On Not Having All the Answers (“Coffeehouse Theology” in a postmodern world)

Today’s post is an interview with Ed Cyzewski (MDiv, Biblical Theological Seminary), author of Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life (NavPress). This book is an introduction to contextual theology, i.e., to “help the reader understand, shape, and live out practical Christian theology in the postmodern context” (from the book’s webpage), rather than seeing honest questions as a threat and quick answers as a necessity.

Cyzewski works as a freelance writer in Ohio. He blogs at www.inamirrordimly.com, has authored several other books, and is currently working on three new books: A Christian Survival Guide; The Good News of Revelation (with Larry Helyer); and Unfollowers: The Doubters, Detractors, and Dropouts Who Didn’t Follow Jesus (with Derek Cooper).

The pink elephant in the room is his unpronounceable last name, which I think is of Klingon derivation. Try “Cy-zes-ki.” (Of course, the “w” is silent. What could be more obvious. Sheesh.)

1. I can see how coffee and theology often go together, but what exactly is the message of your book Coffeehouse Theology?

I used to be a defensive (and hence offensive) jerk who played theology cop. I was out to defend what I believed because I feared being wrong. After calling out a friend for “heresy” when he merely misspoke at a Bible study, I realized that I wasn’t helping anyone with my quest for certainty about the Bible and defensive approach.

As I sought a more conversational approach to how I defined my beliefs, I realized that the conversations weren’t just taking place over coffee tables with my friends. They were taking place around the world (through the internet) and throughout the history of the church. Coffeehouse Theology helps readers visualize and practice this kind of theology that is based on conversations about scripture that also includes dialogue with our history and our global traditions.

I wrote Coffeehouse Theology while many were asking about postmodernism and trying to figure out what they believed. For some, postmodernism felt like a breath of fresh air after struggling with the pat answers of evangelicalism, but in the eyes of others, it was a potential threat to any biblical beliefs or standards.  I suggest that knowing our context and comparing it to the perspectives of historic and global Christians will go a long way to helping us gain clarity when interpreting the Bible.

2. How have your own doubts driven your writing about theology?

I went to seminary looking for the answers—all of them. The deeper I dug into theology, the more I found parts of the Bible that left me disturbed or confused. I reached a low point when I felt like I’d spent all of my time learning about salvation but never experiencing it, much like a car mechanic who endlessly tinkers on an engine and argues about how it works without ever taking the car for a drive.

Certainty and complete answers are elusive and highly overrated. The more I stepped into the mystery of God and sought the love and acceptance of God, the easier it became to dig into my beliefs.  I’ve had to table some topics that I simply couldn’t figure out. I’ll return to them later and give them another go. In the meantime, my faith does not rise and fall on having all of the answers but on having God’s presence in my life.

In part, I wanted the readers of Coffeehouse Theology to find freedom to know God without necessarily knowing everything about God. As I hosted events for the book, people often approached me with their toughest questions and doubts about Christianity. It was good to know I wasn’t alone.

3. What were the most common doubts and struggles that readers of your book shared with you?

So many people who attended my events had been hurt by church leaders who used the Bible as a club, a manual, or a law book. The issues were all different: women in ministry, predestination, hell, evolution, homosexuality, etc. However, the same pattern emerged: the Bible wasn’t used to convey good news. The Bible had been used to manipulate, control, and divide. By the time they showed up at my book events, they didn’t even know where to begin with the Bible even if they were still committed to Jesus.

In fact, most of the problems they had with Christianity and the Bible stemmed from struggles with literal interpretations of the Bible. They didn’t know how to let the Bible speak into their lives without it becoming a tool used for control.

4. How did you respond to them?

People who had potentially faith-ending struggles with aspects of Christianity were really tired of simple answers or promises of certainty. While I sometimes shared my own story and even some of my own conclusions, I avoided being the guy with the answers. However, just because I avoided giving pat replies, that didn’t mean I had reasonable answers and options to offer. This shift in my thinking was hard to pull off and extremely important for my interactions.

Perhaps the most helpful thing I’ve done for myself and for others is pointing to a deeper experience of the Holy Spirit. N. T. Wright speaks of the Bible as the first four acts of a five-act play, and we use the first four acts to improvise the final act. As I’ve combined that line of thinking with a greater openness to the Holy Spirit, I’ve found a constructive way forward.

To anyone doubting or struggling, I would suggest focusing on the love and acceptance of Jesus. If Jesus called his disciples to spend three years with him before they had any clue about who he was, then he surely will accept us as we stumble forward in our faith. I would also suggest learning to sit quietly, just letting God move in whatever way he sees fit and sometimes meditating on a short passage of scripture. Something may happen or it may not. Either way, I have found this kind of prayer a helpful practice when I’m burned out on reading the Bible for “answers” or struggling with what I believe.

Over time I also started collecting the questions and problems my friends and people I met had with Christianity. I shared many of their struggles and started to look at the options Christianity presents for each one: how does prayer work, is hell real, what role does God play in the violent stories of scripture, how do we stop sinning, etc. I wrote a series of blog posts called a “Christian Survival Guide.” I aimed to present options and suggestions rather than absolute answers, and I received a lot of positive feedback. I have revised that series for a book project, and it is currently under contract with Kregel for release in 2014.

If we can have discussions centered on possible answers rather than absolutes, people can have more room for their faith to grow in the midst of doubts and concerns.

5. Tell me a bit more about this Christian Survival Guide you’re working on. Do you see it as a book for new Christians, struggling Christians, apologists, or someone else?

I’ve seen so many of my Christian friends struggle in their faith. Whether they don’t see themselves growing or “progressing” in their faith or they have real struggles and hang ups with the Bible or the Christian community, there are a lot of Christians who love Jesus but aren’t sure how to make their faith work. Many of them fear particular issues, worrying that they could lose their faith if they really faced that issue head on.

I wanted to avoid being the “easy answer” guy who always has a chapter and verse for every question, but I also wanted my Christian friends to know there are options out there for many of our toughest issues. Most people don’t want bulletproof answers. They just want to be given some options to consider.

Perhaps the most motivating moment for this Survival Guide came when a close relative, who grew up hearing about six-day creationism being the only option, left the faith because evolution made more sense to her. The all or nothing approach to six-day creationism forced her to leave the faith when she couldn’t make sense of it. I would hope that even the most staunch six-day creationist would agree that believing in theistic evolution is far better than leaving the faith altogether.

6. What has been the biggest threat to your “survival” as a Christian?

This may be an unusual one for some folks, but I married into a charismatic family, and understanding the role of the Holy Spirit was really tough for me. I specifically began to worry that my lack of charismatic experiences meant there was something wrong with either myself or with God. My wife’s family was never pushy about charismatic experiences and they accepted me just as I was. My struggles were all in my head.

I had very little training in how the Holy Spirit worked, and over the years they helped guide me through some of my insecurities. As I’ve stepped into a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit, I’ve come to appreciate that we truly are a body with different parts, and many of us have different roles and experiences of God. The Spirit has been teaching me to believe that God loves me as I am and that he can handle things from there.

The more I talk about my own insecurities as a Christian, the more I find Christians who either share the same insecurities or have other problems that were never on my radar. It’s my hope that my Christian Survival Guide book project will spark more conversations about the issues that trouble us as Christians and give us some options to consider as we move deeper into the love and acceptance of God.

I’ll be sending previews of the Christian Survival Guide and book updates each month to subscribers of my e-newsletter.

 

 

  • Bryan

    The number of people today who can still use the word ‘heresy’ with a straight face blows my mind. Every facet of Christian theology was at one point in time considered heterodoxy or heresy. And given the 33000+ denominations extant, it’s more than likely the theology expressed here is heretical to scores of other Christians.

    The labels aren’t helpful. The only thing one can do is appeal to the conception of God that one chooses to believe in, and to understand that there are other conceptions of God just as equally tenable from a Biblical standpoint as your own.

    • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

      When I read Mark Knoll and David Bebbington’s history of evangelicalism, I was consistently surprised by how many groups broke off to form a “Christian” denomination that was just “faithful to the Bible. If we look at our history and at the global Christian heritage, I think we can narrow down a far more helpful understanding of orthodoxy as opposed to simply going on what one reactionary group landed on as they left another group that was, at one time, most likely reactionary to something else.

      • Name

        We do have a well documented Christian doctrinal tradition, don’t we? The creeds, confessions, and such…
        Doesn’t mean that every group of people claiming to be “true” christians who believe the Bible should be considered within the Christian tradition, does it?

        • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

          I would say that we need to look for the traditions that have endured through time like the creeds, and in them we’ll find the essentials of our faith. However, that doesn’t mean that everything passed down to us is perfect. For example, the historically low view of women in the church is more a product of culture and not a “creedal” element of orthodoxy like the resurrection.

          • Name

            I agree with your comments overall.

            Do you think Paul had a “low view” of women?

          • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

            I think Paul had some progressive views of women in comparison to his contemporaries, but we need to remember that a progressive view in ancient times was not God’s once and for all view of women. In other words, we need to to update the Bible’s views on gender in order to be faithful to it’s more progressive leanings.

          • Name

            Well, this is where we disagree. Paul’s view of women, properly understood, is God’s view. And it’s not a low view. Unfortunately, that is a hard truth to get through to the modern mind.

          • labreuer

            Why must we assume that Paul had reached the epitome of “how to properly treat your fellow human being”? Note that merely assenting to “love your neighbor as yourself” is not sufficient for this, as there is terribly much to be discovered in terms of how. If you interpret Paul badly, you’ll say that he was in favor of perpetual slavery, as long as the slaves and the masters respected each other. The masters would merely need to forbid their slaves from seeking freedom. Or do you not consider this a ‘bad’ interpretation?

            It seems plenty to say that Paul’s work offered a substantial advance over and above contemporary morality. I mentioned the 1 Thessalonians 4 bit very intentionally in my previous comment.

          • Name

            Paul was an inspired apostle. I’ll take his side over the modern intellectuals and theologians.

          • labreuer

            I do not see why inspiration necessarily implies perfect understanding of morality. Alternatively, I don’t see why every particular moral command in the Bible (feel free to limit this to the NT) must be perfect; it seems sufficient for it to be a considerable improvement upon contemporary culture.

            Paul adjures the Thessalonians to strive to please God ‘more and more’, and to strive to love each other ‘more and more’. In the latter category, he admits that the Thessalonians have gone beyond what Paul has taught them. We can discuss about whether this means “added compatible commands that were strictly less authoritative than canon”, or whether it can actually overturn what Paul has said (e.g. no more need to have women cover their heads in church). I’m pretty sure there is no third option?

            It appears that you think inspiration does more than I do. I think it points the way. You seem to think it completely describes the way. Inspiration doesn’t need to mean anything other than “the Bible contains what God wished it to contain”. Does it?

          • Bryan Hodge

            “I do not see why inspiration necessarily implies perfect understanding
            of morality.”

            By the God who inspires or the by the author through whom inspiration takes place? Inspiration is of the text, not the author, so Paul’s finitude when it comes to morality is irrelevant. He can be given sufficient knowledge by Christ and in return be guided by God to communicate morality sufficiently. Sufficient truth does not need to be exhaustive truth, but it does need to be more than half truths, lest Paul be grouped together with the false prophets who also gave partial truths.

            “Alternatively, I don’t see why every particular moral
            command in the Bible (feel free to limit this to the NT) must be
            perfect; it seems sufficient for it to be a considerable improvement
            upon contemporary culture.”

            It depends, again, upon what you mean by “perfect.” If you mean giving omniscience concerning morality, then of course not. If you mean, a sufficient communication of God’s view of such and such an issue, then it needs to be, lest, again, the Bible is about as good to anyone as any other religious document that also contains improvements upon its society, but would be classified by biblical literature as false teaching and the spirit of antichrist.

          • labreuer

            I think you have accepted a bad argument in both of your responses. The argument says that if the Bible is not detectably perfect by some criterion, it is a mere human production. This is often an argument put forward by both New Atheists and fundamentalists. I simply do not see a reason to accept its premise!

            The purpose of the Bible is to repair the damage done to the four relationships described in Genesis 3. (Man-God, Man-Man, Man-nature, Man-himself.) Had the Fall not happened, the Bible would not be required for mankind to live in an unbroken, fantastic relationship with God, other members of mankind, nature, and himself. The idea that the only way for the Bible to be “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” is for it to be morally perfect is, as far as I know, a human invention. There is no guarantee that moral perfection is something that can be described in finite space! It could be that learning how to be in right relationship with our fellow human is something that we will forever be learning how to do better and better, even in heaven.

            Perhaps there is an argument for accepting said premise which I do not yet see.

          • ctrace

            “The purpose of the Bible is to repair the damage done to the four relationships described in Genesis 3.”

            I think God’s plan of redemption, begun before the creation of the world, makes His self-revelation, the word of God, more than a repair manual needed because of some unforseen event.

          • labreuer

            Where did I say the event was unforeseen? Furthermore, you appear to be downplaying the severity of damaging relationships, including the relationship between mankind and God. What is more severe than that?

            Forgive me if I reject the claim [which I sense you might make] that the only way for God to be maximally glorified was to predestine man to sin, or anything that uses semantics which collapse to God being the author of evil. I think there was a way for God to display his glory that didn’t require a libertarian free-will choice to refuse him in favor of self/Satan. If this makes me a heretic, I think I gladly embrace the label. Let Jesus be the judge.

          • ctrace

            Your second paragraph is not consistent. Hard to respond. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility seems to be the subject. They both are real. My point is Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, covenanted with God the Father before the creation of the world to save the elect after they had suffered in a fall by the act of their federal head Adam in the Garden of Eden. As for me misreading you I may have been reading your low view of Scripture into your view of the fall and providence and so on.

          • labreuer

            Please draw out the consistency in more explicit form, but perhaps only if the claim I attempted to reject is important for this tangent. I shall let you be the judge.

            Perhaps Calvinism requires a different view of inspiration than I do? I’ve read Inspiration and Incarnation; I have a feeling you disagree with key points in it?

            Finally, people were able to glorify God without the Bible. Enoch comes to mind. If you’re going to maintain the typical Calvinist positions, then I can see why you would show disdain toward the term ‘repair manual’. For the sake of argument, let’s remove connotation issues. Is it perhaps wrong to see the Bible as merely a repair manual, for the reason that after Jesus has fully done his thing, he will have more than repaired the damage done by Adam and Eve, and brought us to an even better place than could ever have been reached had Adam and Eve never sinned?

          • ctrace

            The Bible is *living language* that regenerates. It is what is the call that is potentially effectual inside a person. That is just one way the Bible is more than what you are saying it is. As for Enoch, special revelation for us, par excellence, is the written word of God, the Old and New Testaments, but that is not the only special (as distinguished from general) revelation. Enoch would have had access to special revelation we don’t have access to. Perhaps direct prophecy we don’t have access to. Perhaps special revelation told from down the line of Adam himself. Perhaps theophany. Perhaps many things.

          • labreuer

            How does “regeneration” differ from “repairing what was broken”? I have this growing suspicion that much of Christian theology fails to properly emphasize and discuss the fact that humans were never meant to live outside of intimate communion with God. In this light, the idea that I can do good works apart from God becomes obviously nonsense. Such an ability (doing good works apart from God) was never in the design schematic!

            I think you’re in danger of allowing Enoch to have had a richer relationship with God than Christians are today, if you maintain that the only way God communicates to his people is via the Bible, via the Holy Spirit stirring up Bible we have read, and via the Holy Spirit stirring up emotions in us. The canon can be closed and people could still get direct communication from God. As I said before, this communication would have to be submitted to canon for testing. There is no guarantee it was God speaking, and no guarantee that we understood him perfectly. These are not show-stoppers except for the naively black-and-white thinker.

          • Bryan Hodge

            “As I said before, this communication would have to be submitted to canon
            for testing. There is no guarantee it was God speaking, and no guarantee
            that we understood him perfectly.”

            But this is your view of the Bible as well. You’ve already indicated that the Bible is in error in what it says God has communicated. Hence, how can you use it to judge a possible direct revelation? How do you know the parts of it you are interpreting as from God really are and the revelation you are receiving is not? Doesn’t it just become arbitrary at that point, accepting what you find acceptable and dismissing what you personally do not find acceptable?

          • labreuer

            The same way that there can be noise in an old analog TV transmission, and you can still see the picture, loud and clear. There exists so much redundant information that figuring out what is being said actually isn’t very hard. Unless the TV is completely snowy. But I don’t claim that. I claim there exists at least one pixel that, were we to focus all our energies on it, we’d come to a horribly wrong conclusion about what image is on the TV. Fortunately, there are ways to avoid this problem that don’t require us to insist that every pixel is exactly correct.

