This post is a kind of interlude within a mini-series on “judging” topics—topics that have been a little dangerous. I don’t want to give the wrong emphasis to readers; neither do I want to paint myself into a corner in anyone’s eyes. Let’s take couple steps back.
Last fall, I wrote a few posts on gleanings from the book of Judges (link opens in a new tab). That book, within the library we call the “Bible,” continues to draw me in. Sure, the stories are riveting, but it’s not that, really; it’s the events described. What happened is revealing: how God’s people’s navigated those events, and how God dealt with them over a period of decades. I think the time of the Judges can be wrongly dismissed as a few cool stories—without apprehending the theological significance of what was going on at the time. My current series on “judging” doesn’t have anything directly to do with the book of Judges, but there’s obviously a verbal connection.
What are “judging” and “judgment” after all? The English word ‘”judge,” when used as a verb, tends to be pejorative, but the corresponding words in other languages might not have the same import. For instance, I suspect the ancient Hebrew word would have had different nuances and implications.
As to this current series on “judging”: I have intended it to deal more in (1) spiritually or logically assessing than (2) legally judging or (3) ultimately condemning. Secondarily, I mean to challenge the notion that judging is necessarily to be avoided. In fact, one well-known personality inventory (non-judgmentally!) validates judging as a neutral trait. The diagram here comes close to representing my own personality, as assessed a couple dozen years ago. I’m largely introverted, intuitive, and feeling. At that time, I came out near the middle of the fourth spectrum that encompasses “judging” and “perceiving,” but my judging tendencies, as defined by Meyers-Briggs, meant that I made many decisions in my outer life based on plans, order, and organization. I liked to “bring life under control as much as possible.” These days, I’m more flexible and would probably be stronger in “perceiving,” at least in some respects. None of this relates too much to what I’ve been saying about judging; it only serves to illustrate that we need to know what we’re talking about when we use a word like “judge.” Context can help.
On the way to work this morning, I judged that a driver was less competent and courteous than I. I judged that based on evidence of how that person treated a stop sign. Yesterday, I judged myself to have enough fortitude to do something that needed to be done. This was perhaps a spiritual prompting to go out of my way to be kind to someone who had not been kind to me. That is a judgment I made, as well. Had I not taken the step I took (which was well received, I’m happy to report), I would have judged myself weak. I judge myself too harshly at times, and too graciously at other times. Judging oneself involves many pitfalls, and as a result, we need accountability within small, organic groups of Christians.
Repeated experiences with individuals may lead us to note inconsistencies, or even hypocrisy, in their character. Less ominously, we may simply assess traits and tendencies and opt out of close association with this or that person. These are all “judgments” that need not be considered malevolent. They may not in fact contain any ill will at all. It may be necessary to judge at times—in order to keep oneself sane or pure. Judging is not all bad. We just need to judge rightly … and not direct all the judgment outward! (See end of previous post.)
The next post, I think, will take a while to construct, and it will conclude the series. It will briefly evaluate (assess, judge) one view that’s spotlighted in the book Three Views on Israel and the Church (book title). The format of this book is geared for critique, which is another type of judgment. My particular critique of one of the views is important to me in several aspects:
It deeply touches my overarching focus on God’s Kingdom vs. the governments of humans.
Generally, I want to challenge myself in scholarly thought process. I want to be able to think through something with a clear head and without prejudice, inasmuch as this is even possible.
A dispensationalist preacher recently showed patience with me but has judged a few related things quite differently from the way I’ve judged them. I want to investigate before heading back to finish the conversation.
I’m not sure which of the above will take the lead in my heart or mind. I do look forward to being challenged by the views, the scholarly responses, my intellectual process as I read all the above, and the process of communicating all that on this blog. It may take a bit of time to get it all together, and other posts may come in the meantime, so please stay tuned.
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Three years ago, some things were the same as they are now, but some were very different. Three years ago, technology was different. (I had a phone and a laptop that were to become obsolete.) Three years ago, there were different sets of responsibilities but the same general spheres of travel. So much is different, but some things are the same. I don’t remember where I was on Christmas Eve day in 2016, but I likely read something in, or about, the scriptures. I did that this morning, too. (At least that much is the same.) In an 80-year-old classic work recommended by a respected scholar, I found this:
“The linkage of baptism with the Spirit is surely pre-Pauline and primitive. ‘In one Spirit,’ says Paul, speaking as though the Spirit were some sort of fluid, ‘were we all baptized . . . and were made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Cor. xii. 13). ‘But ye were washed . . . in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the spirit of our God.’ Here the gift of the Spirit is associated with baptism.”
