Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Incarnation of God Redefines Human Existence

Historians of Christianity are well aware of the fact that as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the nature of Christ was always at the heart of any theological debates that developed. Yet, you may be surprised to know that in the early days after Jesus departed this earth, and after his first followers died, that the acceptance of Jesus as divine was not a significant problem. Yes, there were some groups, like the Ebionites, who did not accept the divinity of Jesus. But for the most part, Christians believed Jesus to be divine.

The problem for many of these early Christians was accepting that he was human. Such ideas that God could take on human form were deemed by many to be impossible, for how could a god become corporal, incased in a physical body? Moreover, how could a god, believed to be all powerful and all good, take on the flesh of a limited and defiled body?

It is certainly without debate that the writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as human. And yet, despite all of the evidence of his being flesh and blood, we also struggle to see Jesus as a human. Perhaps it is not that we struggle to accept that Jesus was human. The problem is whether we accept his humanity. In other words, while we embrace the fact that Jesus did all the activities that humans do, we may find it very hard to accept Jesus in his humanity, as someone who, at some level, was exactly like us.

There are two obstacles to our accepting Jesus in his humanity. One obstacle is that we somehow think we must see Jesus first as God and second as a human. When we think of Jesus, we automatically think first of his divinity. We may more readily gravitate toward the divine side of Jesus because not to do so may make us seem irreverent and unbelieving.

The second obstacle to our accepting Jesus in his humanity is because we cannot see humanity as good, but only as sinful, weak, and evil. After all, the evidence we see around us proves to us that humanity can be weak, sinful, and evil. This view clouds our understanding of Jesus as a human and can prevent us from seeing Jesus’ humanity.

The key to solving this, I think, is not to look at humanity and then say that Jesus could not have been human like us. The solution is to look at Jesus in his humanity and allow his humanity to show us what it really means to be human. If Jesus was truly human, then we ought to try and understand what it means to be human as he was human.

If Jesus was human, then he had a body. This is an obvious point to make, but making it demonstrates an important truth for us. If Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, then we must affirm that human flesh, our bodies are good. This was the problem with many Christians in the early church beginning in the second and third centuries. They could not accept that Jesus was both divine and human, for perfect transcendent divinity cannot take on imperfect and defiled flesh. Yet, this seems to be exactly what the New Testament teaches us about the incarnation. The human body became the home of God.

This has major consequences for how we see ourselves. First, rather than seeing ourselves as souls trapped in worthless bodies waiting to escape, we must affirm that our bodies are good. We have somehow been convinced that our bodies are not good, that they are defiled, and that our goodness as humans is only found in our souls that will eventually escape our evil bodies. But the incarnation of God in Jesus loudly proclaims that human bodily existence is good. This has many implications for how we treat our bodies and how we see life.

But to affirm the humanity of Jesus is also to affirm that Jesus faced the reality of being human. At every twist and turn in his earthly life, Jesus faced the temptation for power, security, and giving up on God’s will for him. And in each temptation there was always the possibility of his failure, and thus the failure of God’s plan for humanity.

But in loving us, God chose to face life as we face life. In the incarnation, God became not only human flesh; God also chose to face human vulnerability. While the mighty acts of God show us a God who is powerful, the greatest power of God is seen in God’s vulnerability, in God’s weakness, in God facing our human struggle. Indeed, without this vulnerability, God cannot truly love us, for to love another is always to become vulnerable.

If God has truly loved the world, then God has become vulnerable to the struggles of this world. God, in the incarnation of Jesus, has become vulnerable to the pain, suffering, weakness, and rejection that humanity faces. And in doing so, God has redefined what it means to be human.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Jerusalem Should be a City of Peace for People of All Faiths

On May 14, 1948, the modern State of Israel declared its sovereignty as an independent state and a home for the Jewish people. That action opened a flood gate of violence that continues to this day, and it created a human catastrophe as nearly a million Palestinians were forced from their homes and became refugees; a number that, according to the United Nations, has increased exponentially. While attempts at establishing lasting peace have been made on several occasions, none have been successful. What is an authentic Christian response to the Middle East question?

Psalm 122:6 commands us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and clearly peace is at the heart of Jesus’ message that the rule of God has come into the world. Yet, it seems that obstacles to peace for all inhabitants of the land called holy by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, have prevented such long term steps toward peace and harmony in the region. Nothing continues to threaten such hopes of peace like religious extremism.

There has been a longtime extremist movement in an American version of Christianity that has played a key role in shaping U.S. policy in the Middle East, and particularly over the thorny issue of the historic Land of Palestine. While many conservative and fundamentalist Christians hold stringently to the belief that God has ordained the existence of the modern State of Israel, and that Israel should hold onto land at any cost without regard for the humanity of the Palestinians, none is more vocal than the Reverend John Hagee and his movement, Christians United for Israel.

Hagee sees history from only one perspective. His view, which is thoroughly apocalyptic and eschatological, sees human history as moving toward a predestined end, and he argues that the modern State of Israel will play a key role in the apocalyptic end of the world. While he seeks to support his view from the Book of Revelation, and from various texts from the Hebrew Bible, he is very selective in his readings, and he reads only from his own apocalyptic position, placing his narrow theological ideas on the text as a systematic grid through which all of Scripture should be read.

Hagee’s interpretations of Scripture, however, are misguided, and his sermons, accompanied by the colorful, dramatic, and neatly organized charts that disguise his irrational position, are only fictitious expectations about the end times. More tragically, however, he sees apocalyptic war as the inevitable end, and seeks to push the region to that end as quickly as possible.

In spewing his religious extremist rhetoric, Hagee differs little from other religious extremists, who base their understanding of the Middle East conflict solely on religious terms, and who believe the only solution to be a great apocalyptic war in which the followers of God will be victorious over those who are evil. The problem with these positions is that each claims to speak for God and each despises others as evildoers.

While many Christians, and others, have rightly voiced disgust at the hateful rhetoric of extremists from other faiths, rarely have we heard criticism about Hagee’s rhetoric. Even some conservative politicians have attended and have spoken at his rallies. Yet, Hagee fits the description of a false prophet whose intentions are not for peace in Israel, but for annihilation of an oppressed race, the Palestinians. He is about as far away from the teachings of Jesus as one could possibility get on this issue.