          • Bryan Hodge

            I think that analogy fails because it assumes you know what pixels make up the picture and what pixels do not. When it comes to Scripture, you would have to be able to know what is the true picture and what is not, but this relies upon the self as the Spirit’s instrument, rather than the Word. You can make a lot of different pictures out of a snowy tv. I know, I’ve done it when we used to try and get stations to come through without an antenna. LOL.

          • Messenger

            You don’t know what gift the angels will give to your wife.

          • labreuer

            I’m confused. If the TV picture is very clearly a talking head, except there is a little cluster of white and purple pixels at the center of an iris, can I not, with high confidence, conclude that the person’s iris is not in fact white and purple? This is a case of “Trust 99.99% of the picture, or trust 0.01% of the picture.” I’m not talking about a situation where you can’t even tell if the talking head is Caucasian or African American.

          • Bryan Hodge

            I think if you keep playing “pin the root fallacy tale” on my arguments, we’re just going to be speaking past one another.

            I don’t believe that unless the Bible speaks without error it cannot be from God. I’m saying that unless the Bible speaks without error there is no way to know what God has communicated and what is merely the erroneous pontificating of men. Hence, if the Bible is not without error in what it teaches, it cannot function as the primary authority in determining one’s view of reality and morality. Hence, it becomes secondary and even unnecessary in determining what is good and true.

          • Bryan Hodge

            Hence, the Bible cannot function even as a “repair manual” in your own view, because one does not know what repairs need to be made. In your view, the Spirit uses the modern zeitgeist as the repair manual for all things, including the Bible.

          • labreuer

            I disagree, quite strongly. The summary commands, to love God and love neighbor, are extraordinarily narrow in what they permit. Even the order is profound: one element of loving God is loving truth, and that must come before loving other people. Many think that love can come before truth—they might not know their beliefs entail this, but they do. It’s unfortunate, because your attempts to love someone can backfire if you are not grounded in truth. C.S. Lewis’ least liked book, Till We Have Faces, explores this phenomenon. It’s really sad that this is his least liked book, because it is profound.

            On top of the two summary commands, we have many truths about human nature made clear in the OT and the NT. For example, the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” When one member suffers, all suffer. These are facts—facts which many Christians deny in action if not in word, but they are still facts. The modern zeitgeist does not change them.

            An example of where the modern zeitgeist may provide illumination is to take a concept like imago dei, and conclude that A) black males fall under this category; B) females fall under this category. I am led to believe that Christians had a role in abolition in the 1800s (including Wilberforce), but that considerable secular pressure existed as well. I am not aware of much Christian role in bringing about the modern equality of women, but I have not looked into the matter extensively.

            Genesis 1-3 provides a profound image of what the relationship between mankind and God was supposed to look like. It doesn’t need to be a science textbook for that message to come through loud and clear. Indeed, comparing Enuma Elish to Genesis 1-3 brings something out in stark contrast: the Babylonian gods created humans to serve them, while Yahweh describes himself as a “help mate” to mankind. This is utterly profound and has many implications, including ones that haven’t even been realized by most people today.

            Given what I have just said, I’d like you to renovate your opinion of my stance. I think your current model of my thoughts is extremely erroneous, and that you do bear a bit of fault for it. I think you’ve stereotyped me a bit, without the proper evidence or reason for doing so.

          • Bryan Hodge

            Let me be more clear then. We agree that truth must direct love, but that’s precisely the problem with your stance I wish to point out. What direction should love take with gender roles? You see, the love commands are not separate commands that conflict with the rest of the Bible. They are commands that place the law and gospel in context. They are commands directed by law and gospel. Hence, when one takes them to be a repair guide for the rest of the Bible, what he is really doing, whether he realizes it or not, is replacing the biblical definition of love with his own, which, in turn, of course, is really that of his culture’s, and hence, the zeitgeist.

            So that is what I mean. If I take love, as Hitler did according to his own zeitgeist, then I would conclude that love would have me remove the Jewish threat to my people by exterminating them. We all agree that Hitler’s view of love was twisted, but what could have corrected it? He could very well have argued his case from the Bible, as anyone can. But he wouldn’t be able to argue it in the context of the entirety of the Bible and the whole of the law and gospel. So love must be directed, not by bits and pieces of Scripture that CAN be interpreted this way or that, but by the correct interpretation of it that is to be placed within the whole context thereof. Hence, as the orthodox interpretation of Scripture has always said, if my interpretation of a passage contradicts another teaching of Scripture, I have misinterpreted it.

            The same goes for taking a concept that God is our helper and creating an egalitarian argument from that because Eve is said to be Adam’s helper. My two year old son is often my helper, but does that mean that I should consider him in equal charge of the household with me?

            My point is that the commands to love God and one another are worthless unless we know what love looks like, and if we assume what love looks like by interpreting certain passages within our modern concept of love, and then, nip at other passages because they do not reflect that concept of love, we are distorting the commands to love God and one another, and we end up disobeying those commands. Hence, it is impossible to use these generic commands about love apart from knowing what love looks like, and we can only know what love looks like by listening to the whole of the Scripture, without which, we are only using the zeitgeist as our guide concerning what love looks like. But then the original commands are simply being used out of context, and we are arguing for another religion than that of the Bible.

          • labreuer

            Before I respond to your post in full, I’d like to address the ‘repair’ vs. ‘regenerate’ discussion. Why are these words not equivalent with respect to the topic at hand? This has me quite confused, and I suspect that clearing up this confusion will be elucidating for other bits of the conversation.

          • labreuer

            Bryan, I think you’re starting to drift quite a ways from modeling me properly. Perhaps you’ve slipped into applying a stereotype to me that does not apply very well?

            So love must be directed, not by bits and pieces of Scripture that CAN be interpreted this way or that, but by the correct interpretation of it that is to be placed within the whole context thereof.

            I’m not arguing this. My “TV picture with a tiny bit of snow” analogy depends on very explicitly processing the context, and flushing out errors that do not fit with the context.

            Let’s take an example. Too much focus on Eph 5:22 and 1 Pe 3:1,6 would support the idea of women being ‘lesser’ in status—a state of affairs which existed for centuries. If someone believed that these verses necessarily mean that women are lesser than men and you could not convince him/her otherwise, the only option left is to suggest that parts of the Bible are wrong or at least obsolete. You might say that we could point to Eph 5:21, look up what the Greek word translated ‘submit’ meant to the Greek culture, understand that any element of submission which does not match how Jesus would ask us to submit is not binding, etc. But perhaps it would be more effective to point out that “there is no male or female”, that the entity that is created in the image of God is “male and female”, not just male, or just trace the history of how women have been treated in the Bible and discern a trajectory from “less equal” to “more equal”, and conclude that the end point is “equal”. (I don’t mean to conclude in favor of egalitarianism; I merely mean to combat the horrible ideas that allowed horrible treatment of Christian women for centuries.)

            My point is that the commands to love God and one another are worthless unless we know what love looks like, and if we assume what love looks like by interpreting certain passages within our modern concept of love, and then, nip at other passages because they do not reflect that concept of love, we are distorting the commands to love God and one another, and we end up disobeying those commands.

            This statement of yours is too strong. I am not advocating a complete break from scripture in determining what ‘love’ looks like. I am, however, advocating that we be more skeptical of our interpretations of scripture than I think you are comfortable with. I claim, very strongly, that we must be better at questioning bad ideas which lead to bad things, like the horrible treatment of Christian women through the ages. I think that stances like yours are too likely to conserve bad ideas. I don’t think you have settled on anything close to an optimum between conserving the good things and being progressive on the bad things.

          • labreuer

            Please explain your accusation.

            I understand that you think if the Bible had even one error, like the number of chariots being wrong (and God intending it to be wrong, for some reason of his that we’d never find out), that either A) we would just not be able to understand the Bible, or B) we must believe that thing and it would actually be an error to call it ‘wrong’, even if any human observer of the chariots on that fateful day would have said there were a different number.

            The above is an attempt at reductio ad absurdum. What if we posit a possible error in something slightly more important than number of chariots? Does it then destroy our ability to understand the Bible? I think not. I think God has given people the ability to come to proper interpretations even given noise in the environment, even given attempts to deceive by the Devil.

            Therefore, I still reject the assertion you make in your second paragraph. I think you assume wrong things about how God designed the world in holding to it.