– A.M. Hunter, Paul and His Predecessors, 81
And associated it is. The spirit of God is associated with Christian immersion. 80 years later, though, and after centuries of legacy doctrine, the question comes to us: how many deity-entities are depicted in the above passage? Even if we could agree on an answer to that question, could we legitimately say that enumeration was Paul’s concern in 1Corinthians 12? I’d suggest that the capitalization of “Spirit” in five instances above leads readers in a interpretive direction. On the other hand, the expression “spirit of our God,” with its lower-case “s,” seems to imply that spirit, there, means “essence.”
An inbox impetus this morning led me to find that, three years ago to the day, I posted this:
The notion that Trinity is “at the heart of the Christian faith” is overstated, at best. “Trinity” is largely, if not entirely, a humanly devised concept and is not espoused in scripture as such. I prefer to think of God as transcendent and many-faceted, without locking Him in to being “three”—which may be, after all, a mere number suggested for the sake of the limited human mind.
A few questions for those who haven’t ever been challenged to consider Trinitarian formulaism critically:
Where, precisely, is “trinity” found in scripture?
Who gave trinity its capital-letter sense/status? When?
What role does the odd word “Godhead” play in legacy doctrine?
In scripture, where is the “Holy Spirit” worshipped (or prayed to) as such?
Why do we feel the need to enumerate the aspects or parts of God rather than worship?
What is at stake in either upholding or denying the doctrine of the trinity? How might we accept the possibility of trinity without codifying it?
Many will be worshipping Jesus intentionally today and tomorrow. It is unquestionably good to worship the Father, and reasons also abound to give adoring, worshipful attention to Jesus as Teacher, as Example, as Messiah-King, as Lord. We find worship-filled texts in our scriptures. There are also extrabiblical references to devotional practices of early Christians.¹ The earliest references do not appear to bolster trinitarian notions, but they absolutely affirm Jesus as God.
Today, as I think back to three years ago, it almost seems as though I was a different person. Life was entirely different. Sources of joy and pain were not what they are today. Some things about life have changed, and I am very different, but God is the same. Honor to God, then. Gratitude and praise from men and women, with whom He was pleased to dwell. Count me among those who worship the Son and the Father intentionally—today and other days.
B. Casey, 12/24/19
¹ Some, including the recently passed Larry Hurtado, have made it their life’s work to uncover and elucidate Christian origins. Those of us interested in reasoned, supported/supportable faith are indebted to such scholars.
Whereas Othniel, Ehud, and Deborah appear to have acknowledged God’s role, human might was also integral in their stories, to the point that one begins to question the people’s allegiance to the One Deliverer. The Deborah/Barak “song of victory,” for example, allows a place for the Lord of Hosts, but the Hebrew people almost appear to be boastful rather than grateful. With Gideon, a mixture of faith and fear was in evidence. Abimelech was a blight in Israel’s history, showing nothing good at all. The Jepththah story is starkly tragic. And next, the inimitable Samson.
In the case of Samson, I perceive a descent, by an order of magnitude, into selfish foolishness. No matter how bloody Gideon’s aftermath, or how horrific the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, I see Samson as worse. Despite his bravery and military heroism, he was pathetically human, with primary loyalty to his own needs and ego. Here are a few things we can see in this character’s story:
Devotion (parents dedicated him, Nazir vow)
Orientation to a cause (defeating the Philistines)
Vengeful bloodthirst for vindication (for self or God?)
Weakness (when lust for women came into the picture)
Faith (regarded, in the end, by God)
We humans can readily become too excited about things that are relatively unimportant, or pay homage to things over than God. We pay rapt attention to, or become consumed by, unimportant things while ignoring the eternally significant. As I will illustrate in a related essay soon, humanity has always problems with lack of hindsight, foresight, insight, and prioritization. In short, we sometimes don’t perceive and judge or assess things rightly. The Israelites surely did that, and Samson did it in the extreme. Overall, the Israelites’ faithless downfalls may be starkly seen in the time of the Judges. I might frame all this as misplaced allegiance: for example, to Deborah over God, to victory over the Victor, to human strength or decision over God’s provision.