The fact of the matter is that since the founding of the modern State of Israel in 1948, the Palestinians, who had peacefully resided there for generations, have been oppressed, ghettoized, and killed by state sponsored acts of terror. Certainly, extremist Palestinian terrorist groups who have acted in horrible violence against innocent Israeli civilians must be held accountable for their horrendous acts. But Israel must also be held responsible for the illegal confiscation of land, the oppression of millions of Palestinians who have been forced from their homes, and the killing of many innocent Palestinians by Israeli armed forces.

I am afraid that our religious, political, and media driven culture has so clouded our understanding of the complex issues surrounding the Middle East conflict that we have gravitated to fanciful beliefs and explanations about the region that have no real grounding in Scripture, and that completely ignore the teachings of Jesus that call us to be peacemakers. Christians who are concerned about the peace of Jerusalem would do much better by being more broadly informed about the complex issues from experts who have studied the history of the conflict, rather than getting their information from someone like John Hagee.

May the God of peace bring shalom, salaam, and peace to Jerusalem for people from all faiths.

(This article also appeared on at

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Position Opposing Abortion Does Not Make One Pro-Life

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down one of its most memorable decisions in the Roe v. Wade case. That decision viewed laws that banned abortion as violations of constitutional rights to privacy and gave women the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Since that decision, the issue of abortion has been center stage in each election campaign for President, and the debates that have raged have divided the United States along entrenched partisan lines to the point where both sides feel so passionate about their views that they have misrepresented the other side’s position.

On the one hand, those who hold to a pro-choice stance are often viewed as pro-abortion. While I have never met anyone who feels that abortion is a good thing, I do know many civil minded and deeply faithful people who believe that in a free society where rights are protected, women should be given reproductive choices. I am not saying that I completely agree with them, but I find it improbable that this will ever change. Indeed, while it may be possible that the Roe v. Wade decision will be overturned someday, it is not very probable as this is a well-established law.

But is it necessary to focus on overturning this decision in order to be considered pro-life? In other words, does a position against abortion really make a person pro-life? To be sure, one cannot logically be pro-life and also be for abortion on demand. However, in my mind, a person’s claim to be against abortion does not by definition make that person pro-life. To be pro-life means that a person must be consistently pro-life and not just on the issue of abortion.

Certainly such a position would mean that a person would be against the death penalty, war, and other forms of taking human life. However, in terms of the abortion issue itself, one is not pro-life simply because they are against abortion. Indeed, anyone who wants to decrease the number of abortions in the U.S. each year may be surprised to find out that this may not happen when one votes for a candidate who declares that he or she is against abortion.

While many factors can and do contribute to a woman choosing to have an abortion, economic factors surely play a key role in that decision. In fact, the Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that three-fourths of the women who have abortions say they cannot support a child. In a 2002 study, AGI also reports that the abortion rate among women who lived below the poverty line was considerably higher than those above the poverty level, and abortion rates decreased as income rates went up. The study states that the abortion rate among poor women was 44 out of every 1,000; while among women in the highest income bracket the abortion rate was 10 out of every 1,000. The report does state that the higher rate was due in part to a higher rate of pregnancies among poorer women, but the data does suggest something about the correlation between economic conditions and abortion rates.

What these figures imply is that women who feel they cannot financially support a child, who are unemployed, or who have no health insurance, would be less likely to abort a child if they had steady livable income and health care. These women may look at the future of their unborn child and see a bleak picture of a child caught in a web of poverty, with little chance of being successful. However, in a stable economic environment, the future for the unborn child might look brighter.

If economic factors play a major role in a woman’s decision to have an abortion, would it not be wise for those who oppose abortion to fight for a culture that promotes the value of the life not only of the unborn child, but also for the one that is born? In other words, should we not force our government officials to be consistent on their pro-life stances by supporting economic policies that are more just toward those caught in poverty? Yet, many of those same politicians who are adamantly against abortion also stand for cuts in taxes for those of higher income and cuts in government programs that might indeed assist a pregnant woman who, without the aid of such programs, would otherwise terminate her pregnancy.

Jesus embraced the children around him declaring that “such is the kingdom of God.” It seems to me that people of faith ought to take a careful look at how a candidate views all issues related to life, especially those issues that affect children, unborn and born. In doing this, we should be careful to look beyond the rhetoric of a candidate who claims to be against abortion to determine if he or she is truly pro-life.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

People of Faith Should Vote with a Well-Informed Religious Conscience

The Christmas Season has arrived again and the hustle and bustle of the holiday rush will occupy our time and thoughts over the coming weeks. Yet, another event is beginning to seek our attention that will captivate our minds for the next year; the 2008 Presidential Election.

We have not had so many choices of candidates from both parties in many elections, and thus we might find it hard to decide for whom we will cast our vote. Such anxiety over how we will vote is only intensified by the confusion we hear from candidates who are vague on where they stand on issues that are important to us. We are faced with a serious choice, but not an easy one.

Why am I writing about the future election on a blog that is about faith? This is a legitimate question, but one I can answer from the recent history of the influence of religion in the elections for the highest office in our nation. Indeed, many have rightly observed that during our most recent elections for President, religion has played a key, if not a deciding factor in campaigns.

This is not to imply that the religious influence in politics is always a negative, for although church and state must always remain separate, personal religious beliefs cannot be put aside when it comes to participating in the most important act a democracy performs- voting. To be sure, for someone to ask me to check my faith at the door of the voting booth is not only a violation of my political rights, it is also impossible for me to do.

But this raises a serious question that often clouds the debates about the relationship between religion and politics. Does one party have a legitimate claim to care more for religious values than the other? Or, to put it more bluntly, does God favor the views of one party, and thus does God have a vote in the political races that take place in our nation? To be honest, I fear that many think the answer to these questions is yes. In fact, in recent elections it appears that one party, the Republican Party, has arrogantly offered itself as the only party that cares for the values of religious people, namely those of the Christian faith. This is not to generalize all members and voters within the GOP, but the evidence from past, and now present, campaigns is there.

