Disarming Scripture: Reader Questions, part 5

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Jump back to Reader Questions, part 4
Time for another installment of "ask Dr Derek" (I'm not really a doctor, I just play one on TV). Our question this time around is,
If the Bible's purpose is to bring us through competing views of God and morality along a trajectory that leads us to love, and if that trajectory is to continue past the New Testament, then why continue to use the Bible after God's Spirit of love has given us this new heart?
This question is different from the previous questions we've covered thus far (see the link above). The previous questions dealt with how to make sense of what we find in the Bible. This question takes that a step further and asks how that understanding affects our life and praxis as followers of Jesus.  This is where the rubber hits the road! What does it look like to read the Bible as our sacred text, as Scripture, if we reject the biblicism's approach of unquestioning obedience, and wish instead to follow in the footsteps of Christ's hermeneutic of faithful questioning?

Specifically, this question asks what it looks like to read on a trajectory. What I seek to show in Disarming Scripture is that Jesus read Scripture on a trajectory -- or rather that Jesus sets this trajectory for us with his message of radical forgiveness, grace, and enemy love, moving away from the way of violence as a means of bringing about justice (payback justice: doing harm to make things right) and replacing it with bringing about justice through agape love (the gospel: doing good to make things right).

Here what is crucial is to identify the core message of the gospel, of the kingdom of God, as Jesus understood, proclaimed, and demonstrated it. The traditional evangelical approach is to focus on personal salvation, in our entering into a loving relationship with God in Christ. I completely agree with this, but our being loved by God needs to spill over into a life of showing that same love to others, especially the least. Jesus says if we really love him, we show this in how we love others, and especially in how we love those who we find hard to love, who we find unworthy of our love. When we do that, we love with the same love that God loved us,
"God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us ... while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son" (Romans 5:8, 10)
As the above question notes, the Old Testament is multi-vocal. It contains multiple conflicting visions of God's will. The multiple voices can be divided into two main categories, the majority voice of unquestioning obedience which justifies punitive violence, and the minority voice which protests that this violence is unjust. The New Testament follows in the line of the minority voice of protest, but with a key difference: The Old Testament voice of protest questions the justice of the suffering they were experiencing, but they do not question the system of punishment for evil; they just argue that they are innocent.  In contrast the New Testament states that we are all guilty of hurt, and proclaims that the way God brings about justice is by redeeming sinners. That is the gospel of grace and enemy love. That is the trajectory Jesus sets which we are to follow in.

While the Old Testament is multi-vocal, the New Testament in contrast is not. The New Testament contains diversity, but all with the common goal of working out what it means to make Jesus Lord and live out the kingdom of God characterized by Jesus' way of enemy love.

This point is key because we are not simply pursuing a moral path that seems right to us (it does of course need to make sense to us since one cannot follow what one does not understand), but as followers of Jesus we are pursuing a way characterized by the kingdom of God -- characterized by the politics of God -- that Jesus proclaimed. That way is, at its core, characterized by enemy love. Our task is to work out what that looks like in our time.

Now as I argue in the book, we need to continue in that trajectory rather than stopping where the New Testament does. The classic example of this is slavery: We have gone beyond where the NT did and have recognized that slavery is immoral and must be abolished. A trajectory reading recognizes that in doing this we are not breaking with the New Testament, rather we are being faithful to follow in the trajectory it sets, developing it further. Slavery is just one example, but of course there are a million ways we could change how we live, including changing how our society functions, to bring this more in line with the kingdom of God as Jesus understood it. Our task as followers of Jesus is to work that out in our time and context.

This brings me to the tail end of the question, "if that trajectory is to continue past the New Testament, then why continue to use the Bible after God's Spirit of love has given us this new heart?"

Salvation begins with finding our identity in Christ, in being "adopted" into the family of God. In that context of being a beloved "king's kid" we learn to love as Jesus loves us. The Spirit works in us, transforming our minds into Christ-likeness. A major avenue that the living Spirit of Christ uses to do that is through our devotional reading of Scripture. Here Scripture becomes a sacrament leading us to  an encounter with the living God revealed in Christ -- not only in our inner life, but spilling over into everything.

Here we are not reading Scripture as something that tethers us to the past ("masters be kind to your slaves"), but as a springboard that points us to an ever greater furthering of the way of Jesus in our lives and world. We therefore read the words of Jesus and ask "how can I be faithful to this? How would that change the way I live my life?