Speaking of allegiance
I frequently do battle with the creeping influence of Americanisn—a philosophy I find to have taken hold within the minds and hearts of a great many sincere, even studied Christian believers. (Actually, Mr. Americanism ain’t creepin’ no mo! . . . he done crept in and made hisself a home!) Allegiance to the U.S.A. is a topic too large for my scope here; it deserves more than a mention. I would be remiss, too, in an essay on priorities and allegiance, if I didn’t briefly address loyalty to denominations. At least in my mind, denominational partisanship is a more manageable, even simplistic topic than nationalism. Simply to denominate (to name) isn’t inherently sinful, but to have an organization that comes between a believer and his allegiance to God must be called out. Some denominations are more hierarchical than others, but it’s not the ones with the top-down mentality that do all the damage. What are we to think of Joel Osteen’s followers, for instance? Are they better, in the end, than the Scientology cult or the Mormon organization? Even grassroots loyalty that fosters subservience to dogma and clergy in relatively egalitarian organizations can be very damaging.
Further, we ought to reject and repudiate other loyalty-grabbers such as lodges and secret societies. As children, we might have secret handshakes or passwords for fun, but when this stuff escalates into adulthood, the potential is frightening. While Satanism or Wicca are blatant and to be avoided, we shouldn’t wink at the insidious potential of Freemasonry. The Masonic influence in history is the stuff of legend, documentary, and conspiracy theory, but it is not to be ignored. No God-respecting Christian should pledge allegiance to the Masons, or to the Mormon President, or to any other Lord or group. The influence of such groups in societymay be mixed, but the influence on the individual soulwho has pledged to Jesus as Lord is compromising and devastating.
What does this have to do with Samson? It’s but a tangent as I observe how the Hebrews’ loyalties were torn from the One who should have been their only God.
I’ve noticed a certain disappointing conclusion in a number of books and sermons lately. I’m prone to exaggeration, but this thing keeps coming up, so maybe I’m onto something in thinking it’s a trend. The particular disappointment has to do with the eschaton (end-time eventualities)—particularly, any viewpoint that anticipates a physical, earthly manifestation of everlasting heaven. The disappointment grows in intensity when the viewpoint is espoused by a person whose scholarship and/or philosophies I respect.
Rick McKinley and Matthew Bates, two new-favorite author-thinkers, have greatly impacted me with important notions around (1) biblical faithfulness and (2) kingdom. Both of these have apparently arrived at roughly the same place on this eschatological question: anticipating a renewed earth for all eternity. Those who agree with them, including a large proportion of evangelicals, can hardly breathe when asked to consider another point of view; the same may be said of those on the other side.
With the latter group, I have throughout my life taken the position that this earth will eventually be entirely done away with. As I read and hear key thinkers on this, many end up disagreeing with me, although some of them and I do turn out to agree.
Could I be wrong? (I ask that question both seriously and tongue-in-cheek. I could falsely find comfort in being in a minority. You know, “few there be that find the narrow way” and all.) I’m really not ready to admit it just yet. The problem for me, on this topic and others, is this: when I find holes in others’ logic, I may feel justified in ceasing to think logically. The primary hermeneutical non sequiturs I find in this sphere concern people’s inability to distinguish apocalyptic literature from narrative or didactic literature. If people assume Revelation is to be taken as literally as one takes, say, Mark or Acts, they may jump to conclusions. See this Wikipedia reference to interpreting Revelation; the point is that it is a particular way of reading Revelation that results in some theological positions. What if everyone read most of Revelation as primarily figurative? (One can do that while still respecting scripture, you know.) Arguments would be avoided, and more people would agree with me. That’s good, right? 🙂
→ See here for a brief spotlighting of the different types of biblical literature.
So what if I turn out to be wrong? I find myself partly aligned with the amillennialists (not postmillennial, not premillennial) and, to a degree, with the preterists. A friend says he’s an “I don’t care-ist,” meaning he doesn’t really care what the Lord does “at the end” . . . anything is OK with him. Following his lead, if the Lord disagrees with my present conclusions, I can live with that. (This is pretty much the case with other “doctrinal” matters, too.) What am I going to do—stand at the throne and discuss eschatology with the One who is outside time and planned it all, anyway?! I’m thankful that my relationship with Him—both the “here and now” and the “there and then” aspects—does not depend on drawing correct conclusions.
