Saturday, January 15, 2011

Biblical Presuppositions and the Word of God

Biblical Presuppositions and the Word of God: Seeking Truth through a Mirror,

"The meaning of biblical inspiration is that through the agency of the sovereign Holy Sprit the sacred text is at once God’s didactic witness and man’s celebratory witness to salvation through Christ—eternally planned, long prepared for, accomplished through incarnation at the appointed time, and now to be proclaimed everywhere as Scripture sets it forth. The person and the place of the Christ of space-time history is the interpretive key to all Scripture; the Old Testament is to be read in the light of the New Testament fulfillment in and by him, just as the New Testament is to be read in the light of the Old Testament foundations on which that fulfillment rested. For the Christian there is no Christ but the Christ of the Bible (specifically, of the New Testament teachers), and no understanding of the Bible but that which matches the expressed mind of Christ and his apostles (specifically, as they interpret the Old Testament and relate it to themselves" (J.I. Packer (1996). Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life (p. 192).

Presuppositions are unavoidable. So are ultimate commitments and vocabulary. There is no value free space that one can claim as above the fray of human experience.

That said where does one find ultimate trustworthiness even in the finiteness of our human condition? For there is something within us that seeks truth and ultimate harmonization notwithstanding the invariable gap between that for which we strive and that to which we attain even in our best or better moments. Vanity, all of it sayeth the preacher, who defines the ultimate human vocation in the mandate “To fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Why so? Because, says the preacher, “God will bring every word into judgment, including every single thing, whether it is good, whether it is evil” (Ecclesiastics 12: 13b-14) upon which the sinking sand of our own creations cannot stand. That so, Christ has even taken the burden of our failings and insufficiency upon himself for our own incapacity to follow God’s law with all our hearts, mind, strength, and soul even as the searching for such righteousness and health goes to the core of the human quest for wholeness, and ultimately salvation, whether recognized or not (Romans 1: 18-23).

As Christians, our ultimate justification is in Christ, in his completed work initiated on Calvary in which our calling is nothing short of placing all on the altar of radical Christ consciousness as did Christ on his utter fidelity to the will of God (Philipians 2:5-11): “Let this mind be in you which is in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God...made Himself of no reputation taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeliness of men.” It was this Christ who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” In Christ the law is established, not by works but by faith that God through Christ embraces us as we are, even as we are called to perpetually reformulate ourselves, ultimately through grace via the modeling that Christ provides.

A major 20th theological struggle has been the determination of authority in biblical theology. To put it in current terms, the issue is whether the world (that is the culture) should serve as the context to interpret the Word or whether the Word should be the basis to interrogate the culture. Liberal theology has argued for the former. This, I believe, is a dead end, which is not to deny the importance of providing deep context of both the contemporary and biblical world in the engagement of biblical interpretation. In this claim, I raise the issue of authority as well as that of ultimate identification and vocabulary which are unavoidable in any event. Thus, for Christians, the critical issue is whether ultimate reliance is placed:

• In the teachings of the church
• On human experience and knowledge
• On the Bible
• On some kind of combination of the Bible, common and critical sense, the religious tradition, and dialogue with others both Christian and no Christian

If the latter, what is the criteria upon which various claims are made? That is, the matter of decisiveness cannot be avoided through this more eclectic approach. None of these are self-evident. Even the first one presupposes self-consciousness as the ultimate source of reliability.

I’ve held to the position laid out in the third bullet for a long time, as determined, ultimately by the Holy Spirit, and in the process have held to a very high view of Scripture and Christology. My shift toward a greater reliance upon the Bible with the support and grace of the Holy Spirit has been gradual through a continuous engagement with the biblical text, as much as possible, sacramentally.

Such reading, in turn, leads back out into experience and, however flawed, toward self-evident confirmation. Such ways of knowing through the certitude of faith, amidst the doubts that our human fragility cannot deny has been the common experience of many through a 2,000 year history in widely different contexts through various continents around the world. A rich drawing on the history of Christianity, particularly key writers is an incredibly important resource, which to overlook is to overlook much.

I do not embrace the Bible in an unthinking way. Rather, I acknowledge that it challenges many of my most fundamental presuppositions without which I would neither know God nor come to an understanding of who Jesus was and is, where I find my most enduring and sustaining significance, sometimes despite myself. I take the Bible, particularly in its New Testament revelation, as a profound and enduring (canonical) reflection of the apostolic witness, as utterly reliable in its fundamental claims. This is ultimately in Christ as the Incarnation of the living God, and it is only in the veracity of this belief, which I accept on faith, personal experience, and partial knowledge, that I ground my claim of Christ as the way, the truth, and the life in which no other god will do.

