Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Seeing the Father in Jesus?

A good friend of mine shed some light on my questions over the direction the charismatic church is taking their understanding of the divine. We were speaking of pain and suffering, and the apparent silence of God in the face of all that causes our vision to cloud, are hopes to fade and our purpose die. My friend comes from a tradition where God's fatherhood is more central, but he wondered if our Jesus obsession (please understand this in the right way) is related to the pain of unanswered prayer. How can a good father be so silent and distant?

And yet the only way we are related to Jesus is through God's decision to adopt us as Jesus' brothers and sisters. It is an amazing honour, but without the Father we get nowhere. Jesus knew it. I would encourage anyone to listen carefully and savour his words:

Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. (John 8:42, NIV)

But what about seeing the Father in Jesus? This was precisely John and Philip's challenge from Jesus in John 14:5-11 that Thomas can be seen to finally understand when he sees his risen Lord in John 20:28 (my Lord and my God, c.f. John 20:17). One of the saddest things we note in the modern church is so many people unable to grow to maturity because they have not experienced good fatherhood and motherhood in their lives. The solution to this problem is not just about instigating discipleship relationships where we identify "spiritual Mums and Dads" (I am not a huge fan of this language), but to return to our Heavenly Father, the one Jesus cared so much to have us restored to.

None of this really answers the title I threw over this post about "seeing" the Father in Jesus. The New Testament teaches us that Jesus is the perfect image (or "inscription") of God - that is to say the Father, without Jesus being the Father. Can we say he carries a perfect "resemblance" when it comes to character and purpose? Certainly, I would say, the NT authors wanted us to understand the dual focus here:

Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my ownGod sent me.

So when we fail to see answers to prayer, it remains difficult for our faith - but especially for our understanding of God the Father as our providing father. We should recognise it and factor this in to our thoughts and prayers. We should also be careful not to do what I very nearly did in this same paragraph and talk of "understanding God as Father". That is like describing a person by their name. Father in that sense is too generic, too much like a theme or an idea or a facet. Would you not agree?

Monday, 27 April 2015

No such thing as a tradition-free church: part 4

But my friend is still absolutely right that I have a problem I need divine help on - and time. Family.

If God is fundamentally good and the source of all that is fundamentally good, and if families are fundamentally good, then I am in a fix to which only he, through his son and spirit, has an answer! My theological questions are not shared by wife, even though my son is quite intrigued at the idea of the Jesus he prays to praying!

I think that to see God's perspective I need to be aware of what might be influencing the human perspective of both myself and my friendly challengers. That is going to take more time and prayer.

No such thing as a tradition-free church: part 3

I want to give and receive. Given my 10-year commitment to this church, it hardly seems fair or even likely that slotting me into this scenario works out - I would have packed up long ago otherwise (in fact during the conversation, my friend mentioned another dissatisfied person - who strikes me as a truly servant-hearted guy).

Although my local church has some issues, my primary issue with it is not local! I hope this alleviates the need to hit the self-protect buttons. My church is part of a charismatic evangelical church tradition that is exposed to some serious movement away from the Biblical texts lying at the heart of our faith. The three elders of my local church are all good guys, probably know their bibles quite well. But being part of a tradition is a very powerful influence on the way the faith community gathers, what and how they celebrate, what they see as their primary task, and how they perceive God and Christ. And in a tradition where teaching is often quite inspirational in nature, we are exposed, quite simply, to being inspired by many things, and consequently searching them out in the Bible. This can create theological instability and superficiality.

People who read this blog already know that I think that many first-century Christians would have been quite surprised by where we ended up three centuries later in Nicaea. Even if you could bring Paul round to this idea, and he could "sign off" on the triune God idea, I do not think you would ever have gotten him theologically to where we are today - making the Father optional. Pushing so hard to make Christ fully divine, that the Father's own divinity - rather than being explicitly denied - simply fades away. Nope, that would definitely be a step too far, but much of contemporary worship song-writing has for decades been pushing in this direction, informing worshipper's hearts. 

While succeeding in many areas, I suspect our church tradition has failed to properly assess the impact of the words celebrated in song in people's worship. While some emphasis is placed on good theological content of sermons, much less is placed on the worship, when people's souls are typically engaged and open. Here is an evangelical example of the impact. I received an invitation on Facebook for a "March for Jesus" in my local city. I did a quick word search. "God" was not mentioned once, nor was "Son", nor was "Father". It simply does not seem to matter. Maybe I should see how many people would subscribe to a March for the Father on Facebook!

No such thing as a tradition-free church: part 2

One of the strengths I have found in our tradition is that we can have discipleship friendships in which we can share safely, in friendship and gently challenge one another for the purpose of personal and spiritual growth (of course, the system can be vulnerable to misuse, challenge one another for the purpose of getting them to see things the way we see them), even across local churches. I received a healthy challenge to reflect on: why do I go to [this] church - is it for me or for others? What is God's perspective on this issue, as opposed to mine? These are good albeit general questions to ask.