          • Bryan Hodge

            I think you think that I’m talking about detailed inerrancy. I’m talking about theological and ethical inerrancy. Some call it infallibility. I choose to retain the word inerrancy, precisely because I believe the theological and ethical teachings of Scripture, and any views of reality in history or cosmology that are needed for those theological and ethical teachings to be true, are without error. So I don’t care how many chariots there were and whether the Bible gives the correct amount. That has nothing to do with what I’m arguing here.

            “What if we posit a possible error in something slightly more important
            than number of chariots? Does it then destroy our ability to understand
            the Bible?”

            What do you mean by “understand the Bible?” If it’s in error on that point, then it hinders your ability to understand the Bible on that point. If the points contributes to the larger picture, and it usually does, then it hinders your ability to understand the larger picture.

            But my argument goes beyond this. My point is that there is no way to determine what is in error and what is true, beyond using your own experience and reason, once you believe the Bible is a mixed bag of truth and error. But at that point, the Bible really isn’t anything special in that regard to other books that have both truth and error in them. It isn’t the guide. You are the guide. It is the object of your repair.

          • Messenger

            Or despair.

          • labreuer

            First, I’m not sure the Bible actually has any of the kinds of errors you describe. But that is not relevant, for a very important reason. We humans are fallible in how we interpret scripture. I point to the long history of Christians being horrible to their fellow human beings (not always better compared to non-Christians, sometimes worse). My conclusion is that we must be more willing to question what we believe. How does one do this properly?

            I’m really pushing the question of why it took Christians to take so long to realize that they were e.g. treating women as inferior beings. One possible answer is that there have always been few ‘true’ Christians and that they didn’t have enough power/influence to change things. I’d like to see a solid argument for this stance before considering it, though.

            In case I’m not being clear, I think we utilize the same process regardless of whether it is the case that:

            1) The Bible contains errors that one can correct by looking at enough other bits of the Bible and rejecting the few ‘bad pixels’.
            2) Our understanding of the Bible contains errors that we can correct by being willing to consider that our understanding has errors (humility), and then going about questioning that understanding.

            I say that going about #1 has the same process as #2, for the reason that Christians have, through the ages, latched onto a wrong interpretation of one or more bits of the Bible, refusing to consider that this interpretation could possibly be invalid. To call their interpretation invalid, you’d be calling the Bible invalid.

            Is this starting to make sense?

          • Name

            All the moral commands of Scripture are an outflowing of the gospel. Wives submitting to their husbands, and husbands loving their wives as Christ loves the church are not moral commands which the people of God can go “beyond Paul”. We cannot even get near where Paul commands us to go. I don’t follow your line of argument.
            Inspiration means that God said exactly what He wished to communicate. It doesn’t mean it says everything God could have said.

          • labreuer

            Inspiration means that God said exactly what He wished to communicate.

            This statement is not equivalent to the statement, “The morality espoused in the NT is the final and perfect statement of morality, versus some ‘step along the way’ to point us toward moral perfection.”

          • Name

            I’m not sure I follow you. Is modern morality superior to NT morality?

          • labreuer

            I think not needing to apply the commands to masters and slaves because there aren’t masters and slaves is a Good Thing. Yes, I know there are still masters and slaves in some parts of the world.

            I think allowing women to vote and to testify are good things; they aren’t explicitly denied in the NT (although one could say that requiring a woman to be under the authority of a man damages these ‘rights’), but it’s not clear that the NT was used to get to them, either.

            I think the bit about wives being subject to their husbands in 1 Peter 3 is dangerous if it is interpreted to mean that wives should not seek to escape physically and mentally abusive husbands. I believe it has been used that way; I’m not sure if any Christians use it that way today. Sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if questioning such a position would get one fired from a sufficiently conservative seminary.

            I think the NT ‘points the way’ toward excellent relationship with humans and with God in a way better than any other document in existence. That is not the same as saying that exactly what it says should always be relevant. I’ve heard people compare the masters and slaves analogy to employers and employees; this is disgraceful.

          • Name

            I mostly agree with your above comments. The NT doesn’t insist there be masters and slaves, it simply makes moral imperatives that should affect such relationships.
            I don’t see where the NT prohibits women from voting or testifying in court.
            I completely agree that wives should not stay in abusive relationships as you mention. The NT doesn’t require such a thing.
            The NT points the way, it commands the way, it describes the way, and that way ultimately is Jesus.

          • labreuer

            I agree with you on the one hand. On the other, I see significant lack of progress on the issues I enumerated, between AD 100 and AD 1800. This concerns me, greatly. Why were Christians failing to uncover these things? Are they unimportant in the sight of God, compared to areas where Christians were making improvements? I can think of no good support for this claim.

            I think the reason Christianity has failed to have more of a transformative impact is that we are somehow doing it wrong. I don’t mean the trite, “of course, we’re still sinners!” Yes, I believe 1 John 1:8. But is this the best we can expect of Christianity? I think the only Christian answer is to hope the answer is “no”. I spend much of my free time thinking of how we might be doing it wrong. I think your stance is bad because I think it holds Christians back from more quickly and more fully being formed into Christ’s likeness. I don’t mean to be mean and judgmental in saying this, but I do believe it. I can articulate this some more if you’d like. My purpose is to build up and not tear down, except where tearing down is required before building up on a proper superstructure (vs. foundation, which is what is already laid).

          • Bryan Hodge

            You’re right, but what I’m saying is that if God wishes to communicate something, it won’t be a half truth. It may not be an omniscient gifting of the truth, as though that were even possible, but it won’t be something that distorts the truth or supports a falsehood. That’s my only point. The problem, as I see it, with most emergings is that they confuse what is a step along the way toward truth with that which is partially false. To give an analogy, I can tell you where the water is, what water is, and what it will do for you, but that doesn’t tell you everything there is to know about water and what it can do for the world. It also must be that you continue to not only drink it in order for it to have any affect, but also to continue to drink it. That means that I originally just gave you good knowledge of water in which you must progress in both understanding and application. But if you go and drink a glass of Windex, and argue that it’s OK to do so because my original information concerning water was only partial, then you’re confusing partial sufficient knowledge with partial insufficient knowledge. One allows you to distinguish what is good, even without perfect knowledge of it. The other does not allow you to distinguish what is good and offers you nothing more, therefore, then you had without that information.

          • labreuer

            The other does not allow you to distinguish what is good and offers you nothing more, therefore, then you had without that information.

            This is a bare assertion and I reject it. It seems that this assertion requires the kind of black-and-white thinking that precludes the entire concept of wisdom. Humans are able to operate on noisy data all of the time. Indeed, there is something inherent about language, inherent about communication, that it is not perfect. You seem to assume that God’s communication is perfect in a way that I’m not sure is coherent with reality.

            Lest I seem to be questioning canonicity or something, I’m not. I had already been traveling in the direction I’m in when I read Pete’s Inspiration and Incarnation, but I didn’t really have a framework for it. Pete helped a decent amount with that. Perhaps his biggest contribution with I&I, with respect to this discussion, is that he can accept a lot of scholarly criticisms of the Bible, while maintaining that it was inspired and insisting that God can still communicate important information through it. This is a position generally rejected by Calvinists and inerrantists; you seem to match that pattern. I wish to look at the presuppositions of inerrantists, because I think some of them are false.

          • Bryan Hodge

            I think you’re falling into a major error in these discussions by assuming your dialogue partner can be given a label and dismissed.

            1. I said nothing of canon. I’m speaking about the necessity of an external word as authority in order to achieve any sense of moral measurement. If I say that love should be manifest by giving to poor, disabled Christians, and another says that love should be manifest by letting others fend for themselves and learn to make their own way in the world, and that the “giving to poor Christians” mentality was merely an ancient marker of holiness that no longer applies in our situation, what is to decide between us if the NT does not delineate the boundaries of love sufficiently (not exhaustively)? Your personal opinion versus mine? Do I get to claim that I’m wiser than you. Both have convincing wisdom in them. Only one is the general teaching of the NT.

            2. I can adopt all of modern criticism into my view of inerrancy, so that claim is off the mark. Ironically, I have more of an ability to think critically of each modern claim, since I am not bound to think a particular way about it. The uncritical adoption of modern criticism is as unscholarly as the uncritical rejection of it.

