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Thursday, 31 October 2013

A Path Not A Fortress

I have said that I think theology is really important and that we all do theology, whether we recognise it or not. But I realise not everyone connects with it when it gets too 'studious'. Fair enough. But I do want to get into theology in more detail and some have expressed an interest in this. And so I have started a new blog to focus on my theological reflections and developments. It'll hopefully free this blog up to focus on more general reflections on our journey, thoughts on the spiritual life - individual and corporate - and on the practical outworking of the different kingdom values. If anyone is interested more in the theological journey then the blog is at Pentecostal Pilgrim 

But before the studious stuff moves off this blog, let me share  one extract from a book by an OT scholar which I have been reading recently. What he says about biblical interpretation I think also applies to the theological and all other aspects of the journey:
'Perhaps we should think of biblical interpretation more as a path to walk than a fortress to be defended. Of course, there are times when defence is necessary, but the church's task of biblical interpretation should not be defined by such...I would rather think of biblical interpretation as a path we walk, a pilgrimage we take, whereby the longer we walk and take in the surrounding scenes, the more people we stop and converse with along the way, and the richer our interpretation will be. Such a journey is not always smooth. At times what is involved is a certain degree of risk and creativity: we may need to leave the main path from time to time to explore less travelled but promising tracks…[it] always requires patience and humility lest we stumble...But as we attempt to understand Scripture, we move further along the path. At the end of the path is not simply the gaining of knowledge about the text, but God himself speaks to us therein. The goal toward which the path is leading is that which set us on the path to begin with: our having been claimed by God as coheirs with the crucified and risen Christ. The reality of the crucified and risen Christ is both the beginning and end of Christian biblical interpretation...again, this is why the metaphor of journey or pilgrimage is so appealing. The path we walk may contain risks, unexpected bumps, twists and turns. We do not always know what is coming around the corner...It is always an option I suppose, to halt the journey and stand still, or perhaps turn around and walk back a few hundred yards, so as to stand at a safe distance from what lies ahead. We should continue the journey, however, not because we are sure of our own footing, but because we have faith in God who placed us on the journey to begin with.'
(Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 2005, BakerAcademic, pp.162-163,171).

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Scripture and Story: A Better Way

On my theological journey, I am beginning to have my engagement with Scripture refreshed and even transformed. This is by increasingly realising the power of reading Scripture as a Big Story told through many and diverse stories. This emphasis on narrative is not new in the academic world of Biblical Studies or Biblical Theology, but has not generally made much impact at a popular level. In general, most 'Bible-believing Christians' still use the Bible either as a devotional aid, a book of rules, or a theological compendium. Most of the time we read it to be inspired and 'spoken to' (a good thing because Scripture can and should certainly be a 'place' we encounter God). But when we are trying to work out doctrine, ethics and practice we use it like a legal code or a compendium where we lift out different proof-texts on a subject and then stitch them together to decide what we are meant to believe. It's like the Holy Spirit might just as well have inspired something like Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology. Then we could just go and look the subject up in the index and be told what to believe and do. But that is not the nature of the inspired Scripture that God has given us and there's a good reason why.

God told a Story through stories set in the real, messy, broken, ambiguous and plural world, involving communities in process in actual historical contexts. And this matters. Instead of being able to tick off a bunch of statements of belief, we are required to work out what's true and what matters by engaging with the Story and stories, with the help of the Holy Spirit and in conversation with each other. There's a beginning and end to this Story that provide its trajectory. There's the hero and central character, Christ, that provides it's focus. There is a vitally important turning point, the Cross, that provides it essential message. And there are Big Themes or principles that provide its parameters and constants as we seek to work out the Story's significance and meaning for us now. Because, of course, we are also invited to be part of the continuation of this Story as we move towards its final chapter, the restoration of all things, to everything made new. 

Reading Scripture this way, especially when moving from Scripture to our beliefs, is not simple and straightforward. But it helps us avoid dogmatism and straining at exegetical gnats as I mention here. Engaging in the stories and Story in this way encourages reflection, conversation, openness, diversity, provisonality in many beliefs, ongoing reflection and reform, willingness to explore and change etc. And it's just much more exciting!

Monday, 28 October 2013

Christ and Scripture (Part 3)

I have a suspicion that we can perhaps get the best model for engaging Scripture from one biblical passage. It is Luke's record of Jesus' encounter with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (24:13-53). I encourage you to read it again. It is absolutely brim-full of insights - at least hints of everything we need to know about encountering Christ through Scripture. And allowing Christ to interpret Scripture for us. I can't go into lots of detail here (any USMM students reading this, get ready to dig deep into it!) but here are a few thoughts.