Anything less may be beautiful, and a reflection of a profound Christian sensibility within the syncretic world view of interfaith globalism or the secular paradigm of postmodern and radical non-foundational relativism. Such a reading, a profound marginalization of the New Testament, is nothing that would draw me—as it would be no more than an option, within the context of merely human knowledge, more or less persuasive in any given mind-set; nothing beyond a belief—a purely personal truth without ontological substance.

The evangelical claim, buttressed by the sensibility of a reformed theological outlook asserts that the Bible has its own capacity to speak the truth to the human condition. Thus, while other resources are ministerially essential, the Bible is magisterially the single most authoritative source to draw on in the human quest to be in relationship to God. This requires personal engagement in a deep and continuous exploration of the biblical riches, and a drawing on as well, of a broad range of theological resources from the immeasurable repository of the Christian past. This claim is faith based all the way down. Nonetheless, it is a firm (ideally, unswerving) belief despite the inevitable doubts, that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life without equivocation and remainder. This faith in the biblically-revealed God is something that cannot be proved by reason even as much explanation can, and needs to be given. It can only be lived, experienced, and then only partially known in a mirror, dimly and shared with others via the fragileness of our earthen vessels.

Thus, while the Bible is very much a human document, more fundamentally, it is the Word of God, which has the capacity to convey to modern people, a message very foreign to contemporary presuppositions, which, nonetheless speaks to the core of the human condition. The Bible (in principle, all of it) does speak but it takes faith and a willingness to work with the text, which even then requires the illumination of grace to experience something of the awesomeness of God that engagement with the text can provoke. I frame this discussion within the circumference of two scriptures:

“The secret things belong to the Lord Our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may do all the words of the law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction, in righteousness that the man of God be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

I conclude by a call to read the Word sacramentally, in faith, seeking God’s face in every effort to understand, to “lean not onto thy own understanding,” but on every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God. “My son, keep my words and treasure my commands within you… Bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablets of your heart” (Proverbs 7: 3). “For they are life to those who find them and health to all their flesh” (Proverbs 5: 21b). “My son, give attention to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them depart from your eyes” Proverbs 4: 20-21a). Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lead not on your on understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct their paths (Proverbs 3: 5-6). There is no finer christological statement than that found throughout the Gospel of John, Paul’s letter to the Romans, and The Letter to the Hebrews.

And more, much more—the meditations of the Psalms, the teaching of Proverbs, the deep respect for the law in Deuteronomy, the ethical high point of true Christianity in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, the definition of Christ as the lowly servant in Philippians, of whom, for that very reason every knee “should bow” and “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2: 10-11). And then there are the many parables of Jesus, and more, much more on the unfathomable treasure of the biblical revelation.

I do not discount the value of other ways, whether secular and religious. There is much to gain through study and the gaining of critical experience of many things. Not, however, to the point that one loses or even diminishes the most important thing—that “hidden treasure in a field,” which costs nothing short of everything that one possesses. Thus, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). This, in the most fundamental sense, is the cost of faith, which, while we never fully succeed in achieving, our striving toward the mark, in faith, is our due calling. While the spirit bloweth where it will, if we hear the prompting of God on our hearts today we are called upon to open the door.

One can either take the Bible as literature or metaphor, viewing it as essentially a creation of the human imagination, or one can, without denying the human construction of this text, appreciate it more fundamentally as the Word of God. Both choices, which are only partially in our power to embrace, have profound consequences. All things considered, I place my faith on the latter, which needs to be preached, taught, and expounded upon in and out of season with depth, subtlety, humility, but also with much boldness. This includes the effort to explain in language other than that used in the Bible.

Nonetheless, the dogmatics of faith takes priority over the important, but secondary work of apologetic explanation, lest the rationale become the basis for the interpretation itself even within the household of faith. Any reformation of mainline Protestantism needs to go and do likewise lest it lose its soul in the vain effort to be “relevant.”

In the stance of faith seeking knowledge we use all that is at our disposal to explain what it is we do believe. Paul’s sermon to the Athenians (Acts 17) serves as a model, though it needs to be added that Paul was not particularly effective among the Athenian philosophers of his day. Paul Tillich’s effort at correlation may be highly imaginative and his life on the boundary very tempting. For those who seek that path (including myself in another life time, and still at some level, my “shadow voice”) I not only wish them well. I look forward to the fruit of such work.

I believe, however, that another highway is called for. This is the reformation highway with all the tools of modern scholarship and sensibility available, but with also, all the resources as well as 2000 years of tradition at our disposal in the difficult, but essential work of revitalizing a deep respect for the Bible as the Word of God in our mainline churches. With the grace of God I have put my hand to the plough to take on such work.

Here I stand.

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