Saturday, 28 December 2013

Providence and the Sovereignty of God

I was digging through some old computer files this week and found this very useful chart. I thought I would share with you my reading audience. The chart was a handout I received in my theology class taught by the brilliant Dr. Jeromey Martini

Questions for Reflection

Situation #1  
Imagine that a long time member of your congregation (we will call him Bill) has been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and has been given a few months to live. The church responds by holding several all-night prayer meetings for Bill. There is even a prophecy that Bill will be healed of this cancer. The church is encouraged that God's healing will triumph in this situation and Bill will be cancer free. Yet despite all of this, Bill tragically and suddenly passes away. The loss of Bill is felt deeply by your congregation. There are many unanswered questions and frustrations felt within the congregation. You find that congregants are approaching you privately with deep concerns as to how God could have let Bill pass away.

1. Using each of the views listed in the Models of Providence Chart: provide an explanation for Bill's untimely death. 

2. If God predetermined that Bill die of cancer, is God ultimately to blame for Bill's death? 

3. Assuming that prophecy was from a reputable source, how would the Open Theist explain the inconsistent result? Is it possible that God changed his mind about healing Bill? If the future is indeterminate, is prophecy more a matter of a 'best guess'? 

4. If God has already foreordained the future (in the view of the Calvinist) why would a prophecy not come to pass? Is the only explanation to question to credibility of the prophetic word?

Situation #2 

A mother is returning home from buying groceries for the evening meal. In the backseat is her two year old daughter Leia, who is preoccupied with her new Christmas present: two beautiful princess barbie dolls. The mother slowly approaches the intersection with due attention and comes to a complete stop at the red light. There are no cars ahead of their vehicle. Leia is laughing in the backseat, enthralled with her dolls. The light turns green and the mother accelerates to enter the intersection. Leia and her mother are half way through intersection when a drunk driver in the opposing lane runs the red light and collides with their vehicle at top speed. Emergency vehicles soon arrive on scene to a mangled wreck and are forced to use the jaws of life to rescue occupants of both vehicles. The drunk driver was pronounced dead at the scene. Leia and her mother are rushed to the nearest hospital. The mother awakes from her coma a week later to discover her husband at her bedside in tears. Leia did not survive the accident. Their two year old daughter had passed away a few hours after the accident. The news overwhelms the young mother with grief. To add the loss of her beautiful Leia, the mother soon discovers that she has also the loss the use of her legs and will never walk again. The mother soon makes a partial recovery and attends the funeral of her baby Leia. The funeral is somber and filled with grief. The mother is consoled by her church family who has reassured her that:
 "Everything happens for a reason." 
"It was just her time to go home to God." 
"This is apart of God's plan. Even though we don't understand God's reasons, we have to trust that God knows best in taking Leia to be home with him"

In the years that follow, the mother becomes deeply depressed about the loss of Leia. She can't understand why God would need to take her child away from her. She can't understand why she was paralyzed and unable to conceive as the result of the accident. She comes to you for counselling five years after the horrific accident. The mother is ready to give up on God altogether. She asks you...Is God to blame?

1. Using each of the views listed in the Models of Providence Chart: provide a possible explanation to her question. 

2. If God predetermines the future, including the accident, is God ultimately to blame for Leia's death and the mother's paralyzation ? 

3. Which of the views in the Models of Providence Chart would you use to counsel the mother? 

Thanks for reading...

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Keller & McKnight on "Christians and the Law"

Timothy Keller (left) Scot McKnight (right) 
I went through a weird phase in college.

I know what you're thinking.... (Trust me it's not that bad.) 
The statement 'going through phase in college' is usually synonymous to experimentation with sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. I wouldn't blame you for thinking along those lines. It's kind of what is assumed by the term ‘phase’. Let me shed some more light on your thoughts. I went through a weird phase in Bible College; although as any former Bible college student could tell you, that could still mean a lot of things.

My 'phase' was listening almost exclusively to the sermons of Timothy Keller. There is a lot to like! Timothy Keller is the Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Keller's church is a success story in a city not typically known for large churches. I believe that much of the success of Redeemer Presbyterian can be credited to the care and attention that is placed on engaging the congregation through preaching. Keller, in my opinion, is one of the top preachers and communicators in the world today. He has the unique ability to mine the depths of culture in creative and relevant ways in order to craft his sermon to answer objections and questions before they are ever asked. Keller is poetic, insightful, and a great example of leadership in the church context today. 

I listened to Keller knowing that he had a background in the Reformed movement. I have a lot of respect for my Calvinist friends but I've always landed in the Arminianism camp. This has never really prevented me from listening to Keller. (nor should it) I thought, "I know how to filter out these flower obsessed Calvinists." That was my first mistake. Being in my first year of Bible college, I was naive enough to think that I could narrow a Reformed perspective down to TULIP. (Big mistake.)