“Freedom” is an English word which suggests a value held by most Americans—arguably, an innate value. What, though, is the referent of “freedom”? It depends on the context. Are we talking about Scots in the feudal period (see my essay with a Braveheart connection here), 19th-century Africans-become-Americans on the move, Jews or Christians in the 1st-century Roman Empire, or “free speech” in the 21st century?¹
I presume that all thoughtful people, regardless of how (or if) they feel patriotic, or how they support (or do not support) military action, can agree on a few things—for instance, that the loss of human life is to be avoided when possible, and that all human enslavement in recent history is abhorrent. I certainly consider freedom from such enslavement a worthy human cause. I would like to spend a few clarifying minutes here, though—sharing an illuminating, distinguishing feature of “freedom” in the New Covenant writings. There can yet be appropriate lessons for Christians to draw out on the occasion of a national holiday. I hope this post turns out to impress readers as just such a lesson, refining and deepening our thinking.
We should be aware, first off, that concepts and practicalities around freedom and slavery have changed through the ages. What felt like freedom to an ancient, freed Hebrew who had lived in Egypt would surely still feel like bondage to me, a person of some privilege. We know more of the life of a bondservant in New Testament times, but assumptions must still be made. One conclusion we might draw is that, whatever Paul thought about about Roman-era slavery, he didn’t consider it inherently evil, or he wouldn’t have sent the “slave” Onesimus back to Philemon, and he wouldn’t have told “slaves” to obey their masters. The point here is that one must learn something of the reality of the situation—the context of the “freedom”—before he can make apt assessments. Moreover, the human enslavement that occurs today is of a different stripe from that of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in western Africa (and they’ve all been awful, on the whole).
The first three “freedom” definitions given in one e-source all focus attention on liberty from something—from restraint, from despotic government, or from enslavement. Those definitions and references do summon images and historical education for many of us. But these are not necessarily directly related to “freedom” in the NT writings.
In 2015, Dr. Larry Hurtado, an influential, reputable scholar retired from the University of Edinburgh, wrote a paper entitled “Freed by Love and for Love: Freedom in the New Testament.” Hurtado first treated NT references to freedom in the historical context of Roman slavery, which again deserves consideration in its historical context. He proceeds to emphasize that, in the NT, freedom is “for a certain direction in life” (Hurtado p. 1) and is to be seen in (positive) connection to other people.This freedom for something is to be seen in contrast to mere freedom from something—even something as dehumanizingly evil as the kind of slavery we typically think of. On the contrary, the secular view of freedom in the Roman world—and, we daresay, throughout the West today—is often seen to be “at the expense of others, their labor and service enabling one to enjoy a freedom from labor and service.” (p. 25) This assertion at first sounds overdone, but I consider it justifiable. In other words, the freedom I enjoy as a U.S. citizen does not on the surface seem to be at the expense of others, yet when it is analyzed, a good part of it turns up wanting. Hurtado’s point seems valid.
I don’t share all of Hurtado’s perspectives or concerns, and I wouldn’t claim any more than 10% of his intellectual capacity and insight, but I surely do appreciate the whole of his “Concluding Reflections,” which I reproduce below, with bold emphases of my own. Again, the stress is not on what one is free for, but on what she is freed to do.
Anyone may find Hurtado’s paper freely available in its entirety here.
– B. Casey, 5/20/18 – 6/30/18
Those who require an explicit scriptural text to authorize any thought or action will find the absence of NT statements on political liberation either frustrating or a (dubious) justification for conservatism. Those whose vision of liberation is essentially a hastily baptized version of Greek traditions of autarchy will find the NT vision of freedom incomprehensible and repugnant. I suggest, however, that both responses reflect shallow thinking. In any case, neither represents an adequate engagement with the NT.
As we have noted earlier, the NT does not teach about political liberation, largely because the sorts of actions open today (especially political organization) were not available or even conceived then. But the strong affirmation and enhancement of personal moral agency in the NT are most compatible with social and political environments that make ample room for freedom of conscience and action. The agapē urged in the NT requires a real measure of personal freedom in order to be exercised authentically. It is not possible to render the love advocated in the NT under compulsion and coercion. So, e.g., freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom from intimidation and oppressive social relationships are essential for the cultivation of opportunities for true faith and loving freedom to be exercised.
The eschatological vision that fuels NT teaching on freedom and other matters has been effectively lost in most versions of Christianity, along with the concomitant radical view of evil, with unfortunate results. Conservative Christianity has tended to identify too readily the Kingdom of God with this or that political regime (from Constantine onward), whereas liberal Christianity has tended to under-estimate the depth of evil and in its own ways has tended to assume that radical change for the better can be achieved by well-intentioned people. But the eschatological outlook of the NT reflects a profound, if jarring, view of the human predicament, which, in view of daily news reports, at least seems more realistic. Moreover, that same eschatological hope also requires a stubborn refusal to confuse any human regime with God’s Kingdom, which should allow scope for critique of all regimes, even those established in the name of freedom.