Am I looking for God's perspective? I believe I am. All the time. That is why I spend so much time trying to work out what is being said and believed in the first century, because I happen to believe that God's word does not change even if our circumstances do.

I actually suspect that my friend may have confused an issue here. When someone voluntarily leaves a community, it is right and normal for the leaders of that community to assess the reasons why the person is leaving. It could de-stabilise the rest of the group, for example. If the individual expresses some sense of dissatisfaction then a certain number of defence mechanisms may be triggered, because it is important for the leader to sense they are still doing a good job locally and that everyone still feels "OK".

One of the classic ones I have heard over and over again is to do with consumerist Christians. Christians that come to be served up exactly what they want, and if they do not get this then they move on, frustrated, leaving frustrated people and broken relationships behind them. Do they ask "what should I bring? What should I give?" This is another tradition that exists in our kind of church.

This simplistic explanation, however, should be handled with caution. The Kingdom of God is not only about giving. And it is not only about receiving, either. In January this year I was powerfully reminded of this fact. In the body of Christ we give and receive according to the various giftings.

No such thing as a tradition-free church: part 1

Some of the churches I have been a part of over the years have liked to think of themselves as tradition-free. I am not saying that this has not been a useful goal - to try and resemble as closely as possible the 1st Century church as best we understand it. I am certain this quest has valuable lessons for the church of today. Antioch has been a good model, for example.

But that does not change a fundamental truth, that I want to over-simplify for you here. There are two types of church. Churches that embrace their traditions, and churches that don't. As I said, an over-simplification, but I feel nonetheless helpful. Both of these groups are loaded with tradition, but only the former will truly honour and recognise the significance of their tradition. This is where liturgy and creeds come in, for example.

My wife and I are part of the latter kind of church, which in our case is charismatic evangelical. We live very much in the present. Of course we are affected by the past and are drawn toward a future eschatological hope, but the present is the biggie. 

Monday, 20 April 2015

Pas contre l'idée du Dieu trinitaire, finally something in French!

Cette publication est la traduction, plus ou moins, de ce que j'ai écrit dans ce blog en anglais en février, qui est tiré d'un mémoire que j'écris sur la question de l'interprétation et de la doctrine de la Trinité. Je m'excuse pour les fautes certaines de mon français!

Sur le mouvement, l'interaction, l'amour fondamental et la soumission mutuelle, je me retrouve ému et profondément inspiré. De nombreuses personnes, comme moi, ont aussi entendu et applaudi la rhétorique de l’unité en diversité qui est une théologie à la fois puissante et trinitaire.

Théologiquement, malgré mes questionnements actuels, je trouve que je peux aussi me détendre lorsque je me retrouve dans un environnement que j’appellerais « un environnement Trinitaire structuré – là où la prière et la gloire sont ultimement dirigées vers le Père, et que la place centrale du Père n’empêche en aucune sorte son Fils précieux notre Seigneur, Jésus Christ et Son Esprit Saint. Je ne peux pas exprimer avec suffisamment de sincérité que dans le sens structuré et historique, qui nous induit à l’admiration, à la louange je ne suis pas antitrinitaire […] C’est plutôt cela dont j’ai un réel souci qui m’a poussé en priorité à réexaminer cette fondation [de la Trinité] – et non la fondation en elle-même.

Mon inquiétude initiale et personnelle, qui ne fait pas l’objet de ce mémoire, concernait la tentation et la tendance que je remarquais à reléguer le Père à une troisième personne de la Trinité ou pire, à un rang d’enseignement utile ou élément additionnel. Pendant plusieurs années, je pense en prenant conscience que notre conception de Jésus prenait le dessus de la doxologie et théologie dans ma propre tradition d’église, j’ai essayé (naïvement) à ramener la théologie trinitaire au milieu, par les occasions régulières que j’avais en tant que conducteur de louange. De plus, pendant les quelques opportunités que j’avais à apporter un message de la Bible, je serais surpris si j’ai exclu la question du Père de mes propos. Il est curieux que je ne ressens pas cette même inquiétude lorsque je rends visite à d’autres églises théologiquement plus structurées.

Donc, si je suis devenu « anti » quelque chose, c’était « anti » l’exaltation d’un Jésus au dépens de la compréhension et la relation d’avec leur Dieu, le Père. Je ne pense pas qu’il existe encore un mot pour cela, mais je crois qu’il était Dale Tuggy ou bien Stephen Holmes qui a parlé d’une théologie d’église qui peut faire « effondrer » la trinité dans son deuxième membre, la personne de Jésus Christ. Encore d’autres remarquent – et je pense que c’est vrai – que beaucoup d’églises pratiquent une sorte d’unitarisme fonctionnel. Cela veut dire que lorsque nous nous disions trinitaires, notre expérience de Dieu était d'une seule personne et non trois, soit Jésus.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Memory and oral traditions

Bart Ehrman is going through a series of posts at the moment on his blog concerning his latest book project. He seems to have decided that he has spent many years - decades even - in the field of textual criticism and it is time to move on, and the field that has gripped him is memory.

