Category Archives: Hermeneutics

Christianity: Reclaiming the Practice

According to Acts 11:26, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Before this, followers of Jesus were typically called “believers” or “disciples.” But now the citizens of Antioch said they were Christians and I’m pretty certain they were not meaning to compliment these believers. To say “I am a Christian” today may draw some sneers but not for the same reasons. So perhaps we can ponder a little more what it means to be a Christian.

THEN and NOW

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The words read “Alexamenos worships his god.”

In the eyes of this Greco-Roman city, these people were following someone who had been crucified and as the apostle Paul would later remind the Christians in Corinth, this was considered foolishness (1 Cor 1:23). As a matter of fact, Jesus was not considered a hero or a good honorable person among the unbelievers, to some he was a crucified ass as the third-century Alexamenos Graffito etching depicts. And I use this language not to be vulgar but so that we might understand the point. If hearing Jesus spoken of as a crucified ass makes you uncomfortable, imagine how Christians must have felt  nearly two-thousand years ago. Yet these Christians remained fiercely loyal, swearing their allegiance to King Jesus and embodying the way of life he lived while on earth — even to the point of suffering death themselves.

But my, my… How things have changed. I once was asked by a barista in a local coffee house if I considered myself a mainline Protestant Christian or an Evangelical Christian. Realizing that this person likely had assumption about both groups that I didn’t want to own, I was very thankful for my Restoration heritage which gave me the language of saying “Christian only but not the only Christians,” So I told the barista, “I’m just a Christian and nothing else.”

That seemed like a good answer in 2007 but ten years later, I’m not so sure. There are ideas associated with the term Christian that give me reason to pause and sometimes option to just say that I am a follower of Jesus. So it’s not that I’m ashamed to confess my faith in Jesus, as I’m not, It’s just that when Christianity has become so embedded in American politics that it’s nearly impossible at times to see any cultural difference between the two, then Christian means something very different from what Christianity should be.

GUITAR PICKING and CHRISTIAN LIVING

As already pointed out, Christianity began as a way of life. To be a believer was to be a disciple of follower of Jesus in community with other believers. That is what it meant to be a Christian and thus to be a part of the ekklesia of King Jesus. It was more than just believing. It was believers putting into practice what they believed about Jesus and the life he lived while on earth.

However, Christianity as a practice isn’t how we typically think of being a Christian. MacIntyre describes a practice saying:

“A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice” (After Virtue, 3rd ed., p 190).

In other words, every good has certain practices that must be followed for that good to exist. If the good is playing the guitar, then there are certain practices such as properly fretting chords and scales, picking techniques, etc…  that must be learned and followed to say I can play the guitar. Any person may be able to pick up a guitar and produce a sound from making contact with the strings but that does not make such a person a guitar player. The same is true with Christianity. There are certain practices that must be learned and followed to say that we are being a Christian (for an accessible read on such practices, I would begin with Fitch, Faithful Presence, 2016). While there is room for debate about what practices are necessary, there shouldn’t be any regarding the need for learning and following certain “standards of excellence” and “rules” in order to be Christian.

This MacIntyrean understanding of practice helps us as we think about our own confession of faith. To be a Christian is not just to believe in Jesus and have a set of beliefs about what is taught in scripture, it is to follow Jesus as a way of life. While that sounds so obvious, just a quick observation of society shows that it doesn’t always translate into practice. Yet it must. If we confess faith in Jesus then we must reclaim Christianity as a particular practice of which Jesus is the interpretive lens that focuses our understanding of what this practice involves.

SO THEN…

Our goal is the formation of Christ in our lives (cf. Gal 4:19) and it requires more intentionality on our part. If our desire to become like Jesus, then we must invest in the practices following Jesus. This isn’t a works oriented salvation, it’s called repentance and it is part of Jesus’s original call to come follow him… learning to be distinctly Christian.

“Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.” – Lamentations 3:40, NIV

A More Violent Christianity?