Jesus meets us where we are, on a journey in conversation with each other, struggling with life in all of its messiness, pain, disappointment, and confusion as well as the good stuff (i.e.not just in the Bible study, your daily quiet time or faith confessions). And he's happy to come to us hidden and in disguise at times, getting us to be honest about our feelings and experiences ( he doesn't want us getting all religious on him!). So when we're at the point when we want to cry out because things just don't make sense, that could well be him turning up. He's content to start with our experiences and even the testimony of miracles that raise a hope we hardly dare believe. But he doesn't just leave us in the realm of experience, whether our feelings or the confusing testimonies of the supernatural. He takes us back to the Scriptures.

He helps us to understand that all the Scriptures were always all about him - and he makes that which was familiar blaze with freshness. He reveals himself in the Scriptures. We learn later that this was not just stimulating the disciples' minds but setting their hearts on fire. He reaches the deepest part of them as he opens up the Scriptures to them. But it is significant that that though they were granted insight to Scripture, it was only as he enacted the breaking of bread that they really recognise and encounter him. It is by pointing them to his death on the Cross that they truly begin to see beyond concept and testimony to the person, the one it's all about. This is just one of the reasons why I believe that the Cross lies at the heart of God's self-revelation in Scripture. It is the crux of the story; everything turns on this.

But the process of revelation and encounter is not complete until this Christ is shared with others. Then they too come to encounter the risen Christ. And their encounter with the Messiah catapults them into engagement with his Mission. They are to be witnesses of the resurrection and sowers of its message. They - and we - get to continue the story that Scripture unfolds, that Jesus has just been revealing, and that is all about him.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Christ and Scripture (Part 2)

Oh dear! My apologies for the 'promise' that I would post the second part of this 'tomorrow' and then not getting round to it until 5 days later! And I can only use 'problems with lousy internet connection' as a partial explanation. Anyway, here's a further thought on the centrality of Christ to understanding the Scriptures.

My point for this post is a simple one. Theology shouldn't be separated from spirituality and discipleship. That is, from our experience of God and practical obedience to his will and ways revealed in Christ. And just as Christ is the one who is the full revelation of God, he is also the one in whom we find our reconciliation to God (2 Cor.5:19) - he is the source both of spiritual revelation and intimate relationship. So it is from a place of participation in Christ and relationship with him, that we come to understand the truth. It is only by being his followers, his disciples, that we can really get it!. That is why he says:
Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. (John 7:17)
Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)
Ultimately of course, Christ is the truth (John 14:6). This does not absolve us from the often hard work of Christian theology - thinking about God in conversation with Scripture and others - but it surely does mean that true insight is more likely to come to the thoughtful and devoted follower, than to the detached and indifferent egg-head.

In relation to Scripture, this is beautifully shown by the fantastic passage from Luke 24 where Jesus comes alongside two of his now dejected disciples. He wonderfully restores them as he walks with them, and opens up the Scriptures (which are all about him) to them, and opens up their hearts to the truth. In fact, it's such a great passage, I think I will do a third part on this subject looking more closely at it. But I will learn from my mistake, and not promise when.

Let's finish this post with a clear, simple claim: you cannot truly understand Scripture without following Christ.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Christ and Scripture (Part 1)

Obviously, on any theological journey, Scripture must play a major part in shaping and defining our understanding of Truth. (By the way, I believe theology is foundational as what we think about God affects everything about us; and the task of theology must inevitably be seen in pilgrimage terms as our understanding should be developing and 'always reforming', never static and rigid).

So Scripture is vitally important but the centrality of Christ is really relevant here as well. If we do not read the Bible through the lens of Christ then we will totally misunderstand it. For instance, I think if we try to base our view of God by reading the Old Testament without this lens on, then we end up with a very different God than the one who is revealed in Christ. The Pharisees and teachers of the law made this mistake all the time. They studied their Bible diligently but they so missed the fact that it was all about Jesus (John 5:39-40) that they plotted to have the author of life killed. They missed the Word of God in the very words of God.

I think perhaps many Bible-believing Christians are building their lives and faith on what they think is the foundation of the word of God, but they have ended up with a warped understanding of Scripture and God. Hebrews 1:1-3  tells us that, through the OT prophets, God revealed something of himself 'at many times and in many ways', but that now 'he has spoken to us by his Son' and that that Son is the final and full revelation of God - 'the radiance of the Father's glory'. Christ is the only foundation we can build on (1 Cor.3:11), and so the written Word must be understood through the incarnate, living Word.