Yet, the blame for religious domination by one party should not be laid entirely at the doorstep of Republican headquarters, for in their neglect, and even fear, to talk about religion and values in the public sphere, or to fight to push neglected moral issues to the forefront of political debates, the Democratic Party has relinquished its place at the religion and values debate. Thus they have failed to bring honest, thoughtful, and possibly dissenting views on issues that are religiously important, but which can be equally supported from a Christian position.

The problem with this approach to politics is that one party hijacks Christianity as a political tool, while the other views religion as politically poisonous. This inevitably leads to one party using religion for political advantage, persuading religiously minded people that they are indeed God’s party. Those religiously minded people tend to accept such religious rhetoric as gospel without critically thinking about each issue from a thoughtful religious position. In other words, one party or candidate may say they stand for certain religious values, but such positions may not be supported by thoughtful and logical reflection on the scope of the Christian faith.

Let me be clear. Despite opposition from those who think religion has no place in politics, I am a firm believer that my faith should inform the way I vote. However, in a political environment where argument has replaced dialogue, and rhetoric has replaced substance, I am not entirely sure that many of us are thinking critically and constructively about political issues from a well-informed religious perspective. Committing this fallacy leads us to assume that some positions are more authentically Christian. Yet, these positions may not be true to the teachings of Jesus and the biblical tradition.

Over the coming weeks, as we head into an election year, I will be addressing some of these more important issues that face us. I will not intentionally endorse any particular candidate or party. Rather, my intent is to take an honest look at specific issues from a faith perspective in order to move us to think with open hearts and minds about how God may lead each of us to vote our own religious conscience.

(This article also appeared on at

Monday, November 5, 2007

God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of Embrace

A remarkable story is situated in the book of Acts that reveals Peter’s mindset toward people he considered unclean. Peter is praying on a rooftop when he falls into a deep trance. He has a vision of a great sheet coming down from heaven on which he sees all kinds of animals. A voice then commands him to eat the animals, but Peter refuses because, for him and other Jews like him, the eating of these animals made one unclean before God. The voice, which we are to assume is God’s, however, reasserts the original command by clarifying that what God has made clean, is clean.

This story is not about animals, clean or unclean; it is about Peter’s prejudices and his exclusion of others from full participation in the community of God. Peter understood the well-established boundaries between purity and impurity, boundaries that faithful Jews of the first century dared not cross. Among those who could be viewed as unclean were the diseased, the lame, sinners of all sorts, and, in Peter’s case, the Gentiles.

Jesus also understood the boundaries between purity and impurity that existed in his day. In fact, one of the frequent accusations made against him is that he congregated with the wrong kind of people, even to the point of sharing intimate meals with them. However, regardless of whether they were sinners and tax collectors, women of questionable character, or those with unclean diseases, each societal outcast found acceptance in Jesus’ community. Why? Because Jesus also understood that in him God was establishing a kingdom in which the boundaries between those who were pure and those who were deemed impure were torn down, and he made conscious choices to cross those boundaries to share intimate space and table fellowship with them, embracing them in God’s love.

What does it mean to exclude others? Yale theologian Miroslav Volf sees the sin of exclusion inherent in four human actions. According to Volf, we exclude others from the embrace of God when we abandon them and their needs. We also exclude others when we seek to assimilate them to be like us. We practice exclusion of others when we dominate them and force our own views and way of life on them. And worse still, we exclude others when we seek to exterminate them. In light of Volf’s comprehensive description of the sin of exclusion, each one of us is in a position of guilt. How shall we remedy this situation?

When it comes to the issue of exclusion in our own world we hear two dominant voices pulling us to and fro. On one side we hear our secular culture call us to practice tolerance. The other voice comes from religious fundamentalists who preach to us that tolerance is a sin. So where does the answer to the sin of exclusion rest? Is it rejection of tolerance or acceptance of tolerance? Should we hide behind a false gospel that calls us to separate ourselves from those not like us, which only reinforces our stereotypes of others and increases our hatred? Or should we conform to the meaninglessness of tolerance, knowing that tolerance merely calls us to grit our teeth and bear with others not like us, but it keeps us at a distance from them? The biblical answer lies neither in the denunciation of tolerance nor the reluctant acceptance of tolerance. The answer lies in the person and practice of Jesus, who has come into the world not to cast us aside, and surely not to tolerate us, but rather to embrace us.

If we accept the historical reality that Jesus lived the way the Gospels say he lived, as an intimate to those considered impure to his society, then those of us who claim to follow Jesus can do nothing less than to model his way of life. But if we reject his example by choosing to exclude others, then we mock God’s embrace of us, and we come dangerously close to being outsiders to God’s kingdom.

Where are the boundaries of exclusion we have established between ourselves and those we consider unclean? Race, ethnicity, gender, religion, social standing, economic status, and sexual orientation are all areas of identity where in some form or fashion we practice exclusion. But if we are to participate in God’s kingdom coming into the world, then we must repent of our sin of exclusion, cross the boundaries we have set between ourselves and others, and embrace all persons, as God in Christ has embraced us.

Friday, October 26, 2007

God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of Peace

At the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus makes nine statements that would be enough to offer us a guide to living the way God would have us live even if they were the only extant words of Jesus we had. Each statement promises blessings if we live according to what is demanded by Jesus. Unfortunately, his demands are not easy, as he tells us that to find blessings we must be poor, be mournful, be meek, hunger for righteousness, be merciful, and endure persecution in the name of Jesus.

One of these sayings, however, strikes me as particularly important for our world today and for the church’s call to live according to Jesus’ standards. In the seventh Beatitude Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Given the fact that this statement appears in the list of these important ethical values, peacemaking must assuredly be a core action for Jesus followers. Peacemaking not only reflects Jesus’ teachings, it also reflects the life of Jesus who came as the Prince of Peace. But what is required to be peacemakers and why must we be peacemakers?

The kind of peacemaking Jesus commands requires non-violent responses to evil. One of Jesus’ most controversial statements also comes to us through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus states, “When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer to him the other one.” While many have tried to live true to this instruction of Jesus, more often than not Christians have found his command to turn from violence unsettling. But we cannot negotiate with Jesus at this point, for his statement is very straightforward. If this is true, then why do we tend to avoid Jesus’ clear command to turn the other cheek as an essential part of being peacemakers?