“Do not treat prophesies with contempt but test them all: hold on to what is good” (1 Thess 5:20-21). Discernment has always been necessary for Christians because the difference between “good” and “bad” prophesy is never so black and white. Like spiked punch, the bad is always cloaked in enough good that it appears good to the undiscerning.

Unsalty Salt: Misreading The Bible

Such is the case of these words spoken Dave Daubenmire, a Christian and former high-school football coach turned activist on the religious right. In a recent live episode of his Pass The Salt, the “Coach” said, “The only thing that’s going to save western civilization is a more aggressive… a more violent Christianity.”

Well, Coach Daubenmire is just flat wrong! If that’s salt he’s passing, it’s lost its saltiness! Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying that Daubenmire is a believer or that he doesn’t mean well but when he suggests that America needs a more violent Christianity, he is speaking what we might call false prophesy.

i283445314525658362-_szw480h1280_If you listen to Coach Daubenmire, it’s clear that he has read the Bible and regards the Bible as the inspired word of God. But suggesting a need for a more violent Christianity is a great example of how one can completely misread the Bible. That’s made clear also when he talks about the violence in the Bible and then says, “The Bible teaches violence as a last resort.”

Yes, there is violence in the Bible. There’s also polygamy in the Bible as well as kings ruling over the people but I doubt the Coach is ready to suggest that western civilization needs polygamy and monarch rule again. So how does he suggest that Christianity needs to become more aggressive and violent? Because his reading of the Bible is neither Christ-centered nor kingdom-oriented!

Christian Faith and The Bible

The only reason there is a worldwide group of people called “Christians” is because of the historical existence of Jesus, whom Christians confess as Lord and Messiah. As part of jesus-crucified-08-2the confession of faith in Jesus, Christians not only believe that Jesus was crucified and resurrected but that he also is the Son of God, the second-person of the Trinity who is God Incarnate revealing the fullness of God. In fact, Hebrews says that Jesus “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Heb 1:3). So when it comes to the question of who God is, Christians point to Jesus. And it’s not just that Jesus is like God but that God is 100% like Jesus… that is, Jesus is God in living flesh and he calls us to follow him.

The revelation of God in Jesus both centers and orients faith, thus also centering and orienting the way Christians read the Bible. In other words, Christians do not read the Bible indiscriminately because doing so would mean that one could make a case for offering sacrifices for the atonement of sin since such teaching is a part of the Bible. But that won’t happen because Christians read the Bible in light of the life and teaching of Jesus. But somehow when it comes to the issue of violence, there are some Christians who resort to an indiscriminate reading of the Bible.

A Christian reading of the Bible is one that is Christ-centered and kingdom-oriented. It’s that simple and that complex, depending on how one looks at it. Since Christians are called to follow Jesus and thus be conformed into the likeness of Christ (cf. Rom 8:29; Gal 4:19), Christian faith and the reading of scripture is centered by Christ. That is, Christians read scripture to embody the way of life Jesus lived which took him to the cross. However, Jesus’ own life and teaching was also oriented towards the kingdom of God rather than any particular earthly civilization or society. That is to say that Jesus was bearing witness to the life that was to come, the reign of God where his will is done on earth as it is in heaven (cf. Matt 5:10) and had already begun breaking into the present. Christians too are a witness of this kingdom life and though imperfect, are called to embody God’s kingdom future in the present.

With a Christ-centered and kingdom-oriented faith shaping the way Christians read the Bible, it is unbiblical to say that Christianity must become violent. This has nothing to do with the ethical dilemma of whether there is ever a so-called “just-war” or whether Christians can use a measure of violence in self-defense. This is about following King Jesus rather than the world.

An Example…

Coach Daubenmire alluded to the violence that early Christians encountered saying, “You look at all the crap that the disciples went through…” They did suffer persecution and sometimes even unto their own death but they never called for Christians to become aggressive and violent towards their persecutors. In fact, the Apostle Peter wrote to some Christians who were suffering persecution and he said,

“But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:20-21).