I found myself being redirected by Reformed thinking in the area of "the law" and its relationship to “what is the Gospel". I found that I began to subtly think that the Gospel message did not require any performance on my part. I remember, during this 'phase', getting a lot of life out of a faith alone approach to my Christian walk. The requirements of Scripture became an 'impossible ideal'-the message being: we can never be good enough and what we really need is grace to free us into an imputed righteousness. The Gospel is presented in a Reformed lens as grace alone by faith alone. “[The] assumption is that justification is the gospel. The Calvinist crowd in the USA … has defined the gospel in the short formula: justification by faith.”[1]

Dr. Timothy Keller describes his approach:

I have come to realize that my sermons need to follow a different outline:  

1.Here is what the text says 
2.Here is how we must live in light of it 
3.But we simply cannot do it 
4.Ah—but there is One who did! 
5.Now, through faith in him, you can begin to live this way. 
In nearly every text of Scripture a moral principle can be found, shown through the character of God or Christ, displayed in the good or bad examples of characters in the text, or provided as explicit commands, promises, and warnings. This moral principle is important and must be distilled clearly. But then a crisis is created in the hearers as they understand that this moral principle creates insurmountable problems. I describe in my sermons how this practical and moral obligation is impossible to meet. The hearers are led to a seemingly dead end, but then a hidden door opens and light comes in. Our sermons must show how the person and work of Jesus Christ bears on the subject. First we show how our inability to live as we ought stems from our forgetting or rejecting the work of Christ. Then we show that only by repenting and rejoicing in Christ can we then live, as we know we ought. [2]  

I was really attracted to this teaching. It didn't take any effort to convince me that I wasn't good enough and in desperate of grace. (For the record, I am still convinced of my failings and need of grace.) What Keller convinced me of during this 'phase' was that I could never be good enough. It's impossible. This meant that all of my dutiful efforts to pursue righteousness are only a form of performance and striving outside of the imputed righteousness of Christ. What I really needed was to remember that Christ lived the perfect life and the Gospel freed me from the moralistic burden of the Law.

My suspicion is that Keller in his approach is rehashing the journey of Martin Luther. Martin Luther was a sixteenth century Reformer who was tortured with guilt for his inability to be good enough, but discovered the beautiful grace of God. “This message of grace and forgiveness has been a life-changing one to many people over the ages since Luther rediscovered it, but it has often been tragically accompanied by a message of fear and condemnation itself. Luther, for example, preached that one must face the horrors of wrath before one could come to grace. In other words, he believed that everyone needed to be forced to go through the horrible struggle he did before they could hear about grace. Ever since then, there has been a long history of revival preachers who have proclaimed this “pre-gospel” of fear, threat, and condemnation—telling people the bad news so they could then receive the good news, wounding people first, so they could then heal those wounds.”[3] Keller does a fantastic job convincing us of the inability to be righteous apart from ‘the finished work Jesus’. All that we need to do, according to Keller, is to receive righteousness as a gift. Now, it should be noted that Keller has nuanced his position to the exhortation to live in light of the positional and imputed righteousness and justification that you have already received. I don’t think for a second that Keller is promoting a cheap grace, or taking a ‘whatever’ approach to holiness and discipleship.

The issue(s) I take to Keller’s approach are:

(1) By emphasizing the impossibility to live in light of the text, the demands of discipleship are muted. 
(2) The Gospel becomes subservient to Soteriology. (how to get saved) 
(3) Jesus is made to be an ‘exclusive substitute' rather than an ‘inclusive substitute’. To put it crassly, Jesus’ demands of discipleship are meant to drive us to repentance for our inability rather than grace to live out the Kingdom here and now. 
(4) It’s a misreading of Paul and Judaism. (we will discuss this below in the summary thoughts)

Dr. Scot McKnight provides some clarity and insight to the discussion in his latest book, The Story of God Commentary: Sermon on the Mount. 

"It is hard not to point a finger at Martin Luther for creating a counterforce between law and gospel. In fact, contrasting the two — one to condemn and one to bring grace — is at the heart of the Lutheran dialectic, or how the Lutheran is taught to read the Bible. Nothing can be achieved by obedience to the law; all that can be achieved is achieved in Christ. The Reformed, those who follow from Calvin, involved themselves in a more nuanced way in the issue of how the law and the gospel are related. A good example of this approach is found in a statement by John Stott: “the law sends us to Christ to be justified, and Christ sends us back to the law to be sanctified.” There is considerable debate over this issue among evangelicals today. 
This problem is created by tidy systematic formulas, and I appreciate the nuances and discussions and light that systematicians sometime shed, but in this case something has gone terribly wrong. The immediate problem is that the debate often assumes that law demands performance while the gospel expects only faith. Beside the importance of what the New Perspective on Paul brings to this discussion, not the least of which is a radical reshaping of how Judaism worked as a religion and that “works of the law” are not just Torah but the special laws that separated the Jew from the Gentile, the contrast Paul makes between works of the law and faith does not result in the latter not having law or performance. After all, in one of his quintessential statements in Ephesians 2:8 – 10, Paul overtly argues Christians are created by God “to do good works” (which is performance by any other name). 
As one sympathetic to the Anabaptists I believe in salvation by faith and not by works, and to their credit the Anabaptists have always taught the demand of discipleship in a way more emphatically central than most. Radical distinctions, often made by major theologians in the Protestant traditions, between justification and sanctification are unwise because they are not grounded in the Bible. The Torah is God’s revelation to God’s people and to be read as God’s gracious demand. God graciously reveals what God wants, but God unfolds that demand over time so that it is completely revealed only in Christ; God graciously provides the power for us to do what Jesus teaches as we live in the Spirit in the light of the coming kingdom; and God graciously demands how God wants us to live in the Sermon and in the ethical exhortations of the New Testament." [4] 
McKnight has put his finger on the Gestalt shift that I experienced in the transition out of my ‘phase’. The Gestalt shift I speak of is the revelation that the Gospel is way bigger than a soteriology. According to McKnight, “the Gospel is the declaration that Jesus is Lord, King and as Lord and King Jesus rescues his people (1 Cor 15:3-5). The Gospel is a message about Jesus first and foremost and not first a message about us and our salvation.”[5] The King saves us, but the Gospel is news about the arrival of the King and our participation in the Kingdom. Disciples of King Jesus are called to follow, to do good works, to take up our Cross, and to participate with Christ in the establishment of the Kingdom. 