The answer to that question lies in our failure to see that Jesus’ definition of peacemaking also requires forgiveness. The central message of Scripture is that God so loved the world that God has forgiven the world. But God’s forgiveness is not based on our paying restitution or in our suffering a penalty. God’s forgiveness flows from God’s unconditional love for humanity and a desire to make peace with us.

Our biggest problem in practicing this kind of forgiveness, and therefore our greatest hindrance to making peace, is that we are vengeful. Our culture tells us that revenge is a necessary part of justice, and when we as individuals, or as a group, or as a nation are wronged, it is only right, even expected, that we seek revenge against the wrongdoers. But is this the message of Jesus? According to the Sermon on the Mount, No.

Gandhi, one of the greatest followers of Jesus’ teachings, said it best when he reflected on Jesus’ command not to seek revenge; he declared, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” While the message of the world is that vengeance is right, and making people pay for the harm they cause us is good, the message of Christ, and Gandhi, calls us to something greater that reflects God’s own character and action—forgiveness. Forgiveness is the necessary action that leads to peacemaking.

While Jesus’ teachings on peacemaking apply to those of us who seek to reconcile with those who have hurt us, peacemaking also extends to conflicts among groups of people, whether local conflicts or wars on the global front. The waging of any war brings destruction to the lives of ordinary people, and the warmongering we witness today from both our nation and those we call our enemies will not establish lasting peace. The Christian community should condemn such hostilities, because Jesus never called his followers to take up the weapons of warfare and kill their enemies. He has called us to take up the cross of self-sacrifice through which we can find love for our enemies.

Two statements by Dr. Martin Luther King seem relevant to this topic. Dr. King stated, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” Jesus also understood that war could never assure the world of peace; only peacemaking brings lasting peace. Dr. King also said, “Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice.” God’s coming kingdom can bring lasting peace into the world, but only when we seek justice for all, for our neighbors and our enemies.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of Love

In reading the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, I cannot help but draw one fundamental conclusion about the essence of God; God is love. From Genesis to Revelation, the pages of the Bible sing forth that God is love. If this is true, then we must conclude that the primary characteristic of God’s kingdom is also love. While we speak about God’s kingdom coming in power, it is in the power of love that God’s kingdom transforms the world.

This begs the question as to what we mean by God’s love. We know that God loves the world, the entirety of humanity, but what does this love mean? To answer this question we need only look once again at the person of Jesus. Christians, as I have stated before, believe that Jesus is the manifestation of God, and thus Jesus is an expression of God’s perfect love for the world. Over and over the New Testament tells us that God’s love is conveyed to us by the coming of Jesus. Yet, we might understand this expression of God’s love in Jesus in two related ways.

In one sense, Jesus’ coming to the world, and his sacrificial death on the cross, is the demonstration of God’s love for the world. The incarnation event is the act that expresses God’s love. Yet, another implication of God’s love revealed in Jesus is the example Jesus gives to show how humans ought to emulate God’s love. If Jesus is our example, then how we live should reflect how he lived, and particularly how he demonstrated the love of God in the world.

But what did it mean for Jesus to express God’s love to the world? More important for us, what does God’s love mean for how we love others, friends and foes? While these questions may have multiple answers, we can see crucial aspects of Jesus’ manifestation of God’s love that define what it means for followers of Jesus to share the love of God in the world.

Jesus expressed God’s love in action. God does not simply feel love for the world, God has demonstrated God’s love in a real event; the Christ event. We often view love as an emotion, but the person we love can only experience such love when we express it through our actions toward another. This means that love is not love until it is proven through action. But this point leads to a second significant truth about God’s love.

Jesus also revealed God’s love through sacrifice. Jesus defined his death as a sacrificial service to the world. Giving his life for us was the greatest of all actions one could complete. But in the context of his speaking about his own death, we find that Jesus very often defines for his followers that true faith and discipleship require great sacrifice. In other words, if God has chosen to love us through a sacrificial act, giving God’s own son, then we are also called to love others sacrificially.

Jesus also demonstrated God’s love without limitations. No scriptural statement communicates this thought better than John 3:16. “God so loved the world.” God loves all of creation, and particularly every human being on this earth. Jesus showed this love through out his life, often choosing to love those consider unlovable in his society. In response to his model of love, we must reach beyond our own comfortableness and love not only those we consider loveable, but also those we consider unlovable, including our enemies. Yet, such love requires something most of us cannot bring ourselves to consider.

Jesus also showed God’s love through his becoming vulnerable. In loving us, God chose to face life as we face life. God became not only flesh; God also became vulnerable. We do not often like to think of God as vulnerable. But God’s great power is seen foremost in God’s vulnerability. Indeed, without this vulnerability, God cannot truly love us, for to love another is always to become vulnerable. Our love for the world must reflect the love that God has for the world, and this certainly includes the possibility of our being vulnerable to those we love.

Martin Luther King wrote, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” God’s love in Jesus is transformative, and when we, as God’s people, live out our love through sacrificial actions and vulnerability toward both the loveable and the unlovable, then we will see the transformative power of God’s kingdom come in and through us.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of Sharing

In Luke 12 Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who had plenty. In fact, the man had so much grain that he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. This rich man believed that because of his new windfall he was set for a life of ease and pleasure. Yet, in a shocking twist of events, the man’s life came to an unexpected end, and his abundance was wasted. He had assumed that his surplus of grain would keep him comfortable for years to come, but instead his life was demanded of him that night, and his excess became useless.

In reading this parable, most of us would agree that the sin of the man was greed. He horded what he could for himself so that he could live out his days in ease. But why is greed a sin? We often consider greed for wealth and possessions as a sin because it puts these things in place of God. In other words, we view greed as a transgression because when we are greedy we make wealth our god. While this is true, it is so only partly. Greed is a sin, not because it puts wealth in the place of God, but because it prevents us from sharing what we have with our neighbors. In telling this particular parable in an agrarian society where most people survived on daily rations of food, Jesus conveyed very clearly that this man’s sin is against God, but only because his sin is against his neighbors who suffer in poverty while he lounges in plenty.