But this will likely never make sense to Christians whose faith is centered in and oriented towards something other than embodying the way of Jesus and the kingdom of God.

Discern wisely! Test all prophesies and hold on to what is good!

 

 

And Who Is My Neighbor?

Most people have heard the story Jesus told in Luke 10 commonly referred to as The Parable of The Good Samaritan. You can read the story here if you would like to reacquaint yourself with the story, which I would highly recommend. Why? Because despite the casual familiarity society has with this story, which has undoubtedly served as the inspiration for the names of numerous “Good Samaritan” hospitals and other “Samaritan” charities, this story really isn’t about a Samaritan.

Yes, you read that correctly! The Parable of the Good Samaritan really isn’t about the Samaritan whom, by the way, is never described as good (or bad) in the actual text. So while we may derive a side point about the virtuous character of the Samaritan, it’s not the main point of the story.

The story is actually about a conversation between a Jewish lawyer and Jesus. The lawyer approached Jesus wanting to “test” him by asking him a question about how he may inherit eternal life (v. 25). Wisely, Jesus turns the tables on his little religious test and asks him about what the Law says. More importantly, Jesus asks this lawyer about how he reads the Law (v. 26). It’s sort of analogous to saying “What does the Bible say about inheriting eternal life? How do you read the Bible?” That’s important because in becomes clear as the story unfolds that Jesus and this lawyer don’t read the Law exactly the same. Their hermeneutic for understanding what is necessary for inheriting eternal life is different. It begs the question of us, as we read the story, as to whether our hermeneutic differs with Jesus.

The lawyer responds by reciting what we commonly refer to as the greatest commands: 1) love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and 2) love your neighbor as yourself (v. 27) (see also Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-31). If this lawyer was simply taking a test, he would have passed because he is right that about loving God and neighbor. The problem is his understanding of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. He doesn’t want to really love every neighbor as himself and so to justify himself, he asks Jesus just who his neighbor really is (v. 29).

In turn, Jesus responds by telling him a story… Well you know the story. But the shocking part of the story is that of all the characters Jesus could have chosen to play the role of hero in the story, Jesus chose a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated each other with an enmity that was full of mutual distrust, discrimination, and animosity. And yes, Jesus knew this and that’s the point. Because Jesus is saying to this Jewish lawyer is that the Samaritans, whom he hates, are his neighbor too and if he wants to have a place in the kingdom of God then he must learn to love the Samaritans as his neighbor and that looks something like how the hero Samaritan of the story loved the man who was viciously assaulted along the roadside.

“…we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Who are we more like? The Samaritan or the Jewish lawyer? Of course, we want to become like Jesus but to do that we first need to ask if we’re not more like the Jewish lawyer than we realize. If we don’t discern that question then we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.

When Jesus made the hero of his story a Samaritan, he was saying that our neighbors include those we regard as enemies, those we may fear, and even those we may discriminate against in one fashion or another. Had it been a White American evangelical Christian approaching Jesus like this Jewish lawyer, who would have been the hero of the story Jesus told? I think the hero of the story would have been a Muslim father from Pakistan, Egypt, etc… Or a LBGTQ Feminist girl attending college at Harvard, Stanford, etc… or a young Black male living in Chicago, Baltimore, etc… Or a Latino woman originally from Honduras, Mexico, etc… Or a… The list can go on and on and on.

The point is that our neighbors are also Muslims, LBGTQ people, Blacks and Latinos, and whoever else we think of as different from us. Jesus told the Jewish lawyer to go do as the Samaritan did and extend mercy to our neighbors. We don’t have to agree with our neighbor, share their same religious and political views, or even like their way of life but we must love them as ourselves by showing them mercy − doing acts of mercy as we have the opportunity. In fact, we’ll never see the kingdom of God unless we can learn to show mercy and be their neighbor by loving them.

“Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!”

I’ll push this even farther because it is time we get the point. The currency of our gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is that we love God by loving others… we love one another but we also love our neighbors and even our enemy neighbors. It doesn’t matter what we preach and teach if we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves! To paraphrase Paul somewhat, if we cannot love our neighbors then we are as useless as a noisy gong.

Let’s be more than a useless noisy gong. We believe that we are called to be witnesses of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God to the world. Very good! But remember that begins by loving our neighbors and the best place to begin is right in our own neighborhoods with the people living next door or just a few doors down no matter what skin color they have, what sort of lifestyle they live, what their nationality of origin is, or what their religious and political beliefs are. Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!

Proleptic Vision: Christians, America, and the Upcoming Presidential Election

How should Christians, people who profess to believe in and follow Jesus Christ, live? In one sense that seems like a simple question to answer: Christians must become like Jesus Christ. That’s why the Apostle Paul says, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). However, this opens other important questions such as how such life formation shapes the way we act towards the poor, the way we live in marriage, the way we love our enemies, and so on.

Though it has not always been the cast, most of these other questions are a no-brainer. Of course, the life Jesus lived should shape the way we act as husbands or wives, the way we love our enemies (even if we don’t agree on what all that entails). Yet there is one aspect in which Jesus doesn’t seem to have a lot of influence these days and that is how Christians relate to earthly nations in light of history.

The fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is a well known passage of scripture for its proclamation of the gospel, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation this gospel offers to those who believe. Consider though, the historical implications of the gospel. Because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul says in vv. 20-24:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.

What a huge historical claim this passage makes about the future and end or goal (telos) of history. As Jürgen Moltmann notes, the future and hope is already present to Christians in Christ (Theology of Hope, p. 161). This makes history proleptic whereby the future of history is already known to those who believe, giving the church a proleptic vision. All dominion, authority, and power is and will surrender to the reign of Jesus, who will then hand over the kingdom to God the father.

…Christians must regard all nations and history in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with that appointed time when the kingdom of God is handed to God the Father and all other kingdoms are destroyed.

Right now, America is engaged in a vitriolic and contentious political campaign that will culminate in the election of a new President of the United States. In varying degrees, Christians in America are for the most part also engaged in this political campaign. Some Christians would even suggest, as one article does, that the future of America is at stake with this election. Should Christians have such a concern? Remember what the passage above from 1 Corinthians already implies for believers: the future of America and every other earthly nation is already known. Whatever claims of sovereignty America and other earthly nations make, Jesus Christ has already defeated such sovereignty which will surrender no later then when the end (telos) of history dawns.

This must change the way Christians live historically in relation to the nations and that includes America. Sine Jesus Christ is already victorious over all dominion and authority, including America and every other earthly nation, then the work of Christians in every local church is the proclamation of this victory (cf. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, p. 147). Just as I suggest that Christians should read the Bible through the hermeneutical lenses of christology and eschatology, the Christian life and ministry must be christologically-centered and eschatologically-oriented. The doctrines of christology and eschatology should shape the proleptic vision of the church, changing the way Christians should relate to all earthly nations and history. That is, Christians must regard all nations and history in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with that appointed time when the kingdom of God is handed to God the Father and all other kingdoms are destroyed. The Christian witness then involves letting the world know of this victory. All earthly nations, including America, must know that they are neither eternal nor sovereign because God has already established his eternal kingdom through the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Lest I be misunderstood or even falsely accused, I do not hate America. Problems notwithstanding, America has and will most likely continue to be a good nation to live among. So please, if you’ve read this far, do not think of me as an anti-American hater, because I’m not. I just believe that Jesus is Lord and that my allegiance is therefore due to Jesus and his kingdom.