            3. It’s not actually a bare assertion to suggest that if you don’t have an external authority as your medium for judging reality, you are the authority for judging reality, and thus, any other input given to you is merely a suggestion up for your consideration. In that way, Shakespeare, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Satanic Bible (or any other proposition given to you through any other means) are as much benefit to you as the Bible is (unless you think the Bible contains more truth than the others, in which case, it would be the best suggestion, but not better than the Spirit using your own experience and reason in interpreting reality). These all have tons of truth and a bunch of error in them, depending, of course, on what you decide is truth and error in them. My point, therefore, is that if you receive direct revelation from God, and have no need of an external word as your final authority, then you are the primary authority for your own view of reality/morality.

            That is the only possible way you can judge the NT to be in error at certain points and be insufficient in its communication of what is good and true.

            Finally, your statements are just as black and white as anyone else. Your blacks and whites are just different in accordance with the primary means you use to interpret reality, so I would shy away from that masked ad hominem.

          • labreuer

            In addition to Ed’s comment:

            We ought to keep in mind that Paul told the Thessalonians had been taught by God to love one another, that Paul was only able to use faulty analogies (such as slavery) to communicate what he had to say, and that some commands are best construed as an attempt to eliminate what they regulate (e.g. slavery). Viewing the NT as the be-all and end-all of morality—excepting stuff like love God & love your neighbor—seems very iffy to me.

          • Bryan Hodge

            Are you positing the idea that they were taught by God apart from the preaching of the apostles? Is God’s teaching direct rather than through kerygma? If faith comes by hearing and hearing through the Word of God that is preached by those who are sent, is not love a major component of faith that is taught by God’s Spirit through His Word?

          • labreuer

            Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia.

            That’s 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10a. It seems a bit iffy to insist on the exact method by which God taught them this. Perhaps I’m missing something: I’ve always been confused by the idea that we can never get information from God by any way other than the closed canon. Why on earth can we not think we have gotten additional information from God, refuse to elevate it to the level of canon, and furthermore, test it by canon via the consistency test, as well as the empirical test? Perhaps you might bring up Hebrews 1:1-2? It’s not clear that indicates that God has utterly ceased all his previous methods and furthermore, no longer has any non-canonical communication with us. To maintain that, you would, at the very least, have to argue either that God cannot have that kind of relationship with his created beings, or that he doesn’t want to have that kind of relationship with his adopted sons and daughters. That seems like a very weird claim to make, especially given the “abba, Father” bit.

          • Name

            The doctrine of inerrancy does not teach that we can only receive information about God through Scripture. Scripture itself doesn’t teach that (see natural revelation). However, only special revelation is without error. We can receive non-canonical communication from God, but certainly we wouldn’t receive communication from Him that contradicts what He has already said in His word.
            I think part of your opposition to inerrancy lies in your misunderstanding of it, as well as the poor hermeneutical skills of some theologians who hold to it.

          • labreuer

            Based on our previous discussions, this surprises me. Perhaps you would agree with the second paragraph if the comment I just made?

            At this point, I don’t think I can sufficiently properly represent how our arguments differ without more help from you. For example, where does the Bible say that Paul’s description of how to treat your fellow human being properly (e.g. the master and slave commands) and how to relate to God properly (e.g. women covering their heads in church) are true for all time? Please don’t come at me with the accusation of moral relativism; anything that fails the test of loving God with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, or the test of loving our neighbor as ourselves, is heresy. These two restrictions are incredibly restrictive, and in my opinion, utterly destroy moral relativism.

          • Name

            I don’t believe in moral relativism. The two matters you mention are, the their context, cultural accommodations. The Bible doesn’t say they are “for all time”, but we deduce they are for that place and time. However, Paul gives theological reasons for gender roles (to cite one example) which are for the extent of this current age.

          • labreuer

            So you believe that women who do not cover their heads during standard church services are sinning, and that their husbands especially ought to be rebuked for this? I don’t mean to be snarky, I mean to tease out exactly what you believe by asking how you would act.

          • Name

            No, the issue of head coverings is an indifferent cultural matter. It’s not moral or immoral.

          • labreuer

            You seem very quick to note when something was cultural. May I ask exactly how you did this (you may link to a rigorous treatment of the matter, but please don’t tell me to go buy a book or spend an hour finding the thing myself)? Note that Christian women wore head coverings quite frequently up until the twentieth century.

            It seems that head coverings aren’t moral because they refer to our relationship to God, not our relationship to other people. The typical use of “that was a cultural thing” is used to lessen the importance. But if head coverings have to do with our relationship to God, aren’t they more important than how we relate to other people?

          • Name

            Nothing fancy about how I did it. I don’t see which of the ten commandments is being broken by the use or the nonuse of head coverings.

          • labreuer

            Which of the ten commandments is being broken if I were interpret the word ‘submit’ in Ephesians 5:20-21 differently from the way you probably understand it? For example, I could look at contemporaries who use that term (it’s military, I believe), and find that the doctrine of submissive wives to be just plain wrong. I think you’re ignoring how horribly Christians have treated women, throughout time, for way too long. I think the only true way to avoid this is a path different from the one Calvin laid out (because I claim his didn’t work). I’ve proposed the beginnings of one, as has Pete (I think there is some overlap), but far be it from me to say I have arrived at the truth, or the best interpretation that will ever be determined.

          • Bryan Hodge

            The issue in 1 Cor 11 is likely about gender distinction, not head-coverings. I actually did my NT thesis on what I call the priority argument in the New Testament, which roots something that one might think is merely cultural in creation in an effort to argue for its universality. Both 1 Cor 11 and 1 Tim 2:11-15 do this. Hence, Paul (or the Pauline school–whichever you prefer) is arguing that gender distinction in appearance and role is rooted in creation. You may not believe him, or think that the baby should be thrown out in order to avoid the dirtiness of the bathwater; but it’s important to look at what he actually intends to argue before its dismissed.

          • labreuer

            Is there a way for me to see your thesis? My email is labreuer@gmail.com .

            For a while now, I have entertained the thought that almost nobody in America’s Christianity knows what true, Biblical submission looks like, because it also requires understanding what true, Biblical servanthood looks like. Matthew 20:20-28 is critical. What does it look like for me to submit to Christ?

            I think Satan has executed an absolute masterstroke in poisoning the ideas of submission and servanthood. We see that whenever a Pastor preaches that God will put all things under Jesus’ feet, and we assume it will be done by an act of power, kind of like how the Inquisition used its power to force many humans to submit to the control of other humans. Of course, when God does it it will be right… yeah. Not sure that argument suffices. It follows the form of, “Let me posit how God might go about some thing, and then conclude that this is a Good way to go about that thing because he is God, after all!” No, that’s a terrible form of argumentation; it destroys the concept of ‘good’, which would be another masterstroke of Satan.

            Where is the best place to look in America for a model of proper servanthood and submission? I think we need to add humility in there, as well. It might be useful to consider the description of Eve as Adam’s ‘help meet’, and how the same Hebrew word was used to describe God being a ‘help meet’ to Israel.

          • Bryan Hodge

            Unfortunately, I lost my thesis when my computer crashed. This has now happened to me about five times in my academic career. I do have my thesis in hard copy, but have yet to put it back into the digital. But I do think the argument is strong. I go through Second Temple literature to show how the argument is meant to function, why it is seen as a strong argument by the particular author for the universality of a teaching, and that the NT authors are simply utilizing this argument in cases where, even in their own day, the issue is debated as though it is merely a cultural and fluid idea.

            I agree with you that submission is not understood in our culture, but that flies both ways. We are raised in the American ideal of independence, which in certain respects, is simply a positive word for “rebellion” when we use it to defy authorities. Our heroes are rebellious people, and we don’t respect those who submit to authority as much.

            Authority is also a much abused concept. I would rather translate it as responsibility for the care of another that carries with it the fear of God.

            In a complementarian view, neither of these, when it comes to human roles, implies superiority or inferiority of mind or spirit, but they do imply a distinction between the genders that fulfills itself in specific roles in family life, which then extends to the church.

          • Messenger

            Applaud. No submission.

          • labreuer

            Oi vey. I hope you back everything up religiously, now! If you’re a Calvinist, then you had to lose the digital version of your thesis for his glory… I find this amusing to consider. On the one hand, perhaps the world wasn’t ready for it. On the other hand, perhaps it would have hurt the world. Alas, I jest.