Jesus had a great deal to say about how we view and use our wealth and possessions. One of his most famous statements comes from the Sermon on the Mount where he states that we cannot serve both God and money. But what is particularly arresting when we read thoroughly all of Jesus’ teachings on money and possessions, is that we discover that he always spoke of giving them up in the search for God’s kingdom. In fact, a careful reading of the Gospels seems to suggest that joining the Jesus movement of the first century meant that one must renounce using one’s wealth for selfish indulgence and one ought to embrace the call to use one’s possessions to help those in need. To state his teachings more directly, the demands of discipleship call us to seriously consider giving up our wealth and possessions as we seek to follow Jesus.

How does Jesus’ demand to relinquish material assets pertain to our modern existence? While a response to such a call may not require us to take vows of poverty like St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa, Jesus’ command most certainly means that we must choose to live lives of simplicity. As followers of a homeless vagrant, Christians, both as individuals and as churches, should seek to reexamine our desire for material possessions in light of Jesus’ commands and actions. In doing so, we can accomplish Jesus’ call to express our love for both God and others by sharing our wealth with others. A choice to live modestly, a choice to dematerialize our lives, will free us to share with those in need. This choice also reflects the essence of God, who in Jesus became poor for us.

Moreover, living lives of simplicity and sharing will also move us to consider status, which comes with the gaining of wealth, irrelevant. The snap shot we see of the early church as pictured in the book of Acts shows us a community of faith that deemed sharing as a crucial part of being the church. Possessions were not to be held by individuals while others went without the basic necessities of life. Rather, Christians would sell what they had and distribute the proceeds to all who were in need. This led the Christian community to value equality among the believers, and to reject worldly forms of division such as race, gender, and social and economic standing.

In a world where abject poverty is pervasive, people of faith must choose to live simply and avoid hoarding money and possessions. Doing so will mean that we will have more to share with others; with neighbors, strangers, and those we call our enemies. Furthermore, this lifestyle both imitates the life of Jesus and is a means to bringing God’s kingdom of justice into the world.

Friday, October 12, 2007

God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of Consciousness

When you read the Gospel narratives, do you ever notice how Jesus sees and hears those people ignored by others? Whether a blind beggar, a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years, or a hungry crowd, Jesus either sees them when others don’t, or he sees them quite differently than others do. These encounters inform us that Jesus had an intentional consciousness of those around him.

This awareness flowed out of his understanding of God and who he was in relationship to God, and such attentiveness toward those who suffer offered to his followers a model of what it meant to live under the rule of God. But what kind of consciousness did Jesus have and what patterns of living did he exhibit that offer to us a pattern for living that continues to bring the kingdom of God into the world?

Before addressing the latter question, let us answer the first by remembering that in his life, Jesus expressed the essence of God’s character and love through sacrificial action and vulnerability toward humanity. Jesus’ consciousness about those around him, particularly those regarded as expendable by society, was based on his understanding of God’s limitless and sacrificial love. Jesus, therefore, had a clear awareness not only of his own purpose of bringing God’s justice to the world, but he also had a keen consciousness of those who needed God’s justice, i.e. the poor, the oppressed, and the forgotten.

How should this influence our living if we choose to live according to the paradigm Jesus has set for us? First, Jesus’ life and teachings should convince us that we must repent of our complacency about the injustices in our world, and that we must develop a consciousness about those who suffer. When Jesus called people to repent in response to his announcement that the kingdom of God had come, he was not calling them only to turn away from personal sins. He was calling them to repent of the sins of neglect, unconsciousness, and detachment, which are the greatest sins of humanity. He was calling them to repent from lives of self-centeredness and to commit their lives to embodying God’s justice in the world.

For most of us the problem is not a lack of compassion, or an unwillingness to help others, but rather a deficiency in our awareness about what really goes on in the world apart from our self-interests. Allow me to set forth the following example from common church life that clarifies my concerns. Most churches have a prayer list on which one normally finds the concerns connected to that group; someone’s grandmother, uncle, etc. There is nothing wrong with praying for these concerns, for they are real concerns and God cares for each one. But why don’t these prayer lists also mention the larger sufferings and injustices of the world, such as hunger, war, intolerance, etc.?

We could push this further by stating that many churches do not set aside a time during worship to pray for those who suffer from injustice. Moreover, Bible studies and sermons are mostly about us, about how to live better lives, about our relationships to God as individuals, and about how to get to heaven. There is nothing wrong with this, for such teachings are part of being Christian, but these concerns are a significantly small fraction of what it means to follow Christ. In our places of worship, we should press our thinking about God and about what God is doing in the world beyond ourselves, and we must seek God’s greater desire for us and for the world, which is to bring God’s justice to all.

When we do this, we will not only become aware of the greater needs of our world, we will also become mindful of how God sees those who suffer. And when our collective consciousness is raised, we can respond to God’s call to seek peace and justice. This way of thinking and acting is the utmost expression of faith in God. When we reach the point of abandoning ourselves, our desires, and even our very lives, God’s kingdom of justice will come and God’s will to lift up the oppressed will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Jesus' Message that God's Kingdom was Coming into the World Remains Relevant

In the opening of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, after his baptism and temptation, announces that the kingdom of God is at hand. The way in which the author narrates this proclamation as Jesus’ first words in the story suggests that Jesus’ central message throughout his life was about the kingdom of God. Indeed, all four Gospels depict Jesus’ chief teaching to be the coming of God’s kingdom into the world. Everything Jesus said, whether through parables or through ethical teachings, related to his understanding of God’s kingdom. Moreover, the various miracles that Jesus performed were signs that the kingdom of God was near.

Because the coming kingdom of God was Jesus’ focal message, those who choose to follow him in discipleship should seek to understand what he meant by the phrase the kingdom of God. To answer this question, it might be helpful first to dismiss assumptions we might have about the character of God’s kingdom. In other words, these are the understandings we commonly have about the kingdom, but they do not always agree with Jesus’ teachings.

First, the kingdom of God is not a spiritual realm. It is spiritual in that it comes from God, but it is not heaven, as we might often think, and getting to some place called heaven is not the purpose of following Christ. Second, the kingdom of God is not primarily about personal spirituality. God’s coming kingdom does transform us personally and in our Christian living we live as individuals who are in a personal relationship to God, but the kingdom of God cannot be reduced merely to personal spirituality.

