Archive for the ‘Hermeneutics’ Category

Resolve logoIntroduction

At Resolve 2016, Flinders Evangelical Students explored the issue of pluralism – an issue facing both our society and the church.

As part of this exploration, we invited Geoff Boyce, Coordinating Chaplain at Flinders University to speak in our ‘Respond’ section of the conference. Geoff has, over a period of years, developed an approach to chaplaincy that has sought to respond to the reality of pluralism, and the contemporary context on the university campus in which Christians can often be less represented that other faiths, due to both the increasing secularisation of Australia, and the increase of migrants and international students.

Our aim in having Geoff speak was to listen respectfully to someone with whom we do not agree theologically, but whose approach we want to understand, so that we may be more gracious and respectful in our response both to him and to those with similar views.

What can we affirm?

Hospitality

Geoff helpfully highlighted for us the significance of hospitality as a Biblical principle, exemplified by Jesus. God’s work through human history has been one of inviting, welcoming and drawing people to Himself. By contrast, much of human enterprise has been about exclusion – keeping our own patch safe, and keeping the ‘other’ at arm’s distance, being unwilling to learn about and from those who are different to us. Geoff and his team have developed (and designed) Oasis as a venue centred around hospitality, where people from many cultural and religious backgrounds may engage, form friendships, and learn from each other. For this we are grateful, especially in that this hospitality has been extended to us in our freedom to use Oasis for our gatherings.

Genuine enquiry

Geoff also highlighted the danger of looking at others and trying to understand them ‘through Christian spectacles’ – ie. with unrecognised assumptions that come from our Christian worldview which can prevent us from truly understanding a person. For example, the best way to learn about Islam is to speak to and get to know a Muslim, rather than to hear about them from another Christian. This may well lead to us to discover more about what we actually have in common as fellow human beings, and to help us better understand and respect our differences.

Authenticity

Geoff helpfully emphasised for us the importance of desiring authenticity for others; in other words, wanting – for their sake – that they be truly themselves, not the person we think they should be. This is God’s desire for all people – that they be the people He has created them to truly be, free from the burdens and stereotypes placed upon them by other people who are really trying to deal with their own insecurities by manipulating people to become more like themselves. This is the Biblical idea of ‘maturity’ – when someone is fully human, and thus fully alive.

Relationships

Geoff also called us to focus on relationships, pointing us to the fact that relationship is at the heart of the Kingdom of God. God desires a relationship with His people, and He so works that those in a relationship with Him express this in the way they relate to each other. It can be easy for us to allow the task or the method of our mission to get in the way of genuine, loving relationships both with fellow believers, and with those around us who aren’t Christians. The moment we lose sight of the call to love God and neighbour, we will treat people as targets to win, or commodities to exploit.

Where do we differ?

Our view of Scripture.

Geoff mentioned that ‘the Scriptures were written in the exile;’ and that it was only in this time when the Jews themselves were outcasts that ‘they figured it all out.’ This is a view of the Old Testament that has emerged out of the late 19th and early 20th century ‘higher criticism’ movement that began to question the church’s traditional understanding of the origin, authorship and interpretation of the Bible. Coming from a rationalistic worldview that emerged from the Enlightenment, scholars and theologians who follow this more liberal or ‘progressive’ approach tend to emphasise the human element of authorship of scripture over the divine. Rather than viewing the historical books of the Old Testament as actual and accurate history, they prefer to see in them a ‘mythical’ element – stories that were written at a much later date than their actual historical setting, with the intention of providing a basis for meaning, identity and purpose for the discouraged and oppressed Jews living in captivity in a foreign land.

From an Evangelical perspective, such a view of Scripture undermines their authority and veracity, as expressed in the ES statement of faith: ‘[We affirm] The divine inspiration, trustworthiness, and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given, its entire sufficiency for our knowledge of God, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.’ The conservative view of the Old Testament books, held to by most Christians for most of history, is that they were written much earlier, either during or soon after the time of the events described, sometimes by eyewitnesses, and always by men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:10-11, 2 Peter 1:21) to record an accurate account of events. These men, enabled by the Spirit, also spoke of things to come, primarily the sending of the Messiah. Thus, Jesus could say that the Scriptures spoke of him. (John 5:39). This view sees the Bible and its story as something overseen and coordinated by God, not ‘figured out’ by human beings. It is a story of God actually working throughout human history in historical acts of salvation to bring all things to the point of Him entering the world in the person of Jesus. The Christian faith is founded securely on historical events through which God has revealed Himself, not the more pop-culture idea that it is based, along with most other religions, on principles of conduct and ethical/moral behaviour.