The NT emphasis on freedom for the love of others may be instructive as well. There are plenty of indications that modern liberal democracies are good at promoting individualism, and a culture of self-attainment. But these societies are not very successful in promoting a productive and free social cohesion, and common values, or in getting individuals to use their wealth and other advantages for the good of other people. Perhaps, then, the remarkable version of freedom in the NT is worth a second look. One implication of the NT treatment of freedom is that a “free” society cannot be measured simply in the degree of autocracy exercised by individuals. In today’s political climate, choice is a major commodity offered by politicians to a public coached to prize enjoyment of maximum personal opportunities. But the NT idea of freedom rejects acquisitive choice in favour of serious and productive inter-personal involvement. This dynamic freedom involves a greater realization of one’s own moral agency and an enlargement of one’s vision to take in others. The expression of this sort of freedom promotes inter-personal relationships that nurture and enhance others, freely loving others in the power of God’s freely given redemptive love.
– from Dr. Larry Hurtado, “Freed by Love and for Love: Freedom in the New Testament” (2010)
For the benefit of both sets of readers, this is also posted on my Kingdom blog.
For more (roughly) seasonal reading:
Nations—a probing of the ideas and concepts in the word(s)
The Babylon Beecan step on toes—and be rather probing with its stingers. Enjoy this year-old satire on one of the U.S.’s special days:
¹ I don’t list here the countless Christian songs that rhyme with “set free.” Some of them might have something theologically sound in the background, but others seem rather glib and gratuitous, with no particular reference.
“God’s love for the U.S.” is an idea concocted out of thick air—thick with people who not only believe, but also blithely promulgate, the idea that God especially guides the United States. These people are almost as common as, and even more deluded than, those who think they can play the guitar.
. . .
God is not about geopolitical entities.
. . .
I would assert that God did specially orchestrate some events for the ancient Jews for centuries, but the scenario then changed.
Faithfulness/allegiance to the kingship of Jesus will ultimately be significant to everyone. This final installment in a short series on my other blog speaks in some detail about some key language of Christian “faith”—which, as it turns out, is often the language of allegiance.
Among other challenges, Matthew Batesʼs Salvation by Allegiance Alone aims to move us toward a fuller, more apt understanding of pistis (“faith” in English Bibles). Please click below (to my other blog) to read more on faith as allegiance to Jesus as King:
Apologies to readers who receive posts by e-mail for this blog. I clicked prematurely yesterday. If you have already read the linked post above, know that nothing has changed there other than a correction of a typo.
Scrolling way, way down in a poorly formatted e-newspaper, I found a gem. Get out your jeweler’s light, and trace the all the facets of this, appreciating its shining beauty and value.
So easy to take a scripture not meant for us and claim it, as if God meant it for everyone everywhere at all times.
“Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.”” Joshua 3:5 NIV
Does God do amazing things?
But is that what this passage is saying to everyone?
No. It’s a promise to the Jewish people as they entered the Promised Land.
Ripping it out of context and applying it to yourself today is not only poor language/exegetical skills, it could lead to frustration and loss of faith. Many days are ordinary, with the Lord at work, subtly, behind the scenes.
I used this example because have never heard someone claim it.
But what if the passage is famous?
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 NIV
Is this as general a promise as we’ve made it out to be? Is it true of God and us all the time (think of all the judgment & discipline passages)? What do Jeremiah 29, and the passages around it, indicate? Are there other similar promises?
It may indeed be a general promise, but have we done our “due diligence”?
Let us use scripture carefully, brother & sisters.
– Al Schirmacher
Soon, and for the first time ever, I might be able to say that I visited a church building solely because of a statement (oral or written) by a single preacher, pastor, or other church leader! – Brian
One I’ve come up short in terms of knowledge so often that it’s hardly worth mentioning. It’s happened again, in the last couple of weeks, with respect to a theological teaching known as PSA. Here, PSA is neither an oncologist’s measurement nor a mediaperson’s “public service announcement.” Theologically, apparently PSA is Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I didn’t even know anything had been labeled as such, and I’ve never before considered PSA’s pros and cons. Essentially, I think most people who would call themselves Christians assume some degree of PSA, whereas discriminating, studied theologians have nuanced it and decided on at least a partial yea or nay.