What we need to understand about the meaning of the phrase, as Jesus used it, is that the term itself is politically charged. Jesus did not randomly pick this metaphor; he chose it as a challenge to the Roman imperial power that carried out injustice. Understood from this perspective, we might say that Jesus was calling people to join an alternative empire, the Empire of God, over which God ruled and in which there was an alternative way of living in community. When Jesus called people to follow him, he was calling them to choose to which kingdom they would give their allegiance. He called them to repent from living according to worldly, egocentric values that lead to exclusion and injustice, and to embrace a new sacrificial ethic unveiled in Jesus himself.

This was the significance of confessing Jesus as Lord in the Roman Empire. Such a confession in the Roman world signified that one was no longer giving loyalty to Caesar or to the Roman system of domination, oppression, violence and injustice. Confession of Jesus as Lord was an act of insubordination against the so-called supremacy of the world’s strongest power and an embrace of the call of Jesus to take up the cross and follow him. Joining the Jesus movement meant standing in opposition to worldly powers that carried out oppression, violence, and injustice against the so-called expendables of society.

Yet, the alternative kingdom Jesus was bringing into the world could not, in reality, face up to the power of Rome. Jesus and his followers were never significant challengers of Rome’s military power, and Christians in the empire remained outsiders for centuries, and were, at various points, persecuted by the Roman authorities. In fact, joining the Jesus movement could quite possibly lead a person to death. From a worldly perspective, then, this Jesus movement and Jesus’ message about God’s kingdom would be seen as an inevitable failure. After all, was not the movement’s leader put to death on a Roman cross? So how does the rule of God, said to be so powerful, continue to come into the world? Where is God’s power to be found in the world? God’s kingdom comes into the world through followers of Jesus who offer to the world a different way of living and relating to others, particularly the marginalized.

In future posts I will be discussing descriptive characteristics of God’s kingdom and prescriptive actions we are to live as participants of God’s rule. These actions often run in opposition to the way the world system would have us live and they are at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Indeed, these characteristics are the fundamental reason Christianity spread in its infancy, despite Roman opposition, and they continue to serve as the force that brings the kingdom of God to the world.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Pluralism Challenges the Exclusiveness of Christianity

There is no doubt that 21st century America is more religiously diverse than any previous century. This may be due mostly to the 1965 Immigration Act that abolished an immigration policy that was exclusive to European immigrants. But our knowledge of other religions has also grown; although such knowledge is mostly deficient and uninformed. Because of education, the media, and personal encounters with people of other faiths, we, more than any other generation of Americans, are conscious of other religions. Yet, while encounters with these religions have brought a rich cultural experience to most people, they have also opened serious questions about faith and truth. The most significant question might be whether we can continue to view Christianity as the only true religion.

The view that Christianity is the only true religion has prevailed in the West since the outlawing of other religions in the Roman Empire under Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century, and the dominance of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church that claimed that there was no salvation outside the church. This view continued in the Protestant traditions that originated during and after the Reformation, and it still exists in many churches today.

To be sure, not all religions are the same. There are significant differences about how we understand God, how we understand humanity, and how humans respond to God. But at the heart of the major world religions is a yearning to relate to something beyond the material world, beyond our human existence. The human desire to know God is also a desire to know ourselves, and to know how we are to live as humans are intended. Likewise, at the heart of these religions is the desire to create a more compassionate and just world that battles against the powers of evil and oppression. Certainly there are adherents from every religion that commit acts of evil in the name of God, but just as we cannot prove that one religion is more evil than the others, so we cannot prove that one religion is morally superior or truer than the others.

One argument that Christianity is the only true religion is the claim that it is the only way to get to heaven. But this assumes that the primary reason for being Christian, or an adherent to any religion, is so that we will make it to heaven. Getting to heaven, however, is a very minute part of what it means to be Christian. Being Christian is about being in a relationship with God and living as a person of love, goodness, and justice; virtues which other religions also seek.

Another argument that Christianity is the only true religion is that Jesus made statements such as “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). These kinds of declarations are few in the Bible and they must be understood in the context of Jesus’ work to create a community apart from the religious establishment. Jesus was working within the parameters of Jewish monotheism, but he was establishing an alternative way of being faithful to God that was removed from the formal practices of Judaism.

If the above is true, then why be Christian? I can only answer from my perspective, but perhaps some of you will share these ideas with me. First, I am a Christian because for me Jesus presents an authentic way of being human. His life was devoted to liberating those who were oppressed, to challenging the political and religious powers that oppressed people, and to seeking God through the practice of the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer and reflection.

Second, I am Christian because it offers to me a community of faith in which I find meaning and direction. Whether I decide to be Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, or any other brand of Christian, I am making a choice to be a member of a community where my faith can be nurtured and challenged. Could I find these things in other religions? I am sure that I would. But instead of shopping around for another way to know God, I prefer to explore more deeply how I can know God through my own faith.

What then is the purpose of evangelism? Christianity has always sought new believers, following the missionary character of Israel’s God and the commands of Jesus. My view of Christianity’s relationship to other religions is not necessarily mutually exclusive to a belief in the missionary purposes of the church, as long as we have a proper understanding of evangelism. Simply put, Christians are not called to covert people to their particular religion. Rather, Christians are called to bear witness to the love and character of God in the world, and at the same time, witness the love and character of God in people of other faiths.

(This article also appeared on at

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Church and State should remain separate for historical and theological reasons

In the year 313, Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. This decree, which came as a result of Constantine believing that the Christian God had given him victory over his enemy, and thus sole power in the Empire, reversed the persecution that had been sporadically carried out against Christians. Yet, the Edict also gave Christianity primacy in the religiously eclectic Empire. Once a religion on the margins of society, Christianity quickly became the religion of the Empire, and church and state were fused together into a dangerous alliance.

Indeed during the Medieval Period, crown and cross were virtually inseparable, as Roman Catholic Christianity was the only religion of Europe, leaving the citizens of Europe without religious freedom. For over a millennium, church and state were indivisible. Loyalty to one was loyalty to the other, and the state was often used to enforce religious doctrines and practices.