While we can agree with Geoff’s point of hospitality being a key idea in the Bible, I would be unsure about a hermeneutic that seeks to ‘read the whole bible through the lens of hospitality.’ We can all be guilty at time of imposing on the Bible a particular framework, and us Evangelicals can be just as culpable of this as anyone. However I am not convinced that ‘hospitality’ is the one or primary framework or ‘lens’ through which we should read the Bible, such that we look for it in most if not all passages we read. Geoff pointed us to Jesus’ rejection at the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4:16-30 as an example of this ‘hospitality hermeneutic’. He suggested that hospitality was the key issue here: the fact that the two stories Jesus mentioned were of non-Jews being accepted and included by God (a Sidonian widow and a Syrian official), and this is what enraged the people and made them want to kill him. While I agree that the problem was, as Jesus says, ‘…no prophet is acceptable in his hometown (Luke 4:24), it was not the issue of the ethnic identity of the people in the stories that was taken issue with, but his accusation of the Nazarenes that they would not accept him unless he performed signs and wonders. This sets the scene for the ongoing issue Jesus faced with the Jews – that they demanded of him a sign – which comes to a head in Luke 11:29 when he says “This generation is an evil generation. It demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”

These are not the only occasions when we see Jesus ‘picking a fight’ with people who do not accept him as the Messiah and Son of God; and in the Nazarene synagogue it is he who starts the conflict by speaking scathingly of those who were otherwise, ‘speaking well of him and marvelling at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22). It is difficult to see how this, and many similar incidents, are an expression of hospitality, at least as described by Geoff.

Our view on the urgency of the Gospel

Geoff advocated strongly for an approach to those of other faiths which is only comfortable with another changing their view when it is entirely on their own terms and through their own initiative. He supports a model of ministry (specifically for chaplaincy) which is, ‘…no longer the ‘rescuing’, ‘telling’ salvation paradigm, but the hospitable, listening, empowering and long-term-committed mentoring (‘walking beside you’) paradigm, directed toward individual and corporate well being.’

Such an approach to institutional chaplaincy is understandable and expected, given the brief of a chaplain to work primarily for the well being of the organisation and the individuals within it. However it is a model that unfortunately discounts the fact that the Gospel is a message of salvation that is to be proclaimed, and must be received through repentance and faith. It is not merely a set of tools to be used in promoting individual and corporate wellbeing and harmony (although these are outcomes that should be expected as fruit of Christ at work in people through the Gospel.)

The ‘rescuing, telling salvation paradigm’ is unavoidable when we see the ministry of both Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament. ‘Repent and believe the Gospel’ is the summary statement of Jesus’ preaching given in Mark 1:14, and must be held alongside his ‘hospitality’ statements (eg. ‘come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28) is said in the immediate context of him just having pronounced woes upon towns that had rejected him!). Not simply a set of ideas and principles that can be explored and considered intellectually or emotionally, it is a message that carries with it a command to be obeyed:

‘The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:30-31)

This command is given in light of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the coming Day of Judgement, from which God wants people to be saved. If Jesus, as he claimed, is the only way to the Father (John 14:6), then we truly love people by pointing them to him, and calling them to put their faith exclusively in him.

Our view on ‘comparative religion’.

Geoff encouraged us to look at the things we have in common with those of other faiths. That will be the point at which hospitality will be able to happen, as we use these commonalities as our starting point in creating open, trusting friendships (see diagram).

He suggested that the key point of commonality between all religions is love: the Golden Rule:

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12).

This is a popular idea today, especially when people are trying to make sense of and find solutions to the problem of religiously motivated violence and abuse. It is suggested that if all religious people simply practiced this as the heart of their religion, there will be harmony.

While it is true that many (but not all) religions contain a principle that in some way resembles Jesus’ Golden Rule (See table below), there are some problems with such a claim.