I have only barely started thinking about this, and even a cursory search and scan immediately sends me spiraling suspiciously down a staircase of suppositions. In other words, I get dizzy with the labels and can’t find my way to the elevator.
Did you know that the root word “atone” is not found in the entire New Testament in the RSV or NASB or NJB translations? It does appears 4x in the NT in the NRSV, and there are dozens of instances in some English Bibles in the Old Testament (but only 4x in the OT in the Roman-Catholic NJB). The words “propitiation” and “expiation” come into play here, too . . . but the exegete’s questions must be focused on original-language words such as “ἱλάσκομαι” | hilaskomai and what they mean in context in such passages as Hebrews 2:17. How intriguing that the only other place hilaskomai is used is in Luke 18:13, and the aorist middle/passive form is not translated “atone” there in any of my English Bibles. Related, cognate words such as ἱλαστήριον | hilasterion ought also to be considered (and this word is also rendered with multiple English words), but cognates won’t all necessarily refer to the same theological notion. The questions keep coming. . . . In pursuits like this one, we deal in concepts, not merely words, and we cannot blindly focus only on the concepts present in the receptor language (in my case, English). Still, the absence and presence of “atone” or “atoning” in certain English Bibles intrigues me, perhaps betraying theological alignments or biases. Another interesting “find” is that atonement appears ten times in three apocryphal books (Sirach and 2nd and 4th Maccabees) literature. Could it be that the literature from inter-testamental period, as appropriated after Christ, influenced a new-covenant theology of atonement? I really have to stop here for now.
Eventually, I ought to ponder and study more about atonement and PSA. This notion is potentially highly significant, and its long legs extend into such areas as soteriology, eschatology, and congregational worship. Theological matters do have ways of extending themselves. They also have ways of making some of us yawn, recoil, or shrivel. A friend once relayed to me the following quotes or near-quotes:
“Happy is the Christian who has never met a theologian.” – Vance Havner, an influential Southern Baptist evangelist
I was wandering around lost in a dark forest with only one little candle to light my way when a theologian came along and blew out my candle. – French Renaissance essayist Francois Rabelais
I can laugh at those, but, in my mind, theology has a forbidding presence—one that I’m only sporadically interested in acknowledging.
Two In the current Lexham Press catalog, I found a few titles I was interested in:
Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice (Larry Hurtado’s forthcoming work on the worship of Christ in the early church)
The Universal Story (Dru Johnson’s treatment of Genesis 1-11)
The Bible Unfiltered (Michael Heiser’s angle on the supernatural worldview inherent in scripture)
So many titles, however, seem like mere theological meanderings:
The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism
1) Christian Essentials and 2) Theological Institutes (two different titles, surely with two different lists/presentations)
Studies in Historical & Systematic Theology (series)
Introduction to Dogmatic Theology (most of it is, I’d say!)
The Theological Correspondence of John Frame
No Quick Fix (an exposé of Keswickian “higher life” theology)
An Exegetical Theology of 1-3 John
Even the last one’s blurb shows the book to be more connected to “systematic theology” than to 1-2-3 John. When I do take time for theology, it’s with trepidation. In a recent “church” visit, I was unwittingly put on notice that I could never belong there, because anyone who does not support X theological construct is clearly viewed as heretical.
Three I do appreciate the following wise words on the theological bent, so I’ll leave you with them for today. Don’t miss the final clause about the likely mingling of motivations.
Theology is a bit like a spider’s web, in the sense that cutting a single strand of a theological framework can drastically alter the shape of the whole.
A good theologian understands the web from many angles. They can identify the fundamental tenets of an intricate system. They can foresee the potential effects of disregarding those tenets in advance. They can perceive when an apparently obscure issue is being used as a proxy for the underlying disagreement — and when it is not actually an obscure issue at all. They can spot patterns, echoes, allusions, and possibilities.
This obviously requires clarity of thought — but it also demands empathy and a wide-ranging understanding of context, since personal motivations are so often mingled with doctrinal ones.
A few people in my past were big fans of the A Cappella organization. At one point, it was just two guys on tour with pre-recorded tracks, but it was more often several guys. Later, additional groups were spawned, including women and children. AVB, the A Cappella Vocal Band, made forays into rappish tunes and used more vocal percussion effects. I was never too big a fan myself, but I find myself going back to the past once in a while now.