In 1517 Martin Luther challenged the authority of the church in what is known as Reformation, a period of religious upheaval that eventually led to schisms in the church, giving birth to different churches in Europe. However, despite some radical movements in the Reformation that preached the separation of church and state, the two remained entangled.

A new experiment, however, was on the horizon as many who sought to escape religious persecution made their way to the New World. When the United States won its independence from England and established its own sovereignty, it was created as a nation that officially separated church and state, offering religious freedom to all its citizens.

There is no doubt, however, that the Christian religion did played a major role in the establishment of the United States. While most of the founders embraced Enlightenment Deism, they did considered themselves to be Christian. Nevertheless, it is wrong to assume that America was created as a Christian nation. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution makes any statement declaring Christianity as the religion of the country.

But even today, in our increasingly antagonistic political culture, some religious leaders would like to see a blurring of the lines between church and state. For example, a leading member of the Christian right has unequivocally stated that “The ideal society is one in which church and state are inseparable.” His intent of course is to establish a Christian nation. While history has proven that such an alliance is very dangerous, there are significant theological reasons why church and state must remain separate.

First, followers of Christ are primarily citizens of the kingdom of God and not the kingdom of our country. Jesus has called us first and foremost to pledge allegiance to him and his teachings. Our allegiance to the state, and its symbols, is secondary to our faithfulness to Christ. This does not mean that we cannot be good citizens of both, for Christians are called to be salt and light in the world. But our ultimate loyalty must be to the life and teachings of Christ, particularly his call for justice and peace for all people, and especially toward the marginalized of our society. When the state makes economic policies that are unjust for the weak and poor, the church must speak and call for justice. When the state limits the rights of segments of a population, the church must stand for equality and inclusion. When the state creates foreign policies that lead to war, the church must stand for peace.

Second, the biblical story teaches us very clearly that God has sought to bless the world long before the birth of America. This is the reason that worship spaces should not include patriotic symbols such as the American flag, and worship services should not incorporate patriotic themes and songs. This is not to suggest that we should not be thankful to God for what we have in this country, but we need to worship God as the God of the world and not the God of American religion. If we only acknowledge God as blessing America, then we fail to recognize the vastness of God’s love and God’s will and purpose to redeem all humanity.

History has demonstrated that the relationship between the church and the state is hazardous, for if one seeks to control the other, then both, but especially the church, will loose their identity and purpose. If the state becomes an instrument of the church, then religious freedoms will be lost, as one religion will seek to control the state. Likewise, if the church becomes a mechanism of the state, then the church cannot stand at a prophetic distance from which it can speak to the potential unjust and abusive polices of the state.

(This article was also posted on at

Monday, September 24, 2007

Bible’s Justification of Violence must be assessed by Jesus’ message of peace

For all of the good that religion does in our world through the generous acts of people from all faiths, much attention has been given recently to evil acts performed in the name of religion. Yet, no single religion monopolizes evil acts done from religious conviction, as Westerners tend to think, for Christian history demonstrates that the Christian religion has often been used as a pretext for supporting demeaning attitudes and violent acts against others.

At the pinnacle of the Medieval Church, Christians slaughtered Muslims, persecuted Jews, and tortured “heretics” all in the name of God. During WWII, one of Hitler’s reasons for exterminating millions of Jews was that, in his mind, the Jewish people were responsible for Jesus’ death. With the birth of the modern State of Israel, conservative Christians have mostly supported Israel’s oppression of Palestinians because of a misguided apocalyptic theology. And Christian faith is frequently a basis for intolerance and subjugation of people because of gender, race, or sexual orientation.

Is Christianity a religion that legitimizes intolerance, subjugation, and violence, or is it a faith of tolerance, equality, and peace? How do we solve this theological conundrum when the Bible seems to sanction oppression and violence, but it also calls us to love and peace? To answer these questions, we need to consider why the Bible might authorize intolerance and violence, and then we need to propose how to read the Bible from a critical position that recognizes that not every part of the canon exhibits normative patterns of behavior and values.

An exhaustive discussion of how the Bible legitimizes oppression and violence would take a more extensive investigation than I can offer here, but a good place to start is with Ancient Israel’s war against the people of Canaan. While the Hebrew Bible tells the story of God ordering and giving Israel violent victory over their enemies, we need to consider that these stories were expressed from a backward looking theological interpretation. This brings into question whether or not God actually gave authorization for this violent conquering of the land. But the bigger problem is that some Christian groups have used these stories as a basis for religious intolerance, subjugation, and violence.

So, how do we handle a canon of scripture that at times sanctions demeaning attitudes and violent acts toward others, but at other times calls us to promote peace, love, and justice in our world?

First, texts of the Bible must be understood within the norms of their original context, and thus the initial commands offered in particular texts do not necessary apply equally to the contemporary world. A case in point is the way some biblical texts seem to place females in inferior positions to males, whether in marriage or in the church. The society of the first century viewed women as inferior to men, and thus the biblical commands that limit the rights of women reflect the society at large, even if theological reasons are given for supporting male authority over women. However, as the rights of women have progressed in the modern world, these particular texts should not be normative for how we see the roles of women in society or in the church today. This way of reading could also apply to the way that we view diverse populations in the modern world.

Second, we must understand that not every part of the Bible witnesses equally to God’s character and will. Those passages of scripture that legitimize demeaning attitudes and violence must be assessed in light of those that speak more fully about the God who loves all human life. A faithful reading of the Bible must give careful attention to the original meaning of a biblical passage, but such readings must also give preference to those texts that testify most clearly to the God who is discovered in Jesus.