That might sound a bit strange, moving from studying manuscripts to a field in psychology - why not just move into surfboard design? Of course, it is much more closely related than that! The reason why memory is such a fascinating topic is because some of our fellow human-beings of the first century, who became "followers of the Way" BEFORE anyone wrote anything down but AFTER Jesus was exalted back to the Father's side, relied on word of mouth for what Jesus said and did. So it is like Ehrman senses the need to push the boundaries of time back even further by looking into the way oral stories are transmitted and circulated from a more sociological perspective.

I am sorry to not hyperlink the exact post, you can only read it fully if you are a paid up member, like I am.

There was something that he said today that struck a chord of truth deep within me, so I decided to leave the following comment on his post today:

One of the most enlightening posts, and I didn’t even agree with it all! The line I think that seems so simple and yet speaks to me most profoundly is this: “you necessarily mould it to the audience you are addressing”.
Man alive, I think that is so obvious now, and yes I did believe the oral tradition myth. I even feel a bit convicted by it, because I even hear MYSELF tweak stories as I tell them according to my own audience!

With regard to the gospel narratives, I think it also goes without saying that a believer who cherishes their view of God’s sovereignty when it comes to communicating good news about his Messiah, could be fully in charge on the macro level of what essentially was to be retained. Right?

When I said "oral tradition myth", I was referring to one part of the post that articulates a point of view that many of us have heard (it is true) and believed because it seems to make sense (it is true) and so we have taught others (not sure I have, but I could have done): BECAUSE they did not have the means to document and record, oral cultures have always been especially careful and accurate in the way the recount significant stories - in our literate cultures we can simply compare two different texts to look for discrepancies, so do not have to be so careful when telling stories orally.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Who carries Thomas the Tank Engine?

Like some serious one-self Trinitarians, and like Stephen Holmes, I also am generally wary of the analogies drawn from our human existence to understood the true and most high God. The risk, as Dr Holmes highlights emphatically, is to focus only on the analogies (such is the accusation placed at the social trinitarians' door over humanified personhood) and ignore the dis-analogies.

That said (!), I have one that I find helpful, that I stumbled over the other day and that comes back to me now as I re-visit once again God and Jesus both being Saviour in Titus. My son was feeling tired coming back from school, so I agreed to carry him on my shoulders, but I needed him to carry his own little bag - my hands were full holding onto him! So an idea birthed in me that needed an image to blog about here. But although the idea is pretty simple, it was surprisingly hard to find anything helpful on google image search, so I have had to take a photo myself. The image is thus of me, carrying my son, who himself carries his own little Thomas the Tank Engine rucksack. As I say, it struck me quite powerfully the other day that it is entirely possible that two different people can be performing the same action on the same object at the same cost, and maintain having totally distinct identities. Yes, I am officially becoming a theological geek!

Neither our shared act of carrying, nor the singularity of the object, the one and only Thomas the Tank Engine bag of my son, make any difference to the fact that I am simply me, and my son (he is actually my one and only son!) is simply him; we remain simply two different persons and beings. But how much does the bag weigh to me? Precisely 1 kg. How much does the bag weigh to my son? Precisely 1 kg. The only difference is that I am doing the lifting of the Thomas bag through my son, who also must carry the exact same amount.

I am upholding the Thomas bag
My son is upholding the Thomas bag
In some complex way, I and my son are of one same essence and being, and it is this one same essence and being that is doing the upholding. If that being were to let go, the Thomas §bag would come crashing to the ground.
In some mediative way, I and my son can be simpler, separate persons and human beings, but we both are performing the same operation on the same object. There is however an important distinction. I am upholding the Thomas bag, indirectly, through [dia] my son. My son is upholding the Thomas bag directly, but is only able to do so because I am upholding him, along with his Thomas bag. If either I or my son were to let go, then the Thomas bag would come crashing to the ground.

I am also reminded of all that God does in Acts through Jesus' apostles.

So, how'd I do on my first analogy dabble?!

Post updates and publicity for Thomas... the Tank Engine

I have just tweaked again my perspective on Holmes' "exegetical pressure", you can see it here.

I have also added a new component to the monogenes post here, not quite sure why, but a sudden connection occured from something I read a while back by Moltmann on the "death in God" and God's fatherhood.

I also wanted to spike your interest early for an upcoming post I am quite excited about, which delves into the dangerous world of allegory. The personage who is going to help us is none other than Thomas... the Tank Engine! I need to take a photo first... you'll understand when you see it.

