two conclusions: The man comes to believe in Jesus as the Son of Man and even worships him.  the Pharisees reject Jesus as a sinner because he healed the man on the Sabbath.

Through this we have woven themes of sin (was the man or his parents responsible for his blindness, Did Jesus sin by breaking the Sabbath, are the Pharisees sinners for rejecting Jesus?) and blindness (the man’s physical blindness which is cured, his spiritual insight. the Pharisees who see Jesus’ works but are blind to his light.)

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind”  v. 39

*This is misnamed “circular reasoning” because a circle returns on itself. A spiral however is circular but it also moves from beginning to end.  One has to hang with all the turns and not get lost.

I am still figuring out how to preach such a passage.

 

Sayings with Strings Attached – John 7:24

spidermanbaloonWhen we lived in New York, we would travel from Queens to Manhattan to see the Macy’s Parade. Up close and personal you see that the balloons are maneuvered down the city streets by many helpers.  The balloons have not one but many strings.  These tie the balloon to the earth.  One year Spider man was not the vigorous super hero you see in the photo here, but having been battered by the wind against lamp posts he was limply carried by the helpers on the ground.

I wonder about embedded sayings in the biblical text.  One example is “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst.” Matthew 18:20.  Is this a saying that is true for potlucks, worship services and prayer meetings? Some say that this is only true for the immediate application to Matthew 18, which has to do with church discipline.  In other words, is the saying relatively free (few strings) or quite bound (many strings).

In John 7, there is a discussion about Jesus legitimacy.  questions about him abound in this passage.  Why is he in a backwater like Galilee when the real action happens in Jerusalem?  How can he be a teacher if he does not have formal education?  How can he break the law by healing on the Sabbath (referring to John 5). How can he be a great prophet or the messiah if he is from Galilee?

Jesus said this “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”  In the immediate context of v. 20-24 he is comparing the practice of circumcision on the Sabbath, which was considered lawful, with his act of healing on a Sabbath.  He is saying, quit just looking at the surface of things, but think deep.

In the context of John 7, this saying applies to the questions surrounding Jesus. Who is he? What right to belief does he have?

In the context of the Gospel as a whole we can find a wider application – that is, will you the reader come to faith in Jesus.  Belief or faith is tied to eternal life throughout John.  So take a deeper look at Jesus.

Can we take this saying and apply it even more generally.  “Christian, quit looking at the outward appearance, but look at the reality. Is it right and true?”  This could be limited to questions of Jesus identity, but could it not be useful for many ethical questions we face.  Is Candidate A truly patriotic because s/he wears a flag on his/her lapel?  Is it pro-life to be anti-abortion and pro-gun?

I think that there are limits (some strings on the balloon) based on the meanings of the words and the general associations with the larger biblical texts.  We should not limit sayings to only one application.

I think, for example, that John 7:24 compares favorable to Isaiah’s beginning chapters that criticize religious ceremony that is not matched by faithful hearts or just lives. (See Isaiah 1:10ff)

The sayings take on the quality of an “aphorism” which is a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation.  There are many of these in the wisdom books and in the teaching passages of Jesus.

 

 

 

 

Whats the sin in John 5?

beggar-of-bethesda

Jesus heals a man at the pool of Bethesda.  Later, he says to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” (v. 14)

So what was the sin?

There is a theology as old as Job that illness is caused by sin. That idea is rebuked by the overall point of Job and by the speech of God at the end.  Then in John 9 Jesus was asked who was to blame for a man being born blind.  Was he to blame or his parents.  Jesus said neither. There was another reason.

So what are we to make of John 5?

Maybe the man was paralyzed from sin. Did he do something to cause it? Was he punished for some sin by being paralyzed?

I was reading the text for what the emphasis is there. What we know about the man is that he, like many, believed that the pool of Bethesda had some kind of healing power.  When the water was “stirred” the first to get in would get cured.  This man had been hoping to win that race for some time – his illness had lasted 38 years.

Just before this story in Chapter 4 is the account of a royal official who approached Jesus about his son who was close to death. He asked Jesus to come to his house, but Jesus simply spoke the word, “Go, your son will live.”  He found out later that at that moment was when his son was healed. This was the second “sign” miracle in John.  The Word of Jesus has power to heal.

Now I wonder if the text is calling us to read the signs.  Rather than looking to a bit of stirred water at a pool in a holy city, look to the Son of God who has, like the Creator in Genesis 1, the power to create by speech.  Has not John called Jesus the “Word” in John 1?

I am thinking that the sin might be a magical faith – the man in John 5 believed the bit about the water in the pool.  Maybe he should have put his faith in God instead.

In the history of religion, there as been a lot of excitement about holy places, holy objects, holy days and holy rituals, when God is not limited in time and place.

Was Jesus saying, something like, quit trusting in magic, trust me.

 

 

 

 

Reading an old Book

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I am reading St. Augustine’s “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” and found this quote. It is interesting because I am curious what pre-scientific era Christians had to say about Genesis.

Book 1, paragraph 25

“…although water still covered all the earth, there was nothing to prevent the massive watery sphere from having day on one side by the presence of light and on the other side,  night by the absence of light.” (underline added)

Hmmm. So much for flat earth thinking.

Dual Dual Natures

creation_of_man_by_hel999We are reading and I am preaching Genesis, John and later Revelation side by side.  This is an interesting way to see these books from a different perspective. The text’s should not be forced to correlate, but it is interesting how often they do.

In Genesis 2, there is a clear statement of the dual nature of the first human.

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”    Genesis 2:7

So this states that humanity is of the dust of the earth – we are made of the matter that surrounds us.  Unlike some views that see the world as a trap or an illusion, the Bible calls the material world (before sin) good. It is doing what it was made to do.  And so human nature ties us to the world.  Adam and Eve are created in the context of a material place – Eden.

While all creatures have the breath of life in them, even the mouse living in your attic has that. Only of “adam” was it said that God directly breathed into him the breath of life.  So this is to say there is a spiritual nature.  The word for “breath” is used here, but it suggests the spiritual nature of humanity.

We have a dual nature – we live and are tasked with working, caring for and enjoying life on the earth – together with others.  Yet we in a unique way have a bond with the creator that is unlike the members of the animal kingdom.

In John 2, there is a wedding.  Jesus and his disciples are in attendance. This is the same Jesus who was described in John 1 with this statement.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14.   In this chapter the Word is the pre-existent, eternal Son of God – present with the father at the creation of the world.  So we see the divine nature of Jesus.  yet the Word became flesh. He did not take up humanity as a disguise, but he became a man.  Jesus has a dual nature that is far beyond ours. He is Divine (“the word”) and Human (“became flesh”)

At the wedding, Jesus took water and with the power of the Creator (“through him all thins were made” John 1:3) turned it into wine.  Compared to Genesis 1, this is a small act.  but compared to how men and women usually make wine, it is a sign of his divine nature. “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.”  John 2:11

dual

The church councils did a lot of work to hammer out our confession that in Jesus we have one person who is fully God (the Word) and fully man (became flesh).

People sometimes accuse these theologians of splitting hairs, but it seems to me that Genesis and John are written in simple terms (we can all understand words like word, dust, breath and flesh) but are also deeply theological.

Not everything can fit into Twitter.

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