Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Questions and Responses on Central Aspects of the Faith Once for all Delivered to the Saints

The following is part of an ongoing dialogue I have had with one of my friends.

George (original): “As a Christian working out of a broad-based orthodox tradition grounded in the core doctrines of the faith…”

Dave: What constitutes a “broad-based” as opposed to a narrow-based orthodox tradition?

George (response): The capacity to draw freely and comprehensively from the full range of the orthodox tradition (past and present), including its Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox expressions, as well as a range of perspectives with Protestantism—Reformed, pietistic, Wesleyan, evangelical, and mainline Protestant.  Bob La Rochelle has explained this in his work on ecumenism which he posted few weeks back.

George (original): “A simple difference between us is that I draw extensively on these two sources as the basis for my spiritual epistemology while you draw on other resources.”

 Dave: Yes, that is true, however, I believe a more significant difference between our points of views is the different interpretation we give to our common source, the Bible. I see the stories in the Bible in metaphorical, symbolic, mythological terms whereas I will venture to say that you see them more in literal, actual, historical terms. Also, while I view the letters of Paul, Psalms, Job, etc. as being human in origin, I will venture to say that for you these words have what we would call a divine origin, and are therefore far more significant than the words of Emerson, Tolstoy, etc. I put the words of Thoreau, Blake, etc. on an equal footing with Paul, not so much in terms of their relative influence on civilization, but in terms of the source from which they come.

George (response):  Not quite.  I accept all your terms as having some relevance, but do not limit my understanding of the Bible (let’s stay with that for now—the single source) to them.  The Bible also includes history, which is not the same as saying that the biblical narrative is synonymous with the way things actually happened in real time.  Rather, historical experience is refracted through the text and interpreted within the prism and conventions of an ancient world view.  This is not the same as saying that the Bible does not contain any accurate historical information, but that its truth and relevance for Christian theology and spiritual practices (i.e., its revelatory significance) does not depend on its historical veracity.  The same goes in spades for any literal interpretation, which is more of a modern rather than an ancient construction.  As I used to say when I first came to Christ in the 1970s, I view the Bible as significant; replete of revelatory power (2 Timothy 3:16), but not necessarily literal; certainly not so in all of its varied genres.  This is not the same as denying the importance of biblical statements; what is commonly interpreted as biblical “propositions;” what one finds in much of the first eight chapters of the Epistle to the Romans, one of the most important texts in the entire canon, in my view.

On the divine origin of the Bible as given to the human writers; I accept this well established faith-based presupposition, with the notation that there is a great deal of diversity within a broad-based common understanding of faith. Those operating out of the orthodox theological tradition across the board accept this assumption of divine origin, even while acknowledging (a) that the Bible is not without problems, (b) that there are questions that remain unresolved, and  (c) that there is a range of meanings and applications of given biblical text that defy any simplistic consensus.  This diversity of interpretation is pervasive even in evangelical biblical studies and theology, to say nothing of the broader Protestant perspective.  A book I picked up at the Evangelical Theology Society Annual Meeting titled The Future of Biblical Interpretation: Responsible Plurality in Biblical Interpretation lays out in a broad way some of the diversity within an orthodox tradition within the contemporary evangelical tradition.

You are correct to assume that I place the Bible, read canonically through the arc of the narrative from creation to consummation, as a primary source of revelation over and beyond anything beyond what Thoreau, Emerson, or Whitman have said or could have said.  Moreover, I place it in a higher realm than what theological or ecclesial expositors have said, though I draw on both in the quest to ever deepen my understanding and application of the faith.  To the extent that they are useful I will also draw on range of secular authors or sources of knowledge, but only ultimately so to the extent that such resources amplify my understanding of the Christian faith.  My epistemological approach starts from a faith-based stance in search of greater knowledge.  In one sense I believe before I know while seeking greater knowledge to further my understanding the faith.  A primary trust of the Bible, sifted through a common, critical, and canonical sense interpretation, while being apprised of and, at least in part, accounting for secular experience,e is the way that I approach the faith.  I discuss some of this more in my book In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center:  An Ecumenical Evangelical Approach

George (original): “In addition to the Bible as the basis of my-faith-based epistemology, I also draw extensively on the almost 2000 year tradition of the mighty cloud of witnesses.”