Watch this blog!
You can now see it here.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

There is hope for the NIV! A quick peak at Titus 2:13

I had a period where I started to really like the NASB, and also at times the NET Bible translations. You know what they say, it is always worth checking another translation. Well, if you are reading the older translation of the NIV then it is also worth checking the updated one, I think around 2011 for the full Bible. The version many evangelicals were reading in the 80s and 90s, and still many today, has some subtle but very significant differences. There is a very notable one I spotted in Hebrews 1, where we shift from Jesus being made a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour and everything put under his feet, to MANKIND being made a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour and everything put under our feet. That might seem like a big jump, but that is simply what is now understood to be in the original Greek. Too much had been made of the title "son of man", and all the glory, honour and authority so naturally seeming like something Jesus should have.

But the passage that is bouncing around my brain right now is from Titus 2:10-13. Up until now, I had been thinking that Titus was a really special book in terms of Christology, because my study was showing it to consistently assume that Jesus simply was the highest form of deity there could be. Jesus is God for the Titus writer. I was looking forward to writing a special section about it. Until I stumbled over a very significant change from old NIV, which follows the KJV, to new NIV.

Old NIV:
...while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us...

New NIV:
...while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us...

Can you see why this update is significant? It is actually significant on two levels, both of which I think are of great importance.

Firstly, in terms of my quest for the biblical justification of the fourth-century doctrine of the Triune God as something more than an "interpretation", I thought I had a solid "blue" text here, that is to say suggestive and compatible with later developments. It is now possible from the current NIV rendering - which I note to be now the mainstream reading - to understand the original passage differently, that Jesus is the glory of God that is to appear. But I suspect it is even more than that, and I am not alone. Literally the Greek says:

awaiting the blessed hope and [the] appearing of the glory of the great God and Saviour of us Christ Jesus.

Huther refers for proof to Buttman and Wince, perhaps affirming essentially that the "—" (dash) after "hope" is OK, because it is impossible to treat "the hope" and the "appearing" as one subject. Jesus is the glory of our great God. So the second [the] is justified, and the appearance of Christ Jesus is also the blessed hope.

This update from NIV is also significant for me on a second level. I feel very encouraged that while theological commitments will always have their influence on translators (and that can historically be shown without a shred of doubt), that this discipline with regard to bible translation and textual criticism is showing true advances toward neutrality, thus better translations, even at the cost of trinitarian proof texts! I admire that.

Before closing, I should also note that quite a few scholars seem to also keep open the possibility of another older interpretation, from a point of view of grammatical and author consistency, that the sentence requires in English the insertion of a second "our", which means that while Christ and God are distinguished, the eagerly awaited glory is shared and non-personified, as opposed to the previous interpretation. Suffice it to say that the chances of the Titus-writer meaning Titus to understand that Jesus just is God here seem to me slim according to current textual scholarship.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Blurring the edges of identity, deliberate, non-literal, effective

‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 

Acts 9:6 (NIV)

There is an understanding among believers that Jesus so identifies with his church that he himself is persecuted, feels his followers' pain, and so on. Our hands are also his hands in this world (see Matthew 25:40). However, these hands and identity association are, I firmly believe, non-literal (in the same way we can read stacks of biblical passages, including Jesus saying to the Father "into your hands I commit my spirit"). But at the same time they are real, powerful ways of changing the way we think and act, which is a correct goal. Jesus still has literal, resurrected hands, so my hands, as his follower, cannot be his hands in the same way that his hands are his hands (John 20:27). This technique is applied to make a strong and effective point and realise change.

This idea is also connected with Christ's usage of hyperbole to drive home ideas in mega-strong images and wording so that people will properly think about deeper changes, change the way they think, and finally, change the way they act. If I had time I would love to dive into some and then ask some questions of Christian interpretation. I may need to make the time, since interpretation is what my paper is all about!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Other religions "afraid" of the Trinity?

Anthony Buzzard is a biblical unitarian I keep at arm's length. Like many trinitarians, I find he tends to pre-suppose his own conclusions in a way which leaves me feeling dissatisfied with the journey he takes - back to the start! It can also lead to some quite unverified statements, like in his video "Jesus is still a Jew!" (2:25) where he talks about one leading world religion being "so afraid of the Trinity". Afraid?

According to Buzzard, this faith is "so afraid" of the [illogical, unreasonable, scary, ...] Trinity, that it is therefore impossible for them to get their heads around the possibility of God having a son. Without the Trinity dogma, this world religion would presumably accept God having a son, no problem at all.

That strikes me as a very big assumption indeed. I wonder if he ever bothered to ask any of his friends who believe that faith? I wonder if he is able to explain why that faith does not simply revert to pure Jewish monotheism?