            I have yet to get into the complementarianism/egalitarianism debate in earnest. I haven’t read the foundational books on the matter from both sides. I do have two questions that I think can be found—at least implicitly—in much of the aforementioned debate.

            1. Why did it take so long, given Christianity’s extraordinary power during much of the time between AD 300 and AD 1900, to figure out how to treat women like equal human beings—under a complementarian paradigm?
            2. Was it even primarily Christians who pushed for this equality (some obviously pushed for egalitarianism, but they were still pushing for a good thing: ending horrible, abusive, sinful, God-not-glorifying inequality)?

            There is a general assumption that there is a special power in Christianity, a power not accessible to non-Christians, on average. Jesus says to test things by their fruit; he was arguing for a limited form of empiricism. If I were to test Christianity’s complementarian doctrine by its fruit, what would I conclude? I understand that doctrines can be implemented poorly, but at some point, doesn’t one start suspecting not that the doctrine isn’t being followed properly, but that the doctrine is bad and inevitably leads bad places?

            Please note that I haven’t rejected complementarianism. I see strong arguments for it. However, the above weighs heavily on my mind, and I think it weighs heavily on many people’s minds. I think we Christians ought to have fantastic answers to issues #1 and #2 that I raise. Do we? Are they answers that only those who really want to believe in complementarianism would accept—easy answers that aren’t really convincing, just comforting? Or are they rigorous ones that can be truly satisfying?

          • Messenger

            Soon you’ll all be transformed. Peace!!

          • Name

            some Christians have treated women poorly because of their sin and misuse of Scripture. The wife’s submission to her husband is always tied to the husband loving his wife as Christ loved the church. These must never be detached, or it will lead to horrible treatment–no doubt.

            Also remember that submission is voluntary, it is an act of devotion to Christ.

            Modern sensibilities are offended by such language. The abuse of the texts by wrong-headed people doesn’t help either. However, it is God’s order for the marriage and family, no amount of hermeneutical backflips is going to change that…

          • labreuer

            I don’t understand something about our recent exchange. You are OK with no longer obeying the head coverings command, on an unclear basis. When I asked for elucidation, you seemed to say that because head coverings aren’t entailed by the ten commandments, it’s ok to not wear them. But when I pointed out another NT commandment which is not entailed by the ten commandments, you push back, saying I can’t just stop obeying it. I don’t understand. The submission bits aren’t entailed by the ten commandments.

            Let’s look at the ten commandments. Not all of them talk about morality! The first two have to do with our relationship with God, which is not a moral matter. It is an extremely important matter, but it is not a moral one. Indeed, the greatest commandment was to love God; loving neighbor is second and I think that is important.

            I felt vaguely insulted by your bringing up the bit about ‘modern sensibilities’. It appears that you are stereotyping me and I ask you to stop. You appear to know—in a non-humble way—exactly what the Greek word hupotasso means. When I suggested that maybe you didn’t and maybe we should look at how that word was used outside of the Bible, you inferred that maybe I don’t like the word because of my sinful ‘sensibilities’. This is offensive. It is subtle, but it is there. I usually don’t even mention these things, but you have a habit of making these subtle digs all over Pete’s blog.

          • Bryan Hodge

            Why does it seem “iffy”? Paul just congratulated them for receiving the Word of God that the apostles spoke to them as the very Word of God. He’s speaking to believers who have received the gospel of love, and we are told throughout the Scripture that God regenerates and teaches His people through the spoken Word (e.g., John 6; Rom 10).

            Of course, I didn’t say anything about canon at this point. I just mentioned that the New Testament community has received its regeneration to love through the spoken word. The burden would be on you to show that God regenerates and teaches His people with something apart from the audible spoken word.

          • labreuer

            I think your current theological commitments prevent you from just reading the text for what it is. In 1 Thess 4:1, Paul does consider that the Thessalonians need guidance. vv2-8 are instructions for this. I’d put vv1-8 under the “you need to do the greatest commandment better”—that is, love God will all your heart/mind/soul/strength.

            v9 is another ball of wax. No longer do the Thessalonians need to have Paul give them a bit of a sermon. There is no corresponding section here, to vv2-8. I find it difficult to interpret this as the Thessalonians have merely having been sufficiently obedient to the apostles’ instructions; the clause “for you yourselves have been taught by God” doesn’t seem equivalent to “for you yourselves have been taught by God through the apostles“. That addition is not in the text, and I don’t think it’s inferred. I think your theological commitments infer it and I think that means there is an error in at least one of your commitments/presuppositions.

          • Bryan Hodge

            I totally agree, but those theological commitments are given to me by the context of both the epistle and the entire NT, which I think is the context the Spirit provides for those statements. I would be like my reading Acts, where Jesus is spoken of as “the man” God raised up, and concluding that Jesus isn’t really God then. The context of Acts would show otherwise, and certainly, the context of the NT would provide a better understanding of Jesus’ divinity and humanity.

            So since the NT presents God teaching us through the spoken word, as does the OT, and such a theology is in the very epistle we are discussing, what warrant would one have to provide different contextual referents to the phrase? What you seem to miss here is that you too are providing prior theological commitments to the phrase. It “seems” to you to say A, B, and C, but the impression you get from it is not drawn from the context I just mentioned. It is drawn from a theological notion that God teaches people apart from the spoken word. Would you not agree with that assessment?

          • labreuer

            I don’t think I would agree with that assessment. I do think it is possible to try and simulate how a person would read a text, were he/she to not have prior theological commitments. I think such a person would come to the conclusions I came to. These won’t always be correct conclusions (because even if one brings no prior theological commitments, one brings prior knowledge, without which one could not even read and comprehend the words of the Bible), but they are often interesting conclusions. I have found that they tend to form seeds for fantastic conversations. Furthermore, I have sometimes found that they reveal bad theology that needs correction.

            I understand the process of using scripture to interpret scripture. We likely differ on my belief that it is possible to ‘settle into’ wrong interpretations by doing this, and then when you see a verse that would challenge your view, it is bent out of shape so that it doesn’t poke into your nice model of what scripture says. I would be curious to know how you verify that you haven’t done said ‘bending’. Surely you admit that you may do it? I’m pretty sure I have.

            Your example of Jesus being described as a man seems to fail as an analogy. There are so many places that speak of him as God, and so many places that talk about him as man. Are there anywhere near as many passages that talks about how God talks to us now? I’m inclined to try to enumerate them (with your help). Should there be few enough of them, I think your analogy falls apart.

          • Bryan Hodge

            I think I would answer that by saying that every place that discusses God teaching someone in Scripture refers to His speaking to them audibly, revealing something audibly, etc. Hence, in both the OT and NT, the normative view of God teaching someone is through the spoken word. Even if we could quibble over the way His messengers receive the word, the community certainly is never said to be taught by God through any other means.

            What that means to me is that when we then see a passage that talks about God teaching the community, we should assume that in the context of the rest of the Bible. The way that a verse would change that is for that verse to be in the context of God teaching something mystically, where the passage talked about God teaching them without words, but rather through inclinations, emotions, intuition, etc. But we don’t have that. Hence, I think that what is going on when you read that passage is that you have theological commitments that are of American religious sentiments, where God speaks mystically and internally in my heart. Then those theological commitments cause you to provide a new context, which I would argue is a foreign one, to the phrase, “God has taught you.”

            So I don’t think it is possible to approach any text without theological commitments (not just non-theological commitments), and that makes it important for us to evaluate our assumptions, and more importantly, from whence those assumptions come.

            As for God talking to us now, we can only get inferences from the Bible, since it doesn’t tell us how God will talk to us beyond it, except for providing for us the way God speaks to His people in the norm (“the word of the Lord came to,” “how will they hear without a preacher,” “my words are spirit and life,” etc.). We should probably even talk about what “word” means, because in the Bible it always refers to an audible spoken word, but in our American religious context, we often think of it as an intuition, inward thought, feeling, etc.

          • Messenger

            “God has taught you.”

          • labreuer

            Hence, I think that what is going on when you read that passage is that you have theological commitments that are of American religious sentiments, where God speaks mystically and internally in my heart.

            Not at all. I am one of the least mystical people you will probably ever encounter.

            Let me give you an example that is a candidate for God revealing non-canonical revelation to me. I was on a long walk with my wife and we started discussing both of our responses to “trials of various kinds”—James 1:2-4 stuff. A huge theme in the NT is that Christians are to respond to such trials by maturing. How exactly this happens contains deep mystery (try articulating exactly how we “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”), but surely there are ways to encourage each other to do this. I have two questions on this matter:

            1) Is there one way or multiple ways to encourage each other on this matter?