Dave: Yes, but in that cloud are a great many voices that I could cite in support of my way of seeing religion, faith, belief, etc. And of course so could you for your way of seeing these things. Mine is a minority view compared to yours in terms of the historical understanding of the nature of what is called the divine and its connection with humanity, but not so much that there aren’t significant resources for both of us to call upon.

 George (response): In the case I am making the cloud beyond the biblical writers provides essential secondary support that buttresses and sometimes illuminates the primary source of evidence.  This includes my personal understanding, which I view as a secondary rather than a primary source of evidence.  That is, my personal testimony is an existential/ phenomenological source of understanding of the faith as it has opened up to me, though the surer ground upon which such faith stands is the promise of God in Christ revealed in the Bible.  See Hebrews 6: 17-20: 17:

“Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. 18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. 19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20 where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

I’m not going to find this source in Emerson, however edifying his writing may be.

George (original): “In terms of the original proclamation, ‘Then God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good;’ that stands, but there is another side of the coin, namely, the Fall, however metaphorically or literally one might interpret it.”

Dave: I think it is important to point out that you are taking two very different stories and combining them together as one. The first creation story sees God as sovereign, the second in more relational terms. Another way of saying this is the first story is the priestly account of creation presenting God as the universal Elohim and the second story is the non-Priestly account presenting God as the tribal Yahweh. We can talk more about this if you wish but I don’t want to get too detailed in any one message.

George (response): Yes.  However, I am not reading the text historically, nor am I seeking to deconstruct or dissect the narrative.  My reading is a canonical one in which the creation story is a critical linchpin in the biblical story.  Depending on what one is trying to accomplish, an analysis of the two creation stories can be instructive and relevant and there are (may be) reasons to engage in such interpretations.  In not overly concerned about this.  Rather, I am following the precepts of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann who argues that, in terms of faith stance, we cannot really go behind the text, but have to deal with the text itself as a primary source of faith.  There is a lot of current work on narrative theology, which, with different emphases makes this point, but I cannot get into that here.

George (original): “However one might interpret this, this claim is a core precept of biblical Christianity.”

 Dave: I submit that it is more accurate to say that this claim is a core precept of Pauline theology, which was to become synonymous with Biblical Christianity, not as a foregone conclusion, but as a result of historical and psychological realities rather than divine fiat.

 George (response): I believe Paul needs to be seen as a very early Christian interpreter, in which it is likely that his conversion experience took place in the mid-to late 30s and that his accounting of the faith was likely to be a good summation of what the earliest followers believed; certainly about the resurrection of Christ and the impartation of the Holy Spirit to the early church.  Moreover, he had close contact with Peter early on and kept apprised of the Jerusalem church throughout his ministry.  Clearly his ministry to the Gentiles was an overflowing of the Abrahamic promise; one to which the Jerusalem church leaders signed onto (Acts 10-11, 15) even though some members had difficulty with the extent that Paul moved beyond the law and Jewish temple traditions.  What Paul wrote is amplified and extended in the Gospel of John, and in a somewhat different way in the letter to the Hebrews, with echoes in Ephesians and Colossians.  Clearly the synoptic gospels had more of a concrete depiction of the earthly ministry of Christ, but these also were constructed texts designed to amplify the early church’s vision of Christ as resurrected savior.  Even Mark, the first gospel, opens its text by proclaiming “the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”  What followed, it might be said, was commentary on this core proclamation.   Moreover, both Mark and Luke were at least sometimes followers of Paul and were intimately knowledgeable about his ministry years before constructing their gospels.

In short what Paul wrote in his various letters is broadly consonant with the entirety of the New Testament even as he formalized some of the early doctrine that without his work may not have been put in the forms that his work opened up.

  George (original): “According to the story line, "God created mankind in his own image" (Gen 1:27) and therefore as part of the good creation, though as the thinking, willing creature, with the capacity of obedience and disobedience to the directives of God.”