Golden Rule

Firstly Jesus, echoing the Law given through Moses, stands apart from the other religions in the way he phrases the Rule. His is the only one that is together entirely unconditional (ie. not for spiritual merit, or in order to receive good in return), proactively loving (as opposed to simply avoiding doing harm to others), and non-exclusive (not just within one’s own community.)

Secondly, unlike some religions in which the central theme is the effort humans must make to be good, the Golden Rule is not the central theme of Christianity in that sense. Christianity is based around not what we do, but what God has done in Jesus Christ. Jesus came not to enforce the law, but to fulfil it. What we were and are unable to do (love God and neighbour perfectly), he has done on our behalf, hand in hand with taking at the cross the punishment we deserve for our blatant unwillingness to love. In Jesus Christ God has done for us what we should have done for Him, and because He has perfectly kept the Golden Rule, we may be reconciled to Him:

‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.’ (1 John 4:10-11)

Our call to love is the outflow from the centre of our faith, which is in the person and cross of Jesus.

Our view of the Kingdom of God

Geoff told us that the Kingdom of God is about relationships. While that is true in as much as all that the Triune God does is about relationships, the Kingdom language used in the Scriptures is not primarily about communicating the truth of relationship as much as the truth of God’s authority. Entering the Kingdom of God means coming into a place of submission and allegiance to the King – the cry of Christians is ‘Jesus is Lord!’ and the message conveyed by Jesus’ resurrection is that he now reigns at the Father’s right hand and has been appointed as the coming judge of all people.

That being so, how are we to recognise the Kingdom of God in action in this life? Primarily, it must be people who are both acknowledging the lordship of Jesus over their lives and the world, and who are living in such a way that their actions give glory to Him.

This must necessarily be more than people of any faith or creed showing friendship and hospitality to one another. While we can certainly acknowledge that Jesus as King rules over all people regardless of their awareness of him, we can only call something a true expression of his kingdom where people are doing what they do ‘in his name’.

Because all people are made in the image of God, friendship and hospitality will be given expression in some form no matter how ‘fallen’ we may be, as long as we are human. However, as long as we are seeking to live outside of the lordship of Christ, such actions will ultimately be another expression of our rebellion. Because our deeds can in no way change our status before God, ultimately ‘…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.’ (Isaiah 64:6)

Geoff told us, in the context of speaking about inter-faith friendships, that ‘God is doing his thing – he doesn’t need the church.’ This is really a straw-man argument. I have rarely heard anyone say words to the effect that, ‘God does need the church.’ He is bigger than the church, and technically could accomplish all He wants to accomplish apart from the church – except for the fact that in His plan that the Church is actually central to all He wants to accomplish! His goal in all He is doing in this world is to prepare the Church to be a spotless bride who will be presented to his Son, Jesus. Because of this the church is described with such terms as, ‘God’s household,’ ’The pillar and foundation of the truth’ (Titus 3:15), ‘a kingdom, priests to his God and Father,’ (Revelation 1:6), ‘a chosen race… a holy nation.’ (1 Peter 2:9). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the church (the people, not the institution) is the visible expression of the Kingdom of God, and the instrument God uses to bring people into the Kingdom though its proclamation of the ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’ (Matthew 24:14).

Conclusion

I want to reiterate our thankfulness to God for the opportunities we have to gather freely as God’s people at Flinders Uni, and the role that Oasis as a location and as a team has played in making this possible. This space is a privilege that very few groups like ours around Australia and the world have.

We also appreciate the friendship and hospitality extended to us by Oasis team volunteers, staff and chaplains, and affirm their genuine desire to work for the wellbeing of students at Flinders. Flinders ES members and friends should be encouraged to participate in and assist with any activities in Oasis as their conscience gives them freedom to do so.

The relationship between ES and Oasis has not been without difficulties through the fifty years of us operating on campus, and it is important to acknowledge that this relationship has been strained at times, especially as the transition was made from a mainly Christian chaplaincy based ‘Religious Centre’ to a multi-faith and inter-faith ‘Oasis’. It is important also for us to acknowledge and be repentant of those things done and said by representatives of ES that have not reflected the love and grace of Christ. While we cannot take responsibility for the way in which others may perceive or interpret our actions, the love of Christ constrains us to make every effort to not merely speak the truth, but to speak it in love.