This Gestalt shift to what McKnight has called the “King Jesus Gospel” has implications beyond a Reformed perspective. Arminianism has been just as guilty of reducing the Gospel to Soteriology- or 'how to get saved'. A recent example of this is the work of Dr. Andrew Farley in his book, “The Naked Gospel”. Farley makes the case that ‘Jesus plus anything equals nothing’. Andrew rehashes the ‘impossible ideal’ approach that is very similar to Keller’s, although not as nuanced. Farley makes the claim that, “we can interpret Jesus’ teachings as literal but contextualize them as being directed at people who were still under the law. (Galatians 4:4-5)”[6]Farley is suggesting we view Jesus' teaching as irrelevant to those who are under "grace". To be completely honest, I was kind of shocked and unnerved to encounter an approach to "The Gospel" that divorces Jesus from his teaching. I can agree with Farley that salvation is a free gift and that we are justified by our faith in Jesus, but the Gospel is bigger than how to get saved. Justification does not mean that the call to follow Christ has been muted. I find I diverge from Farley exactly where I diverge from Keller. (see above) We are not saved from works, but rather into ‘a faith that works’. 

Summary thoughts….
How can we avoid falling into the ditch of reducing the Gospel to merely a conferred status and creating a counterforce between the Law and the Gospel ?  I have a two fold suggestion. (feel free to add your own in the comments)

1. The New Perspective on Paul.

“Paul’s critique of the law is well known. Recent scholarship has helpfully drawn attention to the fact that Paul is not opposing good works here (i.e., acts of love and mercy) as a typical Lutheran reading would claim, rather Paul is ultimately arguing for works of love. This “new perspective on Paul,” as it is called, stresses that both Jesus and Paul saw fulfillment of the law as embodied in compassion rather than in legal ritualistic observance.”[7] 

The following points can be named as the New Perspective on Paul's most important insights:

(1) Paul’s thinking should not be understood as an answer to individual plights of conscience but as a salvation-historical orientation and revolves around the question of the status of the Gentiles in the people of God. 
(2) The picture  of Judaism as a religion of “works righteousness” is a negative foil for the interpretation of Pauline theology that in no way does justice to ancient Judaism and therefore [this old way of reading Paul] also distorts the stance of Paul toward the Judaism of his time. 
(3) Paul does not fundamentally polemicize against the doing of good works but criticizes Israel’s appeal to identity markers that demarcate it from other peoples and ground its status as the chosen people.[8] 

2. Viewing the work of Christ as ‘inclusive substitution’ or ‘representative redemptive solidarity’. 

This is to say that everything about Christ’s work is not instead of us, but rather on behalf of us! Jesus is "the pioneer of [our] salvation" (Heb 2:9-10). As "pioneer" (arch egos), Jesus is not a substitute that takes our place in the salvation event, but the one who "goes first," who goes ahead of us in death and resurrection as the originator and founder of the way of our salvation. Jesus comes to show us a better way; a way that disciples are to imitate. Darrin W. Snyder Belousek expounds on this:

In one respect, Jesus' death (and resurrection) does "for us" that which we cannot do for ourselves. By the power of God, the cross of Christ cleanses us of sin, removes our guilt, and frees us both from the weight and chain of sin and the ultimate end of sin in death. That is the "objective" aspect of atonement, and in that sense we may speak of a "substitutionary" atonement of God-in-Christ "for us." In another respect, however, Jesus' death (and resurrection) does "for us" that which it renders us capable of doing likewise. It gives us the example to follow, showing us both what is the true sacrifice we are to make (not the offer of a substitute victim in our name on an altar but rather the offer of our very own lives in the name of Jesus in devotion to God) and how we are to love our neighbour and overcome evil with self-sacrificial love. In both respects, the death (and resurrection) of Jesus is an event of salvation that we ourselves enter by baptism "into Christ." In both respects, therefore, Jesus' death and resurrection involves us - it is "for us" but not "instead of us" [9]
Thanks for reading.

Works Cited

1. McKnight, Scot. The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 33, (e-version)


3. Flood, Derek. Healing the Gospel (Eugene: Cascade books, 2012) 22. (e-version)

4. McKnight, Scot. The Story of the Bible Commentary: Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013) 153. (e-version) 

6. Farley, Andrew. The Naked Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 91.

7.  Flood, Derek. Healing the Gospel (Eugene: Cascade books, 2012) 41. (e-version)

8. Schröter,Jens. From Jesus to the New Testament: Early Christian Theology and the Origin of the New Testament Canon (Baylor, 2013),134. 

9. Snyder Belousek, Darrin W. Atonement, Justice and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2012),746. (e-version) 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Dr. Richard Hays on 'The Synthetic Task'

Dr. Richard B. Hays
I tend to be the kind of person that likes to ask a lot of questions as a means to learning. I love to learn in dialogue with my peers and teachers. My suspicion is that theology is best done in community, as a community, for the community. I can recall countless occasions where I was on a particular train of thought and was stopped dead in my tracks by the cross-examination of a teacher or peer. 

"Have you thought about this?..."