Here's a rough rule of thumb to help you. If your interpretation of any part of Scripture leaves you with an understanding of God that looks different than the one revealed by Christ on the cross - loving his enemies, giving himself in astounding, unconditional, sacrificial love, reconciling the world to himself, amazing us with outrageous grace - then guess what? Your interpretation is wrong. As Bill Johnson says, 'Jesus Christ is perfect theology.'

A little more on this tomorrow hopefully.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Map is not the Territory

Years ago, I remember being in a number of conversations and discussions with Bryn Jones (many of my readers will know who I mean) where he would say something that would really stop you in your tracks and make you re-think things. He had a knack for doing that. On one such occasion I remember him saying something like, 'always remember that the Truth and what you believe are not the same thing!' That made me pause!

It seems obvious of course. But we were people who were strong on believing the truth, proclaiming the truth, standing for the truth, defending the truth. I guess some of us just assumed that what we believed was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth - so help those who didn't see the truth like we did, God!
Bryn, who could be a formidable defender of truth himself, was reminding us it was nevertheless necessary to realise that we might be wrong. That our beliefs were not infallible and we should not assume that we had a corner on the Truth. Stay open. As I got to know him a little better, I realised that although he would fight for 'ground taken' in terms of revelation, he was also a great explorer of truth, willing to re-examine his beliefs and re-think things. He was a genuine theological pilgrim.

I was reminded of this when reading in Boyd's book about the importance of realising that 'the map is not the territory'. That is, our belief (interpretation, understanding etc) is the map and not the actual territory, i.e. the Truth about God, life, the Bible, the world etc.. If we equate our map with the territory, then we miss out on the opportunity and necessary process of learning from other people's maps. If our map is the territory, then other people are just plain wrong. That vitally important process - the conversation of pilgrims - is essentially fellow travellers comparing maps. That way, together we get a better understanding of the actual territory we are trying to negotiate. Even then, there'll still be many surprises on the journey!

Friday, 18 October 2013

Christ as Centre

'For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Cor. 2:2)
Theological pilgrimage is tough. When you embark on a journey on which you get serious about re-examining some of the things you have believed for many years with supposed certainty, it can be really unnerving. You experience what some call 'cognitive dissonance'. That's a technical way of saying your mind gets messed up! So much so that it actually begins to affect your emotions and even your spirit. It's painful. And the temptation to retreat to the safety of familiar and comfortable certainty is strong. Honesty and the desire for sincere, authentic faith keeps me going. And something else.

As I have explored what I actually believe - e.g. about how we understand Scripture, the nature of faith and understanding, of revelation and authority, the role of the Spirit, community and culture in apprehending truth, and many doctrines that I have taught and been taught over the years - I have had to face uncertainty and change (no bad thing, but challenging). But one thing has become clearer, more certain and even more captivating than ever. And that is simply my faith in the person of Jesus. He has become to me even more beautiful and astounding in his stunning revelation of what God is really like. And the outrageous, sacrificial selfless love that he demonstrates on the Cross, and the scandalous grace he express in his gospel enthrall me more than ever. When you have that as the centre that holds, it liberates you to explore, to question, to doubt, to change - without things falling apart. He is enough.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Book Review: Benefit of the Doubt

A little later than intended, I am reviewing the book I mentioned in my last post. It is a book that has really helped me to begin to articulate some of my own thoughts and feelings about the nature of faith; an understanding of it that enables us to go on a faith journey that can involve exploring, questioning and changing our beliefs. The book is Benefit of the Doubt by Greg Boyd, a writer, pastor and theologian who has been a significant influence for me over recent years (see here about how an earlier book of his affected me). He blogs at ReKnew.

In this latest book he goes after a view of faith that he calls certainty-seeking faith - an attempt to psychologically convince ourselves that we are certain of our beliefs because we think that this is what God wants, this is the faith that pleases him. In an excellent chapter (10) he confronts the verses in the Bible that could be taken to mean this and demonstrates a better way of understanding them. But he also shows how this view of faith is just unbiblical in a far more fundamental way. He argues that faith should not be seen in psychological terms but in covenantal terms. It is not about our beliefs primarily but about trust in a person - God revealed in Christ; and our commitment to that person based on that trust. Although this involves belief, it is far more than that. Faith is like the  'I do' of a marriage vow and the on-going living out of that vow.