It is also important to remain firm on the commitment we have to our convictions as evangelicals – a commitment to the absolute truth of the Gospel, the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and the call to proclaim Jesus at university. Compromising on these would not only lead us to be disobedient to Christ, but would also annul our reason for existing as a club. The testimony of history is that Christian student groups who have assumed, lost, or denied the Gospel have eventually lost traction and finally ceased to exist, as they have nothing to offer to people that the world is not already claiming to give.

This means that we need to be always carefully and prayerfully thinking through what it means for us to be operating in the environment of a secular institution, a pluralistic culture, and an inter-faith setting such as Oasis. This is a similar issue to that wrestled with by the Israelites as they lived in exile in Babylon: They were called by God to remain distinctly seperate as His holy people, yet at the same time told to ‘…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7).

There is no simple formula to apply when working out our relationship with the university and with Oasis. We walk the tightrope somewhere between the compromise of full-blown partnership and the ‘bunker mentality’ of full separation, and we need the wisdom of God to guide us as we seek to navigate between these unhelpful extremes. ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ (Romans 12:18) is a verse that we must apply to everyone, not just to Christians or those who may provide some benefit to us. This principle is motivated not by pragmatism, but by sincere love (Romans 12:9). Because of God’s grace, we can be confident that He will enable us to practice this sincere love towards our friends in Oasis in such a way that we will not compromise the Gospel or our mission, to the glory of God.

prawns?

Cherrypicking the Bible?

On face value, it can seem that Christians pick and choose which parts of the Bible they want to obey, and which parts they want to ignore. The issue has come to the fore because of the current debate over same sex marriage, in which Christians can be accused of hypocrisy in claiming the Bible is God’s inspired Word, but not obeying all of it, including the many ‘obscure’ laws in the Old Testament. We may be told that if we no longer observe food laws, we should also be willing to change on sexuality laws, which are in the same book.

So what is going on? Is it true that Christians choose to conveniently ignore these laws, while only holding to those that serve their own moral agenda? Sadly, that can be true.

However any Christian who does not seek to follow all the laws of the Old Testament needs to have a sound reason for doing so, especially if they are going to not only properly understand the Bible, but also explain their faith to those who question.

A simple answer to question of why Christians are allowed to eat shellfish even though it is prohibited in Leviticus 11:9-12 is the teaching of Jesus:

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)’ He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person. (Mark 7:14-23)

On what basis could Jesus seemingly overturn the Old Testament laws about clean and unclean foods, and turn it instead into an issue of what is going on in a person’t heart? Did he actually overturn them, or is there something else happening?

‘Abrogation’ vs. ‘fulfilment’

Abrogation is the idea that one idea or rule is overturned and replaced by another, newer idea or rule. In religious terms, it means that God says something new that replaces something He said previously, simply because it’s His prerogative as God to change His mind. Or, as some ‘progressives’ would say, our primitive and limited understanding of what God was saying in the past has been replaced by a fuller, more enlightened understanding; so we no longer need to take notice of things in the Bible that are outdated.

Abrogation is not a Biblical idea. The Biblical writers are clear that God does not change His mind like a human being does (Numbers 23:19). Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law or what the prophets had said (Matthew 5:17). Paul says that the Gospel does not ‘nullify’ the law, but rather ‘upholds’ it (Romans 3:31).

So Jesus was not simply saying, ‘Times have changed, and so a new rule applies.’ Nor was he claiming some kind of divine ‘Son of God’ right to take away from or add to the Bible.

Fulfilment is the idea that earlier rules or ideas are given by God not as end in themselves, but in anticipation of something that is to come later. They point to, foreshadow and prepare people for what is textboxto come. (Something like the prompting message, ‘type to enter text’ in a word processing  textbox – it creates the space for the intended text to be entered.)

What that means is when the fulfilment comes, along with the new thing, the fulfilment doesn’t abolish the earlier rules and ideas, but actually affirms, honours and completes them. Fulfilment takes the principle behind the rule or idea, and gives it its fullest expression.

The Bible presents Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets – the rules and messages of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is full of patterns and structures that point to Jesus. Now that Jesus has come, those patterns and structures are ‘obsolete’ in the sense that anyone whose faith is in Jesus does not need to observe them literally, because their full meaning is found in a relationship with Jesus; however Christians do not remove them from the Bible because they stand there as a way to understand who Jesus is and what He did in a fuller, richer way.