Given this information, it should be no surprise to you that I love to be the kind of student that would show up at their Professor's door with a few burning questions. Thankfully, I had really amazing Professors that generously gave of their time to meet with me. They would leave their tasks of marking, reading, and reflection and patiently listen to my queries. 

I remember on one such occasion that my Professor, in an effort to answer the 'question of the day', pulled from his shelf a well worn book. I read the bright red wording of the title of the book, "The Moral Vision of the New Testament". The binding of the book looked creased and cracked, almost as if it had been opened a thousand times before in search of invaluable information. I could see bits of paper protruding at random from various sections of the book. As my Professor flipped through the pages, I could see the vast array of blue pen that  underlined key sentences and cryptic notes throughout this book. I don't particularly  remember what my Professor told me that day, but I do remember thinking.... "I need to get this book". 

My intuition about The Moral Vision of the New Testament was confirmed by the praise of a few of my favourite authors:

"This book isn't just a breath of fresh air. It's a hurricane, blowing away the fog of half-understood pseudo-morality and fashionable compromise, and revealing instead the early Christian vision of true humanness and genuine holiness. If this book isn't a for our time, I don't know what is." - N.T. Wright

"There are few people I would rather read for the actual exposition of the New Testament than Richard Hays. This book is filled with wonderful readings that not only inform us about how to think better about the so-called 'problem of the relation between the New Testament and ethics' but, even more, speak of how lives should be lived in the light of Christ's cross." - Stanley Hauerwas

Here is my copy of the book today: 

Hays, in the introduction to Part Two of the book, has a tiny five page section titled,  "The Synthetic Task: Finding Coherence in the Moral Vision of the New Testament." I re-read this section today, almost by mistake, while I was doing a bit of study in a different section of the book. I was so blown away at the depth of content in these few pages that I was inspired to share with you my reader(s). 

Richards Hays on the "Synthetic Task"

Hays opens this section of the book with a crucial statement for any good interpretation of Scripture:

The New Testament is not a simple, homogenous body of doctrine. It is, rather, a chorus of diverse voices. These voices differ not only is pacing and intonation but also in the material content of their messages. No matter how devoutly we might wish it otherwise, we cannot hear these texts as a chorus speaking in unison. Indeed, a rigid determination to make the texts speak univocally will at best limit our perception of the range of these witnesses and at worst produce distortion of their messages. [pg. 187]
Hays is warning his readers of the temptation to read Scripture as 'flat univocal document'. I believe the best example of this in our contemporary reading(s) is when everything in Scripture is made subservient to Pauline theology, or rather misinterpretations of Pauline theology.  Our first responsibility as interpreters of Scripture is to listen to the individual witness. We must allow Luke to speak for Luke, or Matthew to speak for Matthew, or James to speak for James. It is only when we have allowed the individual voice to be heard do we make any attempts at harmonization and synthesis. 
We must let the individual voices speak if we are to allow the New Testament to articulate a word that may contravene our own values and desires. Otherwise we are likely to succumb to the temptation of flipping to some comforting cross-reference to neutralize the force of any particularly challenging passage we may encounter." [pg. 188]
Hays provides the following example of reading Luke through a Pauline lens to illustrate:
Does Jesus say in Luke's Gospel, "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions' (Luke 14.33)? This is a disturbing word; how are we to understand it? Flipping to 2 Corinthians 8-9, we find a less exacting norm: Paul exhorts the Corinthians merely to contribute generously to his collection for the Jerusalem church, "in order that there may be a fair balance" (isotes, 2 Cor 8.14) Paul advocates sharing, renunciation of possessions. Thus, a homogenizing of interpretations might filter Luke's stringent teaching through Paul's account of economic responsibility and conclude Luke 14.33 cannot mean literally what it appears to say; its hyperbolic language is "really" to be understood as a way of urging sharing or inner detachment from wealth. When the text is interpreted in this way, however, the Gospel of Luke's radical call to discipleship is muffled.
Imagine traveling back in time to see one of your favourite bands live in concert. For the sake of this example I am going to choose The Beatles. Paul, John, George and Ringo Starr skillfully play each of your favourite tunes. You hear some of the classics like Day Tripper, I wanna hold your hand, Twist and Shout, and She loves You. Doing good hermeneutics & synthesis in the New Testament is a lot like hearing each member of the band in a well balanced mix. It rocks! It flows together. It makes you want to dance. You hear each voice and instrument working together in union. Bad hermeneutics & synthesis is like turning up one member of the band so loud that it stifles the other members. It would be like Sir Paul McCartney coming out during the encore to play Blackbird for the audience only to discover that Ringo Starr is bashing away at his Ludwig drum set like a madman. Ringo has gone mad and is completely oblivious to everything and everyone else. So Sir Paul plugs in a tries to do his best to play overtop of the drums, hoping that Ringo realizes its time to start another song. You might think you are hearing Blackbird, an acoustic number, but you are actually filtering the aforementioned ballad through the tangental playing of one Ringo Star. In short... it would suck and Blackbird would be ruined for everyone.  (Also, Paul, John and George would most likely have to axe Ringo and hire back Pete Best to complete the tour) In summary: reading Pauline theology into Luke is a bit like only hearing Ringo Starr at The Beatles concert. (And no one wants that!) 