This does not require that we be certain about all our beliefs but that we are 'confident enough' in the person of Jesus Christ. One of the things that I love about Boyd's approach, as with many of his writings, is the Christ-centredness of it all. From this place of trust and confidence in Christ, and his unconditional love, it is then OK to wrestle with God about the doubts and questions we have from inside that relationship. And without that relationship being threatened. This honest and trusting, 'wrestling faith' is actually what pleases God (as Boyd shows really well from Jacob and Job, though less convincingly from Jesus at Gethsemane and Calvary). From the central point of trust in 'Jesus Christ and him crucified' (because it is the Cross which presents the most stunning revelation of what God is really like), we are then free to explore our beliefs in relationship with Him. He shows this Christ-centred approach brilliantly in relation to questions we may have about the Bible and our interpretation of it (Chapter 9). And in keeping with the subtitle, he argues that seeking certainty from the Bible and our beliefs can involve us in making idols of them instead of finding our source of life in Christ - which is exactly the mistake the Pharisees made (John 5:39-40).

There are gaps and weaknesses - I'd have liked him to explore and evaluate the idea of 'revelation knowledge' (easily abused!) and of the idea of 'full assurance' or 'conviction' that the Holy Spirit may give (see 1 Thess.1:5) and how that combines with a questioning faith. But on the whole this is a really welcome and thorough explanation of a way of thinking about faith. An explanation that enables us to journey in terms of the formation of our beliefs. With a refreshing honesty and authenticity as he shares vulnerably from his own faith journey, he is strongly critical of the certainty-seeking, conservative form of Christianity of his early experience:
'Faith isn't viewed as a journey in which one explores and possibly changes beliefs along the way in this inflexible understanding of Christianity. It's a fixed package about which one must strive to be certain.'
Thankfully, his well articulated understanding of faith - that I gladly share - encourage us to journey, to explore and to change.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Idol of Certainty

There are a number of reasons why people don't like the idea of changing their beliefs but one of them is that many of us have had an approach to faith that wrongly emphasised the 'virtue' of certainty. This is the main theme of an excellent new book by Greg Boyd that I hope to review over the weekend - Benefit of the Doubt - which he subtitles 'Breaking the Idol of Certainty'. As the book shows, this certainty-seeking approach to faith has all kinds of negative effects, but one of them relates to what I was speaking of in my last post - the idea that a leader should never change his/her beliefs.  If we place such high value on being absolutely certain of what we believe, on the idea that 'a person's faith is as strong as that person is certain' (Boyd) and tend to use the language of 'revelation' and conviction too easily, then the expression of any degree of doubt or consideration of changing our understanding is seriously frowned on. In a leader it becomes almost unforgivable, a sure sign of 'creeping liberalism' if not likely apostasy!

Boyd is quite right - the problem is that we have made an idol of certainty, of the 'rightness' of our beliefs. The questioning of them by ourselves or others then inevitably shakes our foundations. But Christ is our one foundation, our source of life (the one from whom we get our identity, security and sense of significance). If he is at the centre and foundation of our lives, it frees us up to have doubts, questions and uncertainties, as well has to enter conversations with those who disagree and differ from us, and to explore diverse and alternative views, without it shaking us. As one who in the past has liked to be very clear and settled on what I believed, this truth challenges me to the core - a good thing! I have to face the question as to whether Christ truly is my foundation and centre, or have I made an idol of my beliefs. After I have reviewed Boyd book in my next post, I'd like to explore more what it means to have Christ as the centre of our faith and understanding, and how that affects our theological journey.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Importance of Changing Beliefs

Some time ago I heard it suggested that leaders who changed their beliefs were unreliable leaders; that to change your mind about something that you once strongly believed somehow cast doubt on your credibility as a leader. If all that was meant by this is that leaders cannot be those who are 'blown about by every wind of doctrine' (Eph.4:14) or who are vacillating when it comes to the fundamentals of the truths of the gospel (and it's important to reflect on what they are!) then I agree. But if it means that a leader (or any Christian for that matter) should never change the beliefs that they formed in the faith community they grew up in, or that they encountered in their late-teens to early-20s (a really important time for belief formation) or when they first became a Christian, then I think almost the complete opposite is true.

I would have more respect for a leader who could trace the development of their beliefs over time as they have changed, shifted, filled out, developed etc. And especially if they had some moments where they had honestly admitted to those they led that they had been mistaken, and courageously apologised for where they'd been too strident and dogmatic in the past about such beliefs, and explained where they had actually changed on some beliefs and why. I'd be even more impressed if they went on to explain how a living faith is like a journey and that it is important to be open to recognising that we might have got some things wrong, and to be honest when we need to change some things we have believed. It seems to me that the only alternative is a dogmatic, un-reflective, head-in-the-sand fundamentalism - a form of religion only too prevalent in our world today, including among some Christians.