So how should Christians in America relate to earthly nations in light of history, particularly as it pertains to the upcoming election? As November 8th approaches, it does seem that Christians have good reason for concern (though neither fear nor anxiety). Whoever is elected as the next President of the United States or whoever becomes a Mayor among any number of American cities does matter. Those holding such such offices should be people who will serve by seeking the relative good of all people. However, Christians must not be misled into thinking that the future of America is really what matters. What matters is that Jesus Christ is the crucified and resurrected Lord! What a failure it is for Christians to become so entangled in the business of who wins an election that the gospel takes a back seat, resulting in a diminished and compromised Christian witness.

For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, let them see and hear!

A Christian Hermeneutic: Until Christ Is Formed In You

Anyone can pick up a Bible, read it and quote it. But that doesn’t mean they’ll read it right and begin living the life the Bible points to, revealed to us by Jesus. In fact, remember when Jesus was led into the wilderness and tested by the devil? Well, the devil even quoted scripture and I’m quite sure his use of scripture was not what God had in mind.

I’ve been busy finishing a thesis proposal for my Doctor of Ministry degree in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary. My interest and the focus of my research is on missional hermeneutics and how a church reads the Bible in order to live as participants in the mission of God. It’s an important issue as churches navigate new challenges brought on by rapid changes in their local communities. It’s also an important issue because not every Christian/church reads the Bible well. Reading the Bible to simply protect the status quo of tradition in your church, to legitimize the American way of life, to promote the  “name it, claim it” prosperity gospel, and so on. Bad reading!

How we read our Bible matters also as we are faced with new moral and ethical challenges. With great advances in technology, new discoveries in science, the availability of a plethora of information at the click of a mouse, and the onset of globalization, we have reason to inquire about what is right and wrong or how we should act and respond to this or that issue. Racism, homosexuality, gun violence and terrorism, abortion, marriage and divorce, materialism and charity… to name a few of the issues.

Some of the issues may seem to have an easy answer where it seems clear as to what the will of God is and therefore how Christians should believe and act. For some Christians it is but for others it’s not as clear cut. In fact, there are Christians, who love Jesus and desire to follow him as much as you, who have come to some different conclusions than you. Whose right and whose wrong isn’t the point. What matters is that we recognize that facing the difficult challenges and finding answers to the questions they raise, if that’s possible since that is not always the case, is more than just a matter of asking what does the Bible say?

I don’t want to be misunderstood though. Asking what the Bible says is a good question but it is always a matter of interpretation and our interpretation is always based on a hermeneutic. Everyone has a hermeneutic whether they know it or not, the real question is whether it is a good hermeneutic or a bad hermeneutic. One person’s hermeneutic might be happiness and so long as it makes a person happy or brings them joy, then nothings wrong. Another person’s hermeneutic might be the virtue of “do no harm” and so an action permissible as long as it doesn’t result in injury to anyone else.

For Christians and churches, our hermeneutic is anchored in Jesus Christ. In a blog post, there is only say so much that one can say which may (hopefully) raise more questions than it answers and that is my hope here. But let me try explaining what I mean by Jesus Christ as our hermeneutic by quoting one passage of scripture from the Apostle Paul:

“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Gal 4:19)

This is one of the classic passages when talking about spiritual formation and it seems clear that Paul ministry sought to form the church in the way of Jesus Christ. How Jesus lived, becoming a crucified servant, and the purpose for which he lived, the kingdom of God, must become our way and purpose for how we live. This is the hermeneutic we must read the Bible through, which I believe is shaped by the dual lenses of christology (the life Jesus lived) and eschatology (the goal for which Jesus lived).

To describe this Christian hermeneutic another way, this hermeneutic is christologically-centered and eschatologically oriented. Reading the Bible through this hermeneutical lens is not likely to make the challenging issues and questions faced by churches any easier in addressing. However, it provides a beginning point that for determine right and wrong not based on happiness or lacking any injury but on whether our actions are Christ likeness in perspective and direction.

And if the church, the Christian life, isn’t Christ likeness… Well, you know!