            2) Do all forms of encouragement work equally well for all people, or do some forms work better for some personality types and others, for others?

            I think the answer to #1 is “multiple”, and the answer to #2 is “the latter”. It’s probably not too hard to infer my answer to #1 via looking at the various ways that scripture encourages us, but what about #2? That’s not so clear. We know that different people have different spiritual gifts, but does that automatically mean that the correct answer to #2 is “the latter”?

            Returning to the walk, I asked my wife how best to encourage her to mature when she encounters “trials of various kinds”. Let’s stop here for a second. I do not ever recall a sermon advocating that I ask how to encourage someone in this matter! I’ve gone to some some pretty excellent churches. If you know of a sermon that gets at this idea, please post it ASAP. Continuing, my wife told me that she prefers to be told truths about God: about his character, about what he has done for her, and about his promises to her. We’re going to have Romans 8:28 inscribed on our wedding bands because God has been extraordinarily faithful in taking hard circumstances in our relationship and turning it to more good than we could have imagined or hoped for. Here’s the rub: for me, the way to encourage me to mature upon encountering trials is to help me think through how the maturing will happen. I’m much more confident of what God has done for me and that he will continue doing awesome things for me. I struggle when I don’t see how something will help me mature.

            The ‘truth’ I think I discovered is that Christians vary in an extremely important way. Understanding this type of variation is of the utmost importance if we wish to spur on each other’s sanctification. Maybe the concept of “how people differ” that I outlined above is in existence, but I certainly don’t remember ever coming across it. I’m not sure this concept can be directly inferred from the Bible. I think it requires empirical evidence-gathering: seeing how Christians act, in the world. Whether or not this is indeed a ‘truth’ can be [partially, but sufficiently] determined by testing the fruit of following it. Is this a valid way of thinking, in your opinion?

          • Andrew Dowling

            No, but the ‘fake Paul(s)’ who wrote the Pastorals and Ephesians did.

          • Name

            Please.

          • Bryan Hodge

            Hi Ed,

            I think the issue I would have with your statement is that the creeds don’t relate to us the essentials of the faith. I think that is the evangelical influence in emerging thinking. In fact, if postmodernity is really ultra-modernity, as Thomas Oden has often said, then the “in essentials, unity” in the pomo school is really ultra-evangelicalism.

            The creeds are specifically an orthodox response to a given heresy. They are not meant to be summations of the faith and what it requires of its followers.

            My other question for you is this. How do you know that your answer now is certain? In other words, the above is no more less certain of an answer by which you seek to live, an answer that requires all sorts of certain beliefs about theology, than your previous answers. What distinguishes the two, except that the former makes you seem less appealing to the postmodern generation and the latter conforms more along the lines of the current zeitgeist? And where are these answers to what you have viewed as the problem coming from?

            I guess what I would wish to see happen in your circles is the honest acknowledgment that you aren’t doing anything different than the generation you are critiquing did. Your culture has just shifted and so your answers have with it.

            Thanks.

          • Orthodox

            Bryan:

            So the early ecumenical creeds were simply a response to heresy rather than a distillation of the ‘rule of faith’ – i.e., the essential doctrinal tenets of orthodox Christendom and the essence of the apostolic kerygma?

          • Andrew Dowling

            The Nicene Creed was an affirmation of faith ‘points’ but its contents were forged by the debates surrounding the nature of Christ and the Trinity, which is why that consumes so much of that creed.

          • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

            Well said Andrew.

          • Bryan Hodge

            What Andrew said. And I would add that setting it up like that is a false dichotomy. The early ecumenical creeds were a response to heresy by addressing it with those points of the rule of faith, the essence of the apostolic kerygma, against which the heresy was directed. They are not meant to tell us what is essential to believe and follow Christ in the face of all doctrinal and ethical opposition, but only what is essential when it comes to those specific debates. That fact alone is probably one of the biggest bombs to drop on modern evangelicalism and emergings, since much of their ecumenical views are based upon the more novel idea that one only needs to have unity in a stripped down version of Christianity we call “essentials.” The real issue of Christianity is whether you are in obedience to Christ, regardless of whether what He has commanded you to believe or do is an “essential” or not.

          • Orthodoxy

            Do the early ecumenical creeds mark the boundaries of orthodoxy?

          • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

            This probably isn’t the answer you’re looking for, but I tend to think of Orthodoxy as a direction toward Christ rather than a checklist of beliefs. So while moving toward Christ involves affirming certain doctrines, the point of it all is that we’re moving toward Christ since we all have something wrong with our theology. I like how NT Wright often told his students that a good bit of what he was teaching them was wrong, but he wasn’t quite sure which part it was!

            Thinking of Christ more in those terms helps me see God working with us as imperfect people who are gradually sanctified over the years, which is pretty much what we see on a smaller scale with the original apostles.

          • Bryan Hodge

            I agree with you here, Ed. Orthodoxy is about having Christ as Lord, regardless of the lack of understanding toward a belief. However, it cannot consist of less than moving toward reception of those beliefs, since they are truths that communicate His mind to us. Hence, an Arian heresy is possible. If it were about moving toward Christ, absent of moving toward a belief that Christ reveals and to which we are commanded, then heresy would only be an attitude, but then impossible to mark. Instead, the Church has always seen beliefs like works. They manifest the Holy Spirit’s presence and work within the individual, and hence, his adoption. So they still tell us something about boundaries. Would you agree with that?

          • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

            I have no problem admitting that I’m in process and that I’m just as much in danger of reacting like the generations before me. That’s why I always want to dialogue with previous generations and Christians around the world. I’d write more, but I’ve got some serious sleep deprivation from a baby going on, and I think anything I type about this would come out more mangled than intended. You could always buy my book to read my more complete thoughts on this… Ha! I had to try!

    • labreuer

      IMHO, ‘heresy’ should be used to describe doctrines which necessitate forcing people to sacrifice against their wills. Likewise, it should be used to describe doctrines which do not sufficiently ask people to take up their cross and follow Christ. There should also be a category for actions taken that do these things. Forcing people to sacrifice is something that Satan does. He says “take”. Jesus says “Take from God alone and then give to people.”

      Evil should still be called ‘evil’. I do think we should have an empirical basis for calling things ‘evil’, though. It’s too easy to mold words into whatever form we want. Perhaps this is just me thinking that every command God gave had a basis in natural law, though.

    • Rory Tyer

      I’m not sure that this is very helpful. First, I don’t think it’s true that “every facet of Christian theology was at one point in time considered heterodoxy or heresy.” I can think of several counter-examples off the top of my head (such as the doctrine of creation). Second, equally as important is the question of who’s doing the “considering” – which doctrine was considered heresy, and by whom, and when, and by what process, and what was the result, and what was that debate’s subsequent life in the history of Christian thought, and what is its relationship to our time?

      It is true that there are many scores of denominations, but that is very different from taking a historical point of view on what constitutes “heresy” and what does not. Many denominations would not question the salvation of those in different denominations; they just think they’re not entirely correct. Which is perhaps what we should expect given the inherently partial nature of all human formulations of theological truth?

      Finally, I think the path to follow is a bit less bleak than simply “appeal to the conception of God that one chooses to believe in” – I’m sure some people do this but I would hope that an ideal model for theological reflection involves some amount of conversation with historical theology, with biblical revelation (and questions about how to read, synthesize, & apply biblical texts), with philosophy and history, and with global theological contributions. I think the net result of something like that is the suspicion that there are many conceptions of God that are less tenable, from a biblical standpoint, than others. The more tenable conceptions don’t have to be held with dogmatic certainty or arrogance; but there has to be some sort of third way between stifling arrogance on the one hand and the throwing-up-of-hands that seems to be your perspective here.

      • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

        Well said Rory!

  • Name

    I’m not sure I understand what the problems are with believing the Bible in a somewhat more literalist way. I guess I must be weird since I have not really struggled with doubt in 20 + years as a Christian. So the response to doubt is….to change how we interpret the Bible in a way that sits well with some unidentified part of our inner man?
    Hmmm.

    • labreuer

      Is it bad that people in pre-Civil War America struggled about whether the contemporary institution of slavery was blessed by God? Is it possible that some Christians today likewise hold evil ideas as Biblical, ideas which ought to be roto-rooted out? If so, who’s going to do the plumbing job? Will we allow the plumbers to sometimes err [temporarily]?