I have always tried to be open to reflecting on what I believe but in recent years I have much more consciously gone on a theological journey which has involved abandoning some things I once believed, changing on others, shifting my perspective on others and becoming more willing to be open, uncertain and provisional on others. In the next post I'd like to look at the reasons why this is important to do, what sometimes stops us from doing it, perhaps explain some of the things I've changed on and just generally consider what it looks like to see the process of belief formation not as a static thing but as a continuing journey. I hope you'll be interested enough to keep reading.

Monday, 7 October 2013

The Theological Journey - We All Do Theology!

A few posts back I outlined what I think have been the 4 journeys - or, more accurately, the 4 aspects of the one journey - that I think some of us have been on (I could add a fifth - a Cultural Journey, in that I think many of us are aware of a shift in the culture of our church communities arising out of other aspects of the journey; but I'll come back to that another time). The last few posts about connection have been about the Relational Journey. I now want to start posting some stuff about the Theological Journey.

Let me use this post to say something, first of all, about theology - and I hope you haven't already switched off by the mention of the word. A lot of Christians like to think that they 'don't do theology'; they just love God and follow what he says in the Bible. Mmmmm! Sorry, but I reckon that whenever you think anything about God - his nature, his purpose and his ways - you are doing theology. That includes anything at all that you think and/or say about Jesus, the Bible, church, evangelism, miracles, prayer, meaning and purpose in life etc. It's all theology. It may not be academic theology (and that doesn't matter), but it is theology. You can't escape it, so I suggest it is better to use our God-given minds, and hearts, to try and think through carefully and humbly about what we believe about God, neither being intimidated at the thought of thinking through these things, nor using spirituality as an excuse for mental laziness. 

In the next post (tomorrow all being well) I want to confront an argument that I have heard in support of certainty and consistency in our most important beliefs. In contrast I want to write about The Importance of Changing Beliefs. Hope you can join me for that! Let me leave you with a quote:
"A true and living faith is never a destination; it's a journey. And to move forward on this journey we need the benefit of doubt." (Greg Boyd)

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Connections and Covenant

Oh dear! A week has gone by and I haven't posted! Thank God I am free from guilt. I just wanted to post one more thought on connection before I move on to something else (perhaps...). It concerns a word that many of us have valued over the years but perhaps also been intimidated by: I am talking about covenant.

Sadly some of us picked up an idea years ago that because we were all 'in covenant' together in our churches or networks or ministry partnerships, then disconnection was regarded as 'covenant-breaking' or 'violating-covenant'. In fact, it was a funny old thing because in my experience most of us said that we did not really believe this, and many of the leaders who might be accused of this stance are on record as saying it doesn't apply in most cases. And yet often when people felt that it was right to disconnect, for whatever reason (good or bad), the stakes for relationship had been raised so high by this language that it often felt that the concept of covenant-breaking cast a dark shadow over it and prevented us from handling disagreement better or maintaining relationship after disconnection.

Of course, covenant love is a beautiful thing. When we are brought into the new covenant with and through Christ, we are actually in that covenant with all our brothers and sisters in Christ. And, by the way, we are failing to value that covenant every time we gossip, ridicule, slander, dishonour, devalue, or dismiss any fellow-Christian (oh dear...if we're honest perhaps we are all covenant breakers). Of course, to have the opportunity to express that love in Christ in a strong, committed, transparent, mutually honouring relationship, friendship and partnership within a local church family (I believe God ideally wants us all connected to one of those by the way) and among close friends and fellow-workers, that's fantastic. Love, loyalty, faithfulness and honesty are vitally important in such relationships, and when they are damaged it's a tragic thing. But when the concept of covenant is used a a means of control through guilt, and covenant has become a cold chain locking us into a connection that no longer has life and purpose in it, then we are massively missing the point of covenant.

In fact covenant love enables us to disconnect with love. David and Jonathan are often rightly used as a great example of covenant friendship. I have always loved the words spoken by Jonathan to David when a combination of circumstances and calling meant they had to disconnect:
Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the LORD...(1 Sam 20:42)
Far from being a chain that bound them, their covenant enabled them to separate in peace for they were knit together in heart and that joining transcended space and time. Of course, such covenant love should also affect the way separation is handled and means always maintaining peace, honour, love, regard and a good report towards and about those we disconnect from. Let's learn both how to connect and disconnect (when that's right) with love and honour, like these two covenant friends.