The solution? Hays suggests:

We are less likely to delude ourselves if we establish a firm methodological ground rule that we must listen to the whole witness of each individual text with care. Luke 14.33 must be understood, in the first instance, in light of Luke's larger narrative depiction of the early church's economic practices (especially in light of the pertinent passages in Acts that describe the Jerusalem church's sharing of possessions), not in light of Paul's pastoral instruction. Luke and Paul stand in some tension with one another on this issue, and we cannot interpret one in terms of the other. Only when we set their differing perspectives side by side will we rightly perceive the synthetic problem. [pg. 188]
Why don't we hear more about the tensions between the texts in discussions about the New Testament? Could it be that perceiving the tension and hearing the unique voices of the text is problematic to our conceived theories of inspiration? For instance, a mechanical//dictation approach to inspiration would inherently need to provide explanation for and against any differences. It can be troubling to many to discover that the God-breathed inspiration of the text appears to be resistant to a forced application of a 'univocal voice'. I myself have held more of the 'dynamic theory of inspiration', and yet in my synthesis of Scripture I have been just as a guilty of downplaying any tension in favour of a forced harmonization. How do we achieve a proper synthesis while at the same time maintaining the uniqueness of each author? 

Dr. Richard Hays provides some reflections and insight here:

Is the New Testament a complex polyphonic choral composition scored by God and performed by human voices under the direction of the Holy Spirit? Or is the New Testament a chaotic cacophony of many voices uncoordinated? The church has traditionally regarded the New Testament as a guide to faith and practice, but how can it serve as a guide if it is not internally consistent? ... Is there some way of discerning a wholeness or unity among the canonical writings? Only if we can give an affirmative answer to this last question can we speak of New Testament ethics as a normative theological discipline. Every proposed construal of the unity of the New Testament canon is "performance", one analogous to a director's reading of a Shakespeare play- a reading that seeks to discern and articulate the shape and meaning of the whole. How, then, shall we proceed in seeking to discover moral coherence within the cannon? There is no methodologically airtight way to derive proposals about the unity of the canonical witness; we can only read the texts carefully, asking what common ground they share, what themes and images appear repeatedly, what convictions their various stories and exhortations. The approach, in other words, must be inductive, beginning with a close reading of the individual texts. Then, having first displayed our readings of the text, we proceed by trial and error, testing various synthetic intuitions against the evidence. The task is dauntingly difficult, but it is inescapable if the church is to take its ethical bearings from the New Testament. Thus, we plunge ahead to the task, while acknowledging that our synthetic reading of the texts will always be subject to critique or supplementation by other members of the community of faith who may teach us to see things more clearly.[pg.189] 
Dr. Hays then provides us three procedural guidelines for proper synthesis. (I am going to quote them in full)

1. Confront the full range of Canonical witness.  

"When we begin to seek the unity of New Testament witnesses- whether in general or on a particular issue- all of the relevant texts must be gathered and considered. Selective appeals to favourite proof texts are illegitimate without full consideration of texts that stand on the opposite side of a particular issue. The more comprehensive the attention to the full range of New Testament witness, the more adequate a normative ethical proposal is likely to be. Beware of the interpreter who always quotes only the Haustafeln (e.g. Col 3.22: "Slaves obey your earthly masters in everything') and never wrestles with Galatians 5.1 ("For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery")- Or vice versa.  

2. Let the tensions stand
However acute the tension between two different witnesses appear, it must not be resolved through exegetical distortion of the texts. The individual witness must be allowed their own voices. A classic example of such distortion is the reading of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount through Pauline lenses ( or, rather, Pauline lenses as interpreted by the Reformation): in such a reading, the rigorous demands of the Sermon on the Mount are treated as impossible commandments designed to drive sinners to recognize their absolute need of grace. In such a reading, Matthew's voice is suppressed, and the Sermon on the Mount becomes as an instrument of a particular Reformation construal of Pauline theology. Such flattening of the individual witness is to be rejected. 

Likewise, we must not force harmony through abstraction away from the specific messages of the New Testament texts. Confronted with the diversity of New Testament witnesses, we are often tempted to dissolve the plurality of perspectives by appealing to universal principals (love, justice, and so on) or dialectical compromises. Such conceptual movements away from a text's specific imperatives are often escape routes from its uncomfortable demands. For example, Romans 13 and Revelation 13 are not two complementary expressions of a single principal or a single New Testament understanding of the state; rather, they represent radically different assessments of the relation of the Christian community to the Roman Empire. Nor can we average them out and arrive at a position somewhere in the middle that will allow us to live comfortably as citizens of a modern democratic state. If these texts are allowed to have their say, they will force us either to choose between them or to reject the normative claims of both. Whatever synthetic account we give of the unity of the New Testament witnesses, it must be sufficiently capacious to recognize and encompass tensions of this kind. This synthesis that we seek will not require a forced harmonization of the New Testament's diverse perspectives.

3. Attend to the literary genre of the texts 

In the effort to "use" the New Testament for doing ethics we may find ourselves seeking to extract universal maxims or principals from texts whose literary form is not readily amendable to such reductionistic analytic procedures. Parables, for example, resist paraphrase, as does visionary apocalyptic imagery. What moral principal shall we extract from the parable of the growing seed, which mysteriously sprouts and grows without our understanding how (Mark 4.26-29), or from the parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16.1-8)? What moral maxim shall we deduce from the vision of the New Jerusalem, which "has no need of sun or moon to shine on it" (Rev. 21.9-21.5)? In our eagerness to discern ethical relevance, we must not force tone-deaf, literarily insensitive interpretations upon the texts. The New Testament is, after all, not a collection of general treatises on ethics. Its major texts are narratives (the Gospels and Acts), pastoral letters to specific congregations (the Pauline letters), and a richly symbolic apocalyptic vision (Revelation); only the catholic Epistles take the form of general moral wisdom for the church at large. In our effort to discern the unity of New Testament ethics, we must take care to respect the character of these witnesses. The sort of unity that we discover here will have to be a unity appropriate to texts that are neither theoretical nor propositional in their mode of expression. 