Here is a YouTube link to an AVB song I happened to pull out yesterday. Jedd and I listened while on an adventure and hour-long errand. The message is simple but simply provocative for all of us—even those of us who’ve heard throughout our lives that we should call “Bible things by Bible names.” I was happy this morning to be able to remember the words to the chorus. I left the last line open for Jedd to fill in, and fill it in he did, with a smile. I think this song’s punch drove home something he’s known for a few years already.
You can’t go to church as some people say —
The common terminology we use everyday —
You can go to a building—that is something you can do—
But you can’t go to church ‘Cause the church is you
While I’m heading into the past with music from the 80s and 90s . . . a song that still gets to me, as sung by the parent group A Cappella, is “Fly Away,” in which I am reminded that “we will fly away when He hears His Father say, ‘Jesus, go and get your bride, today is your wedding day.'”
That post deals relatively briefly with human ways and means, over against what I see as more lasting concerns of those interested in God’s reign. The jumping-off point is 1Kings chapters 1 and 2, and I quote from Will Campbell, too.
This blogpost was conceived a week or two ago and has been created and produced entirely on this day, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If you are short on time, perhaps you can at least mine a few nuggets from the quotes below.
Serendipitously, today, my son and I listened to an old cassette tape while driving in a truck of about the same age. The recorded music was from Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center, and the lead song was what I’d call a differently patriotic one: “America, Spread Your Golden Wings.” Sometime before the song’s final chorus, three significant America quotes of American history are included as an interlude:
The moon landing
JFK’s “Ask not …”
The quintessential Martin Luther King “ have a dream …” quote
I myself have never had much interest in Martin Luther King, Jr. For one thing, I have been conditioned to be biased against just about anyone in the limelight. That aside, I must admit that the lyrics and music of the above-mentioned song, along with the interweaving of these often-heard, spoken moments in American history, combined to inspire even me. King’s words are without doubt memorable, influential, and inspirational. To date, his now-50-year-old attempts to influence this country toward breaking down racial walls has not had enough impact. The Civil Rights causes that King so ardently championed have been left with unfinished work. Another voice along these same lines was that of Will D. Campbell.
In my reading on topics related to the two kingdoms, political and eternal, I have hung on an item in my possession (thanks to noted author Lee Camp)—a compilation of selected Campbell writings, edited by Richard Goode. I had not heard of Campbell before 2016, and perhaps you haven’t, either. Allow me to introduce you to him.
Will Campbell was a preacher in Louisiana for two years before taking a “religious life” post at the University of Mississippi from 1954 to 1956. He was forced to leave that position because of his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. He later served as a race relations consultant for the National Council of Churches in New York, and he is said to have worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. Following are excerpts from blurbs found on the back cover of the book:
Campbell still has much to teach us all. Quirky and courageous, Christian and contrarian, his life of love and labor on behalf of civil rights—and plain civility to those in need—deserves a wider hearing…
In this remarkable collection, Will Campbell unmasks the powers-that-be, envisions on alternative order, and calls Christians to radical practices of resistance and reconciliation. The witness and these pages will call forth many adjectives: “Unrealistic!” “Outrageous!” “Scandalous!” . . . Most often, however, another word is best: Gospel. Unsettling and essential reading for contemporary Christians.
If I myself had said the above, I would hope that most of my readers would respect the opinions somewhat. The fact that the blurb writers hail from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Duke Divinity School, respectively, will give the comments added weight.
Particularly appropriate on this day, the following words would perhaps encapsulate Campbell’s indictment of Christian whites in the South:
The pattern we have seen develop in the Civil Rights struggle has been somewhat as follows: Negroes have grown tired of unfreedom. They have done something about it. In not one case has the leadership in the significant developments been furnished by whites. In Montgomery, Birmingham, Philadelphia, always it has been Negroes who have initiated the action. That, in the Christian understanding, is not as it should have been (bear another’s burdens)…. Neither individual man nor society has been redeemed to the point where we are our brother’s keeper or advocate very much of the time. (177)
It seems to me that the voice of Will Campbell is one that should be heard not only on this particular day but also, more generally and broadly, by all Christians in our age. Editor-compiler Goode comments, “Campbell incarnates the radical iconoclastic vocation of standing in contraposition to society, naming and smashing the racial, economic, and political idols that seduce and delude.” (back cover) “Professing disciples,” says Campbell, “must live an irrepressible conflict against the principalities and powers … that divide and dehumanize.” (vii) “Rather than crafting savvy strategies and public policies, . . . Campbell counsels, ‘”Be reconciled!'” (back cover) I don’t trust that “social” problems can really be solved in this life, but in their spiritual aspects, such problems as racism will be eased, in small corners, by individuals acting like Jesus rather than through political solutions.