For example, if I am an employer, I might ask, How would calling Jesus Lord change how I treat my employees? So instead of just caring about the "bottom line" of cash, we consider the truth of Christ's words "the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil." Or if am a lawmaker, I could ask, How would calling Jesus Lord impact the laws I write? For example, making sure that we as a society prioritize human rights and caring for the poor and vulnerable.

Now, I fully realize that many politicians who claim to follow Christ actually come up with laws that promote values that are the opposite of Jesus -- values that condemn the poor and promote violence and punishment. The fact that they can do this in the name of Christ with a straight face reveals that we Americans as a whole apparently don't have a clue as to what Jesus taught, despite going to church every Sunday.

Let's work that out a bit: Let's assume that the politicians who claim to be Christians and promoting Christian values actually do love Jesus and are not just saying this just to get votes. Let's assume that they are essentially the same as the church-going people who vote for them, who sing heart-felt worship songs every Sunday with their hands stretched high in the air. Yet both these conservative politicians and those who support them endorse things that are diametrically opposed to the way of Jesus. Things that are morally primitive and hurtful.

What that shows me is that "God's Spirit of love giving us this new heart" as the question states is clearly not enough. This was the assumption I grew up with a charismatic evangelical. What we need is a changed heart and then everything will fall into place.  Yet it seems that it does not, as evidenced by the rotten fruit of these politicians and citizens who promote hurt in the name of Jesus. The problem here I believe is that they call Jesus "Lord, Lord" but have not immersed themselves in the way of Jesus. They have not let the mind of Christ become how they think and how they see, and instead are shaped by the worldly American values of money and guns.

That tells me that we need to read the New Testament more, not less. We need to let it shape who we are. It is striking that while enemy love is at the very core of Jesus' message and mission, I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard a sermon on enemy love in the many decades I have been in church.
As a whole, what we need is not to stop reading the Bible, but to find a better Jesus-shaped way of reading it.  It is not enough to just rely on our relationship with the Spirit. The Bible plays a crucial role in our discipleship in giving us the core content of what living out Jesus as Lord entails. It's true that we do not worship a book, but that sacred book does serve as a vehicle, used by the Spirit, to bring us towards God and towards becoming people who reflect the values of our Lord. Scripture thus serves the role of leading us to Christ, and to Christ-likeness.
So we absolutely do need to read the Bible. However, we need to learn to read it in a Jesus-shaped way. Instead of reading the Bible as a static book of unchanging laws, we need to read it in a way that spurs us to grow and progress and work towards Christ-like justice. I think that is exciting, deeply relevant and important. Learning to read on a trajectory points us upward and forward, rather than holding us back. It spurs us to creatively grow and develop the new, rather than seeking to justify the old.

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At 5:40 PM, Blogger kent said...

hey derek,
was hoping there would be some discussion on this post. thought i'd comment to see if this will get things going. i would disagree that a changed heart is not enough. i cannot see someone with a heart driven by love consistently choosing to do things that contradict this. the problem i see, and the reason i don't feel that studying the bible leads us to become moral beings is because morality comes from a heart changed by the love of god, not by learning and practicing. in other words, epistemologically i see two centers of knowing, the head and the heart. The heart is where god's revelation of love is received. The head can learn about it, but only the heart experiences it. I used to think that i had to get my head knowledge to become heart knowledge when it comes to metaphysical knowledge. now i see it the other way around. the head follows the heart. the head is too impartial with its paradigms and a priori's to be trusted. what are your thoughts?

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Kent,

I agree that a person with a changed heart will naturally seek to do what is loving. It is of course vital that we have a heart that is open to the Spirit, and that is driven by compassion.

What I am claiming about the Bible is something different. I am saying that there is a particular content to the way of Jesus, and that we know that content from the Bible. We know about the way of loving our enemies from reading the words of Jesus. That gives us content that we need for our practice. It helps us discover what living in a Christ-like way looks like.

I am sure people can have a heart of love without reading the Bible. That's a heart thing as you say. However, that alone does not lead me to knowing how to "turn the other cheek" or "overcome evil with good." So we do need the book to show us that content of what following Jesus entails -- not just in our personal lives, but in how we love others.


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