Conclusion from Dr. Richard Hays

"These three guidelines serve to keep us honest by ensuring that our synthetic proposals respect rather than erode the texts with which we work. They serve to ensure that we have all the pieces of the puzzle on the table and that we have not snipped off any of the corners of the funny-looking individual pieces. Taken by themselves, however, these guidelines might lead to disintegration rather than synthesis: we might find more tension than unity. We might find the New Testament texts to prefer a disparate collection of incommensurable moral perspectives. Ernst Kasemann posed the dilemma sharply in his famous dictum: "The New Testament canon does not, as such, constitute the foundation of the unity of the Church. On the contrary, it provides the basis for the multiplicity of the confessions." The problem, then, is whether we may legitimately speak of a unity that somehow underlines the multiplicity. Specifically with regard to ethical issues, is it possible, while respecting the above guidelines, to discern within the New Testament firm common ground on which a New Testament ethic can be constructed? The Christian church has historically affirmed that such a discernment of unity is possible. Our task is now is to articulate wherein that unity lies."[pg. 191] 

Thanks for reading...

Questions For Reflection

1. Do you agree with Dr. Hays statement that, "The New Testament is not a simple, homogenous body of doctrine"? Why or Why not? 

2. Can you provide any more examples of reading Scripture as a 'flat univocal document'?

3. Why, in your judgement, do you we tend to think of 'unity' more as 'uniformity' in our various approaches to synthesis? 

4. Is there a procedural guideline you would add to Dr. Hays list? 

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Song, the Table, and the Kingdom.

An Ode to the Christmas Day Truce 

It was night before Christmas, when throughout the battlefield. 
Soldiers sang of 'Silent Nights' and a Christ revealed. 
They soon left behind guns and declared a ceasefire. 
Men traded their hate for a place in the choir. 

In the horror of War there was a peace for a moment
We found 'humanity' in the face of our opponents 
We no longer saw 'the enemy' through the sights our guns
Instead we shared together in Communion as God's united sons

To our shame, the Christmas Day Truce was not destined to last
For the Powers that be, would have 'the other side' gassed 
Men laid down the way of the Cross and took up the Sword for "some glory"
We believe in the old lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori

The Christmas Eve of 1914 was one of strangest examples of the power of peacemaking to ever be documented in modern warfare. Soldiers, on both the German and English//French sides, left their trenches and ceased hostilities during one of the fiercest wars ever fought on the planet. The event is called today: The Christmas Day Truce. 

The setting of this Christmas Day Truce was the trench warfare of WWI. It was most brutal form of warfare the world had seen yet, with an estimated average 14,500 men dying each day. Trench warfare is the stalemate of two opposing forces who have 'dug in' to secure their positions. This approach to warfare makes any advancements extremely difficult. Soldiers were forced to go over the top of the trenches, into no-man's land, and charge toward the opposing side in order to overtake the 'enemies' position. These methods were rarely successful as the 'entrenched' side had a tactical advantage by being hidden from direct fire. 

The men in the trenches were farm boys, clerks, and tradesmen. In the Commonwealth alone, over a million men volunteered in the early days of the war. They received basic training, and were rushed off to the front. Nothing could have prepared anyone for the horrors of trench warfare. It was cold, muddy, and the air had the stench of rotting flesh. It was a hell on earth. These were no battle hardened  troops on the night of Christmas Day Truce. These were husbands who missed their wives and children. These were young boys who missed their mothers and fathers. I can only imagine that the morale of those men in the trenches must have been at an all time low that Christmas Eve. 

The trenches were not that far apart from each other. You could hear the shouts from the other side. You could see the 'enemy' from the forward trenches. It is this unique setting that set the scene for something amazing to occur. 

The Germans began by placing candle lit Christmas trees along their trenches. These trees are know as Tannenbaum Trees. This caught the attention of the English troops, who peered in curiosity and amazement at the sight of these Tannenbaum Trees. Soon the Germans began to boisterously sing out loud an assortment of Christmas carols: 

Stille Nacht, heili’ge Nacht” 
(Translation: Silent Night, Holy Night) 

In a popular telling of the story, a German is said to have shouted across the trench:

English men… sing us a song

It's said that a mean spirited English gentleman yelled back: 

We’d rather kill than sing” 

The Germans responded, 

You're singing just might kill us, if it's bad enough.” 

Both sides laughed, and soon the carolling began to rise up on both sides. The singing eased the tension and gave way to celebration.

The leaders on both sides came out of the trenches and agreed to a ceasefire for 24 hours. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man's Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties.  
Sergeant-Major Frank Naden writes about the Christmas Day Truce:

“On Christmas Day one of the Germans came out of the trenches and held his hands up. Our fellows immediately got out of their trenches and the Germans got out of their's, and we met in the middle, and for the rest of the day we fraternized, exchange food, cigarettes and souvenirs. The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff. The Scotsmen started the bagpipes, and we had a rare old jollification, which included football, in which the Germans took part. The Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war and wished it was over. They greatly admired our equipment and wanted to exchange jack-knives and other articles. Next day we got an order that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemy must cease, but we did not fire at all that day, and the Germans did not fire at us.”