Campbell was at times what might today be called an “advocate for the African-American,” yet his notion of reconciliation was so radical that he even went so far, on a humanitarian basis, to champion whites who perpetrated deeply violent, terroristic acts on blacks. He advocated, for instance, for one KKK member and for a law enforcement officer who was wrongly acquitted of a crime against blacks in the Deep South. After certain civil rights were legally obtained for black Americans, Campbell “came to believe that American society was substituting rednecks as the new, preferred ‘least of these’ group. Campbell cast his lot with them, seeking to illustrate reconciliation with these ostracized sisters and brothers.” (31) I wonder what Campbell would perceive of the last decade or so. I suspect it would not be one group that would receive his attention.
Truly, at least based on my cursory reading of Campbell in the last year, he would have been an advocate for any [insert group name here] Lives Matter movement, including the All Lives Matter one. Each life is important, he would say, and all may be reconciled in Christ. Yet he was tough on the Christian establishment. For instance, he referred to Nashville, near which he lived in later life, as a very religious city. “Seven hundred and eighty church houses. But religion is a dangerous thing.” (77) “Campbell calls for disciples to give their lives in irrepressible resistance against all principalities and powers that would impede or deny our reconciliation in Christ—an unrelenting prophetic challenge leveled especially at institutional churches, as well as Christian colleges and universities.” (back cover)
In my view, Campbell correctly calls out the religious establishment, endowing its collective identity with a tongue-in-cheek label, the “Steeples.” He sometimes worked under a Steeple himself, but rarely did he appear to be most effective there. Insofar as Goode has accurately represented Campbell (and I have every reason to believe the depiction is on the money), I would affiliate with his characterization of Campbell here:
He opposes the presumption that the only way the church can effectively suppress racism is either to align itself with humanitarian agencies and more stringently apply the wisdom of social science, or to acquire political power and more rigorously enforce U.S. constitutional law. Both approaches, he says, are pagan insofar as they trust politics and or social science rather than the gospel. (89)
The next quotation does not necessarily support MLK Jr day, but it serves to set up the succeeding one.
I agree that the Christian faith can be changed at many points that would make it more to my liking, more easily acceptable, more in keeping with my culture and my way of life; but the question we must always ask is “Is it Christian when we have finished with it?” (93)
It is in that vein of deep challenge to the church Steeples (establishment groups) that Campbell pins white racist churchmen’s ears to the wall—those who in certain Deep South white churches of the 50s and beyond are blind to their racism. The problem is not with those who would say, “We don’t care what God thinks, we want segregation and will have it forever.” In that event, there would be some hope. Instead, what Campbell suggests racist Christians actually said was, “We want segregation because it is God’s will.” His stinging rejoinder: “to deny God in the name of God is heresy.” (93)
My growing affinity for Campbell has to do with his iconoclasm and his transparent honesty, no matter what. He is rough around the edges and offensive at points, but I love when he says things like this (from a 1987 address titled “Values and Hazards of Theological Preaching”):
I don’t like the word ministry. It is arrogant, presumptuous, condescending, maybe even imperialistic. I don’t have a ministry. I have a life. (123)
In the course of reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, Campbell had queried whether we (meaning Christians in general) assume the kingdom of God would be pretty much like the kingdom of Caesar. (xi) Philosophical challenges to the Religious Right and fundamentalist-Christian America do tend to draw me in, so I am all ears when Campbell calls out Christians for mixing God and political goals. In a late chapter in the book, editor Goode aptly called 1968 “a pivotal year in US political history.” That year, which was of course the year of King’s assassination, Campbell and the editor of the journal Katallagete dedicated an issue to assessing the faith many Christians place in the democratic process. Although it would have been appropriate for me to review and or analyze that essay on this day, I will have to defer that until another time. I will be intently interested in what this courageous man said 40 years ago about the failings of the political system in attaining to the brotherhood of man.
For more on Will Campbell, you might begin at his the Wikipedia page here. Another interesting read would be found in the transcript of an “oral history” interview here.
 On both the first and tenth anniversaries of 9/11, in Kansas and western New York, respectively, I redeployed that very song in music ceremonies.