All the laws about clean and unclean foods, practices, and even the seemingly obscures laws about clothing, haircuts and washing were all things that made the Israelites distinctly different to all the nations around them. They were also a constant reminder to them that the creation is not the way it is supposed to be – it has been tainted with sin and death and disease. While many of the laws had a practical use in terms of health and hygiene, they primarily existed to highlight the difference between the way the world (including us) is, and the way it was meant to be before human sin spoiled things.

So, these laws pointed to something beyond themselves: the promise of God that one day the world we live in – and we along with it – will be restored to its original creational design.

How to know what to keep

Why does this mean that Christians continue to uphold Leviticus 18:22 but not Leviticus 11:9-12? It’s because the law about eating shellfish was one of those rules that foreshadowed Jesus, whereas the law about homosexuality was based on a moral principle of sexual and marital purity, that Jesus repeatedly affirmed as still standing (along with the rest of the Ten Commandments – for example, see Matthew 5-7 and 19:18).

FulfilmentThe Ten Commandments were the moral code upon which the laws of Israel were built. All of the more than 600 laws on the Old Testament can be traced back to its foundation in one or more of the Ten Commandments. Now that structure has been removed by the coming of Jesus, the foundation still remains. So, instructions given to Christians in the New Testament are also built on this same moral code; the key difference being that Christians, through faith in Jesus, have been given a freedom to obey this moral code not from a fear of punishment, but as an expression of a restored relationship with God. So a Christian’s motivation for not practising homosexuality is not primarily because it is forbidden, but because they see that it is a distortion of something with is far better and life-giving. A Christian seeks to obey God’s design with a joyful heart rather than outward conformity.

redletter

‘Red Letter Christians’ approach the Bible with the premise that the foundation and starting point for understanding the Gospel should be the direct words of Jesus, as quoted in the Gospels. This is a corrective, they claim, to the traditional approach of evangelicals in which the Pauline epistles are the lens through which the rest of the Bible is interpreted. It sounds all good and pious to say that the actual words of Jesus himself should be our starting point, and the rest of the Scriptures be interpreted through them. There are however a couple of problems with this approach:

  1. Not all the words of Jesus have a direct application to us in the same way they did to those to whom he spoke. As with all biblical passages, we need where possible to understand the situational context in which they are spoken, and to understand what they meant to them then, before we ask what they mean to us today. A classic example of this is Jesus’ exchange with the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22). Jesus commands this man to ‘sell all you have, give to the poor… and come follow me.’ Why then do Christians own things? If these are Jesus’ direct words, shouldn’t we all obey them literally and refuse to own any property? No, we understand that these words were given to this man at that time because it addressed both the deepest need and biggest problem he had – loving his riches more than God. This does not mean we cannot learn from this story, nor take action to remove those things in our lives that have become idols; however this example shows us that simply ‘obeying the words of Jesus’ is not always as simple as it sounds.
  2. Sometimes, especially in the Gospel of John, it is hard to be clear on exactly where the words of Jesus end and those of the Gospel writer begin. For example, is the world’s best known verse, John 3:16, (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.) the words of Jesus or John? My Red Letter bible has them in red, and continues the quotation right through to the end of verse 21. However some commentators would suggest that the quotation ends with verse 15 – and 16-21 are John’s commentary on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, directed to the reader. So, we have a problem if we are going to give a priority to the quoted words of Jesus, in that we cannot say precisely what they are!
  3. It’s really a false distinction anyway, to suggest that the direct quotations of Jesus are somehow more authoritative or inspired than the words of the New Testament writers. As Jesus commissioned his apostles, he commanded them to ‘[teach] them to observe all that I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28:19) Along with this, he had already given them the promise that the Holy Spirit would, ‘teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’ (John 14:26) What this means for us is that the words we have in the New Testament – be they direct quotations of Jesus or the testimony of his apostles – are equally inspired by the Holy Spirit, and all an accurate communication of all that Jesus commanded.

We need to have an implicit confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit to faithfully communicate the will and mind of God to us in all of the Scriptures, and to avoid making false ‘red letter’ distinctions.