Football in No-Man's Land 
Another report tells of a Christmas Day Mass. A Chaplin serving in the war gathered the joined congregation of Germans, English, and French. The Mass was delivered in the familiar religious language of Latin that was common among Catholics around the world. The chaplain would have opened with the words:

In nominee Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. 
Translation: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 
They sang, they prayed, and shared the Eucharist with each other.
 The former enemies shared pictures from home, chocolates, schnapps, and wine. Soccer games were played. Friendships were made, addresses were exchanged and every soldier who experienced the events was forever changed. The Christmas Day Truce was truly an amazing peculiar event that baffles historians to this day. The immediate result of the truce was a break down of hostility across the waring lines. Reports suggest that in some areas the cease-fire lasted until after New Year's Day.

Leaders on both sides of the conflict were shocked and shaken by the unofficial Christmas Day Truce. It took serious action for fighting to resume in some areas. Commanding officers were forced to rotate the troops out of area, because the troops had lost the will to fight. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British Corps, had to issue official orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. Fraternization with the enemy is amount to treason. The whole story of the Christmas Day Truce was even censored by government on both sides. The story is said to have finally been broken by the New York Times, and subsequently the British papers followed suit. In the following years of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to try to ensure that there were no further lulls in the combat. Troops were also rotated through various sectors of the front to prevent them from becoming overly familiar with the enemy. World War One finally came to an end on November 11, 1918. It was one of the bloodiest conflicts of world history.

The Song, the Table, and the Kingdom. 

I share the story of the Christmas Day Truce as a launching pad to talk about the Church’s witness to peace. 

There is a lot that could be said, but I would like to focus on few key things from the events of the Christmas Day Truce: SONG, TABLE, and KINGDOM.

"Song of the Angels" by Luzia Vizoli

On that fateful Christmas Eve in 1914, the soldiers on both sides began to sing the songs of the church instead of the songs of hatred and hostility. It's amazing to think that the songs of 'holy nights' and 'Christ come into the world' literally disarmed the hostilities of war and shut down the war machine for a day. The power of the song has never been so obvious. 

I believe in our lives we are constantly 'singing songs' with our actions and words. The writer of Proverbs puts it like this, "The tongue has the power of life and death." (18.21) Or in other words, what we confess, both in our lives and as a collective community, will become a reality. When we sow seeds of hostility, hatred, and evil we will ultimately reap hostility, hatred, and evil. It's an unfortunate truth in a decaying world. The church, however, is called to sow seeds of life and not death. James, the brother of Jesus, promises us that peacemakers who sow in peace will reap a harvest of justice and righteousness.(3.18) 

The Song of the Church is to be the promise of another way, another world, right here and right now. When the earth sings the songs of hatred and animosity; our calling as the Church is to prophetically testify and bear witness to the Prince of Peace. The Church is the voice that cries, "Let the world sing a new song!"Theologian John H. Yoder sums this up beautifully when he writes, 
Although immersed in this world, the church by her way of being represents the promise of another world, which is not somewhere else but which is to come here. That promissory quality of the church's present distinctiveness is the making of peace, as the refusal to make war is her indispensable negative transcendence. The church cultivates an alternative consciousness. Another view of what the world is like is kept alive by narration and celebration which fly in the face of some of the "apparent" lessons of "realism."[1]
Too often the Church has matched melodies with the songs of men and perpetuated the status quo. Imagine the scene that C.S. Lewis provides us in his book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Narnia is under the reign of White Which who has subjugated the land to a perpetual winter. When the Church gives our ultimate allegiances to anything other than Christ, we are like those who have aligned themselves to the rule of the White Witch. The church is called, much like Mr. & Mrs. Beaver and Mr. Tumnus, to resist the reign of Jadis the White Witch and proclaim the true reign of Aslan. We may suffer persecution from the forces of the White Witch, as Mr. Tumnus experienced, but we proclaim Aslan as the rightful ruler of Narnia. To those who sing the songs of the White Witch, the Church declares boldly that: "Aslan is on the move."[2] 

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.(2 Cor 5.20) We are God’s agents of redemption, the salt and light of the world.(Matt 5) We sing a new song that prophetically declares the reign of Jesus in the world today. Have you heard this song?

A song of reconciliation
A song of forgiveness 
A song of peace 
A song of healing to a broken world


The table that I speak of is the Lord's Table, also know as the Communion Table. While I doubt there was a literal table in No-Man's Land that fateful Christmas Day; there was a call for Christians on both sides of the conflict to share in the Lord's meal. The Communion Table is a call to unity in the body of Christ. It is the common - union table. To suggest that those who partake of the bread and wine would be at war is a scandalous thought to unity of the Body. The Apostle Paul's primary correction of the communion practices at the church in Corinth was the division at the Lord's table. "I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you." (1 Cor 11.18)Paul directly confronts the division of the Lord's table by writing, "Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!" (1 Cor 11.22) Dr. Stanley Hauerwas reflects on the implications of the call to unity at the Lord's table:

The Eucharist becomes the meal of unity binding Christians through time and space to be one body, one Christ, for the world. That we have been made one makes it impossible, therefore, for Christians to contemplate killing other Christians with whom we share this meal. Such killing is not murder, it is suicide. [3]
There is nothing more scandalous to the unity of the body of Christ than partaking in Common - Union and then functionally denying that union through the shedding of blood."It will not suffice to simply cite “our duty” to the Powers as justification for killing brothers and sisters in Christ on the other side of a political dispute. It is this factual rupturing of the unity of the body of Christ that is so very often overlooked in many conversations about Christians and war making.”[4] 