      • Name

        Well, I don’t think the doubts being mentioned are pertaining to slavery. What do you have in mind specifically?

        • labreuer

          No, we have sorta-kinda figured out the slavery thing. There is a whole discussion to be had about wage-slavery, but that’s not my point. My point is that we must be open to questioning the things that have us justifying evil practices. Too much emphasis on tradition hinders that.

          Another example would be Calvin’s attitude toward heretics and blasphemers. How did we learn to not react that way? Was it even primarily a Christian push to treat people who differ from us in ideas with dignity? I don’t know what Calvin’s basis for executing heretics and blasphemers was; there are OT bits about that he could have been employing.

          At risk of bringing up the whole evolution controversy, I raise the idea of the firmament as set forth in scripture. I claim that too much emphasis on interpreting it ‘literally’ would have greatly hindered astronomy and perhaps even destroyed the possibility of ever launching something to orbit, not to mention beyond.

          How do we create space to question tenets—sometimes deeply held ones—which might be wrong? Note that you and I might not want to admit that they could be wrong.

          • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

            I think that’s the tension we face and why we need to sometimes ask uncomfortable questions in conversation with people who can help us land on an answer of some sort as we seek to uphold orthodoxy while also looking at what needs to change. It’s not for the faint of heart!

          • Name

            Blasphemy was punishable by death in the OT, I think Calvin viewed heresy in a similar vein. However, your wrath should be more directed at the Inquisition and the RCC than Calvin.

            but moving on….

            I don’t think holding to the Bible in a somewhat more literalistic way is the hinderance you make it out to be. I think the AiG folks go too far in the wrong direction, I’m sure you agree, but generally speaking most Christians don’t try to construct a science text book from the Genesis account.

            Anyway, I’m all for asking questions, but not in a skeptical way.

          • labreuer

            Au contraire, I bring up Calvin because the way he framed his opinion on how blasphemers were to be treated, anyone who disagreed with him would be treated the same way: murder. Calvin set up a system that probably only eased up at some point after his death. Do we really want to slow down progress toward Godliness in that way? It is an extreme, but I think it’s what Pete’s talking about. Getting booted out of an institution isn’t death, but it can cause people to fear in a sufficiently similar manner.

    • Seeker

      Hi Name,

      You and I have gone back and forth a few times on Pete’s blog already, but I assure you I’m not looking for a fight (at least not THIS time!).

      Personally, my doubts of late have stemmed from a number of areas I think, but many of them I believe are actually intellectual and not simply some emotional thoughtless reaction to wanting the bible to “sit well with my inner man”… Reading the Bible in a very literalistic sense worked well for me for a long time – until I started learning more about things like evolution, the human fossil record that predates the Hebrew people (and the Bible) by a LONG shot, the complexity of human sexuality, the age of the known universe, etc. etc. I also started to have serious questions about things like the very violent portrayal of God in many sections of the OT and other “problems” with reading the Bible in a very literal way. Basically, as long as I prevented myself from studying anything other than that which would reinforce my already established worldview, I was ok to keep reading the bible just like I did as a 5 year old on my mothers knee.

      But when I started allowing myself to at least explore the thoughts of those who differed from me, I was often perplexed at how often their arguments made really good sense of the data at their disposal. I was then left with the decision to simply stick my head back in the sand and try hard to forget what I was learning, or I could embrace the best that science and other sources of knowledge had to offer trusting that if my faith was legit it could handle the probing of honest questions.

      I have decided to face the questions and not shy away from the transformation of my faith that seems to be occurring by engaging in this process of questioning and learning. And I honestly think it has been really good for me spiritually, emotionally, physically, etc. It has “cost” me in countless ways to take this journey as well, so I hope you don’t see those who doubt like me as insincere somehow. I assure you that if I was in any way insincere about the genuine struggle of faith/doubt that I have been going through I would have long ago turned back in order to avoid the loss of a job, the misunderstanding of family and friends, the unemployment, the isolation, etc. that has accompanied this journey to a new way of understanding Christianity/God/Faith. But in the midst of all this, I don’t think I can ever go back to “business as usual”… It has been an awesome journey, and there are many fellow travelers, and I don’t lament the loss of some things that I once held so dear.

      Thanks for the post Pete and Ed. Good stuff. I get it.

      • Name

        I’m sure you didn’t mean it quite this way, but your assumption is that fellow Christians who believe the Bible in a more literalistic way are as “5 year olds on their mother’s knees”.

        You are also accepting a particular philosophy of science uncritically. But even science as understood today does not answer any “why” questions, and you assume it answers most of the “how” questions.

        I’ve read a good bit on all the subjects you mentioned above, but I’m not convinced I have to alter my faith in light of them. Once I believed Gen. 1:1, it was easy to believe the rest.

        • Seeker

          You seem a bit dismissive… I guess I’m just trying to share a personal testimony more or less of where I am at and why this post made sense to me. You can take it or leave it.

          I agree that science has trouble answering the “why” questions. But I think it is helping immensely with answering many of the “how” questions. And these are questions that many of us used to answer with somewhat childish answers (in my opinion) that stemmed from a particular understanding of how we were to read the bible.

          If you have read a good bit on all the subjects that I mention above, you may very well conclude that your faith does not need to be altered by what you’ve read. However, I don’t see how one can engage with all the evidence for evolution (for instance) and still read the creation account in Genesis the same way… One’s faith in Christ may not ultimately be “altered” at the end of the day, but surely as we learn more about the world we live in it might be intellectually honest to alter the way we read scripture. Certainly there is room within Christianity to differ on how to read the bible.

          You may feel that reading the bible more literally is somehow more faithful to the text. However, I may find that being faithful to the text means reading it with more nuances in light of the historical context, agenda of the authors, etc. etc. Maybe time will tell who was closer to the mark. I’ll apologize profusely to you in heaven one day for my ignorance if I see that you are indeed seated closer to the throne than I am! :-)

          • Name

            I doubt that I will be. I wasn’t intending to be dismissive.

            The “why”s are a lot more important than the “how”s. I’ll hold my child-like faith in God over my limited understanding of science any day.

          • Seeker

            But what if a child-like faith in God did not have to be mutually exclusive with an informed understanding of science and an equally informed approach to reading the Bible? What if the more we learned about these things the more we realized that we don’t always have all the answers, and that this in fact leads us right back to a MORE child-like faith?

            I used to see the world in black and white. I had everything all figured out – God included. My theological system was nice and tidy. I had a great Sunday-school answer for almost everything. And if I didn’t have an answer I was always confident that with a little hard work I could find a solid answer… Now I see the world in many more shades of gray. I realize that I don’t have God all figured out. And I am learning to be ok with the mystery inherent in all this. To me, this is perhaps a more child-like faith than I ever had before. Some might just call it a lack of faith altogether. I don’t know. Maybe.

            I just know that I still want to discover what Truth/Reality is. I don’t want to live in an illusion. So if something starts to not make sense to me, I want to ask questions about it. I’m not content with, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” The Bible is far too complex a book for that type of thinking. And I tend to think that the Spirit of God might just be far to “untamed” to be constrained by the pages of our holy book. (I know that is treading on thin ice because it deals with many Christian’s ultimate sense of authority and certainty – but then again, maybe I’m ready to just fall through the ice and see where I end up). :-)

          • Name

            It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, but you shouldn’t buy every “scientific” discovery as if it disproves Scripture. Skepticism doesn’t lead to a child-like faith. Children don’t question all the “how”s.
            No one claims to have God all figured out. We never will. That is not what is claimed by Calvinists or the reformed.

          • Messenger

            I’d better say something before this is all erased again.

          • Messenger

            Some plan? O_o

  • James

    Apart from direct divine-human interface (it happens, of course), we humans seem destined to use method (usually a combination of methods) in our approach to God through Scripture. I think of method in terms of computer software. Coffee house dialogue is one kind. We could add historical-critical, canonical, exegetical, even evangelical literalist, liberal existential, medieval spiritual, I better quit. So which methodological software shall we plug into the computer of our lives in order to know God better through his Word? If we’ve been accustomed to an evangelical, literalist methodology at home and are injected with liberal, critical software at university, our computer may crash because the operating system can’t handle such a huge paradigm shift. That is where a good coffee house program may help repair the damage and get the computer up and running again. Bravo!


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