 Dave: Again I note the combining of two stories written from two traditions as if they are one, but overlooking that for now for the sake of argument, it is inaccurate, it seems to me, to state that Adam and Eve had the capacity for obedience and disobedience before eating the apple. It wasn’t until after they ate of the apple that their eyes were opened. Before that, they had no capacity to choose to be obedient or disobedient. That’s the point of the story isn’t it? They became human after the apple. Before that, they had no more of idea of the moral consequences of choices than a shark feeding on a school of fish or a surfer. The shark will eat whatever is close to the shark’s mouth, just as did Adam and Eve before the “felix culpa” that was the birth of human consciousness. 

George (response):  Their eyes were opened up in that they experienced the impact of their choice.  Before sin entered in they were innocent of guile against God.  Obviously they had the capacity to choose; otherwise they would not have been able to take the path they did.  Once they did choose, they did not have the capacity of escaping the consequences of their sin and in that sense were less free than they had been, in which, in paradise, their humanness was reflected in their congruence with the desires and will of God.  I think this issue of what humanity would have been like if sin had not entered into human experience was addressed by CS Lewis in one of his novels.  I never read it, but I’m aware of such a book. In any event I think there is a distinction between innocence and guilt before God, which is not synonymous with whether or not one is authentically human.  The difference, rather, is with the type of humanity one experiences.  While we live in a post-Fall reality we cannot get back to that condition, though in faith, in relation to the atoning sacrifice of Christ, we have a foretaste of what such innocence is like, in which its full expression is promised in the Eschaton.  Moreover, it is that state of innocence regained and amplified beyond what we can now imagine through New Adam that will characterize our state in eternity, when mortality puts on immortality.  CS Lewis would refer to this description as mere Christianity, which encompasses a variety of specific denominational and theological traditions.

 George (original): “Stated in other terms, the Pauline longing is an expression of our state of biblical reality between Paradise lost and Paradise gained.”

Dave: As opposed to the message of Jesus that the kingdom was to be established on earth Paul’s message and the message of Jesus are fundamentally different from each other, a reality that can be seen both in the difference of words attributed to them and in the contempt Paul felt for the Judaizers who were actually the disciples who walked and talked with Jesus.

George (response):  I addressed this in part above.  Let me simply say that it is a false polarity to establish a radical dichotomy between Paul and the synoptic gospels.  I say synoptic, because you would need to eliminate the Gospel of John, in which Jesus declared “Before Abraham was born I am” (John 8:58).  The most comprehensive understanding we have of Jesus is that embodied in the New Testament, the entirety of it, whatever primary resources can also be teased out of the evidence.  Given the depiction of Jesus in the gospels as a construction of the early church on a mission of world conversion, I believe it is a false dichotomy to pit Paul and the synoptic gospel writers in dichotomous oppositional terms.

  George (original): “Other ways of understanding reality may be of interest, but to me only ultimately so to the extent that such understanding amplifies the faith tradition of the orthodox Christian tradition, generously defined.”

 Dave: What constitutes a “generous” definition of orthodox Christian tradition?

 George (response): The original terms comes from Hans Frei, an early proponent of narrative theology, in a discussion with the evangelical theological Carl Henry.  In response to Henry’s insistence of an inerrant interpretation of Scripture, Frei argued that a complex test like the Bible was open to a variety of interpretive frameworks and should not be circumscribed by a limited view of language which was pervasive in 20th century fundamentalism in its war against modernism.  A good description can be found in George Hunsinger’s essay, “What can Evangelicals and Post-Liberals Learn from Each Other: The Carl Henry-Hans Frei Exchange Reconsidered.”

Brian McLaren has popularized the phrase, in his book, A Generous Orthodoxy  I link this interpretation, leaning more towards Frei, with CS Lewis’ objective as articulated in his classic text Mere Christianity.  It is an approach to the Christian orthodox tradition that has scope for a range of theological and biblical perspective within an overarching structure as detailed throughout the biblical narrative and developed in more formal terms through the basic dogmatic proclamations of the early church.  These two resources (the Bible and the early church dogmatic proclamations) have served as the basis for the ongoing development of the orthodox Christian tradition, which continues as an unfolding process that includes scope for new light for many new insights to emerge with new insights in response to fresh challenges.  This growth remains embedded within the boundaries of the core precepts of the grand tradition based on the biblical narrative from creation to consummation and the founding doctrines of the incarnation and the Trinity.  Within this orbit there is, and has been, much room for development.