The Table of Lord invites us to a new humanity in Christ. It's a humanity where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3.28) The Table invites us to leave our division behind us for Christ's sake, and to make every effort to maintain the unity of the church. If we take the path of warfare, we will ultimately participate in the suicide of the Church. Pastor Brian Zahnd suggests that Church has indeed committed suicide (as Hauerwas suggests above) in the past century of World Wars. Zahnd writes:
This may explain the death of Christianity in Western Europe following the two world wars. It was mass suicide. Or Mass suicide. Selah.[5] 
"The Deserter" by Boardman Robinson, 1916.

The kingdoms of hostility rely on the preservation of the ideological myth of redemptive violence. Central to the myth is the division of 'us' and 'them'. It is the myth that the enemy is less than human. It is the myth that the only way to make a better world is power enforced through violence. It is the ideological belief that peace is a goal to be attained and not the means toward the end. It is nation against nation; kingdom against kingdom; man killing other men. 

Jesus has a different Kingdom. Jesus does not allow us to participate in the division of 'us' and 'them'. Jesus does not reciprocate the myth of redemptive violence. Jesus taught his disciples to turn the other cheek to violence and pray for their enemies. Jesus did not join the Caesars//Herodians in the powers of oppression and refused to unite his movement with the Zealots who sought to overthrow their oppressors through violence. If Jesus the Messiah was not going to use violence to rescue the oppressed nation of Israel, then how could we as followers of Christ ever claim to use violence as means of conflict resolution? There is a better way, the Jesus way. It is the way of overcoming evil with good. The Gospel is a subversive force to the systems of domination, division, and supremacy; precisely because it undermines them through the power of cruciform love. Walter Wink reflects on this:

Not only did Jesus and his followers repudiate the autocratic values of power and wealth, but the institutions and systems that authorized and supported these values: the family, the law, the sacrificial system, the Temple, kosher food regulations, the distinction between clean and unclean, patriarchy, role expectations for women and children, the class system, the use of violence, racial and ethnic divisions, the distinction between insider and outsider—indeed, every conceivable prop of domination, division, and supremacy. The Gospel is a context specific remedy for the evils of the Domination System.[6]

The events of Christmas Day Truce directly challenged 'The Powers' ability to maintain the myth of righteous violence. The willingness to reflexively kill someone who had never done them any personal wrong suddenly vanished through encountering the humanity of the 'other'. The Powers and the authorities were disarmed through Christmas carols and acts of hospitality. This is why the backlash of the Christmas Day Truce is so striking to me. The Powers on both sides of the conflict needed to threaten execution for fraternization with the enemy in order to shutdown any efforts to declare 'unofficial truces'. Generals on both sides were forced to rotate troops from the front due to their inability to kill. The Powers must do whatever they can to prevent soldiers from experiencing the shared humanity of their targets, whether they are citizens of Germany, Japan, Italy, or Iraq and Afghanistan. To experience empathy towards 'the other' is counterintuitive to humanity at war. 

It grieves me to no end that the Church does not witness to peace in a world of war. Too often Christian churches join the patriotic fervour with their nationalistic blindness, refusing to teach what Jesus had always taught about violence. We become religious versions of the shared cultural assumptions of our age making us the chaplains of the status quo and no longer prophetic.[7]  

Joyeux Noel, a 2005 movie about the Christmas Day Truce  captures a scene that demonstrates powerfully the co-opting of church as the tool of the Powers. Check out this scene:

Near the end of "Joyeux Noel” there is a powerful and sobering scene, a confrontation between the Christ-like, lowly, anti-war Scottish chaplain and his pro-war Scottish bishop while the chaplain was giving last rites to a dying soldier.

The bishop had come to relieve the chaplain of his duties and abusively ordered him to return to his home parish because of his “treasonous and shameful” behavior (being merciful to the enemy) in the battlefield.

The chaplain tried to explain his actions to the authoritarian, pro-war, German-hating bishop, saying that he had just performed “the most important mass of my life” and that he wanted to stay with his comrades who were rapidly losing their faith and were in need of his ministrations.

The mass that he had presided over on Christmas Eve, had been attended by German, Scottish and French Christian soldiers (and one Jewish German officer) who had prayed together and been transfixed by a powerful rendition of Ave Maria. The bishop cruelly denied the Christ-like priest’s request to stay – and in a thought-provoking scene, he removed his little wooden cross from around his neck, leaving it swinging as he walked out the door.

As with so many of the victims of organized Christianity, the priest had lost his faith in the institutional church.

The bishop then proceeded to deliver a pro-war sermon to new recruits -the exact words having been obtained from a homily that had been delivered by an Anglican bishop in England during WWI. These new troops were being brought in to replace the suddenly reluctant veteran combatants, who now refused to obey orders to kill. [8]

One last word from Tony here.

Thanks for reading...

Works Cited
1. John H. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel, pg. 94
2. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, pg. 146
3. Stanley Hauerwas, Commentary on Matthew, pg. 219
4. York, Tripp ed. A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: What about Romans 13?
5. Brain Zahnd great blog,
6.Wink, Engaging the Powers, 65–86
7. Lifted from a Brian Zahnd tweet.
8. Summary of the scene from