Finally, we must recall that scripture is the written Word of God that points to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Christianity is a christocentric religion that views Jesus as the full revelation of the unseen God. Early Christians understood Jesus in light of Old Testament promises, and they also reread the Old Testament in light of their experience of Jesus. Thus, the words and deeds of Christ serve as the interpretative filter through which we understand all scripture, and Jesus’ authority has primacy over other portions of the Christian Bible. Scripture’s normative message of God’s desire to love and redeem all humanity calls us to repent of our intolerance and violence toward others, and opens our hearts and minds to authentically love our friends and enemies through acts of generosity.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Formation of the New Testament was a Historical and Theological Process

How did we get our New Testament? As I pointed out in my last article, human authors wrote the texts that would eventually comprise what would become the New Testament. There were, however, many other writings from early Christianity, some very popular among early Christians, that would not be selected for inclusion in the New Testament. So the question I want to address in this column is, “How was the New Testament formed?” I can only give a brief history of the canonization of the 27 books of the New Testament, but such knowledge is essential for not only understanding the history of the Bible, but also for a more informed practice of reading the Bible as a theological text.

The first step in the canonization process was the writing of texts in response to God’s definitive revelation in Jesus Christ. These texts were then copied and disseminated to churches throughout the land. While other Christian literature would be written and copied during and after this period, the 27 books that do become the New Testament were completed by the end of the first century.

A second stage was already taking place by this time and would continue into the following centuries; the reading of texts in worship. There were practical reasons for this as most people were illiterate, and the possibility of everyone having a copy of a text was unfeasible. But a greater reason has to do with the theology of these early believers. Early followers of Jesus offered worship to him that was normally reserved for God. As part of their worship, they heard the gospel read and preached from these texts. Thus, already in the first century certain texts were considered as “scripture”, even though there was no New Testament. Indeed, even texts that would not become a part of the New Testament were also being read.

A third phase in this process was the gradual collection of these writings, which was assisted by the invention of the codex, or the book form, in which texts could be bound together. By the late second century, a survey of texts, known as the Muratorian Canon, appears which lists 22 out of the 27 books that will eventually be incorporated into the New Testament. While other texts that did not make it into the canon are included in the Muratorian Canon, and some texts that will be in the New Testament are not on this list, the Muratorian Canon demonstrates that there was a degree of unanimity in the church of the second century.

Around this period a man named Marcion was teaching that the God of the Hebrews was an evil and wrathful God and the God of the Christians, Jesus, was a compassionate and forgiving God. Marcion’s influence was significant enough to garner the attention of church leaders, especially when he attempted to define what the Christian Bible should contain. Marcion excluded the Old Testament and included in his scriptures only the letters of Paul and a particular version of Luke, which no longer exists. About this same time, another person, Tatian, wrote what is called the Diatesseron, a continuous narrative that amalgamated the four Gospels into one in an attempt to smooth out the inconsistencies between them. Both of these men and their ideas were rejected by the church.

However, the actions of these men, especially Marcion, convinced the church that a canon of scripture needed to be finalized and made required reading for all churches. This would be the only way to root out potential challenges to the growing orthodoxy. Yet, as far as we know, it was not until A.D. 367 that a list of the 27 books was affirmed as the canon of the New Testament. This list, which excludes some popular Christian texts, appears in a letter written by a bishop named Athanasius. Following the circulation of this letter, church councils affirmed Athanasius’ list, and the New Testament was closed. Thus, the canon of the New Testament was not finalized until the late fourth century.

Why should all of this matter to modern Christians who have lived all of their lives with a complete New Testament? Primarily, this historical process of canonization demonstrates that humans, in reaction to opposing views, made decisions about what would become the Christian Bible, and thus the Bible is as much a human book as it is a divine book. But the canonization of the Christian scriptures also testifies to a theological understanding of a sequence of divine actions that has a direction leading toward fulfillment. The very shape of Bible moves from promise to fulfillment, and fulfillment often exceeds promise. Thus the Bible can be affirmed as the Word of God in that it testifies of God’s redemptive aim to reconcile alienated humanity.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Bible was written by historically situated humans

Is the Bible the Word of God or the words of humans? In my view, it is both. Like the historic creeds of the church that affirmed Jesus as being both fully God and fully human, the Bible is at the same time the Word of God and the words of humans.

Many well meaning Christians believe the Bible consists of the very words of God. That is, each word of the Bible was inspired, or breathed by God, through human scribes who simply recorded every word that God spoke to them. Theologians know this theory as verbal plenary inspiration. While such a view still seems very prevalent in many churches, this opinion does not take seriously the historical setting of the Bible, or the history of the Bible itself. If we are to read these texts faithfully, then we should come to understand them as historically situated texts written by historically situated human authors who had their own views of God, humanity, and the world.

In my mind, this is the only way we can explain the many diverse views we find throughout the Bible. Humans who wrote these books did so from their own perspectives of the world and how they thought God was working in the world. Moreover, they had their own assumptions about the world, and the texts they produced are not always timeless truths that apply to our lives. We can even see that some parts of the Bible occasionally come into conflict with other texts in the canon.

But the human history of the Bible from its origin, through its transmission and collection, also raises the issue of whether or not the Bible is inerrant, a term meaning without error. I have chosen not to see the scriptures as inerrant, for the word inerrancy calls for so many qualifications that the term looses any real meaning. Moreover, the inerrant view is dependent on certain theories of inspiration, and many who hold to inerrancy will claim that the Bible is inerrant only in the original writings, known as the autographs. The problem with this position is that we do not have the autographs, and we cannot with certainty reconstruct what the originals actually said.

Any knowledgeable scholar of the Bible can tell us that the variety of manuscripts of biblical texts that we now posses demonstrate errors made by copyists, whether they were intentional or unintentional. Biblical scholars have developed methods through which they seek to determine original readings of texts, but we can never solve with sureness every one of these errors. While most of these errors, known as variants, are minor, and none of them present serious challenges to the most important doctrines of Christianity, there are some among the New Testament manuscripts that are quite significant.

For example, while most English Bibles continue to include Mark 16:9-20 at the end of Mark’s Gospel, a reader of the narrative should see a note that informs her that this ending does not appear in some of the most ancient manuscripts. Indeed, I know of no serious expert on Mark that thinks that these verses were part of the original text of Mark. We also find that many important manuscripts do not contain the famous story about the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. This does not mean the story did not happen, but it does mean that the passage was most likely not in the original text of John. There are other important variants that we could discuss, but the mention of these two is enough to raise serious questions about the inerrancy of the Bible. Moreover, these errors also demonstrate that the Bible has a history that has been influenced by humans from its origins, through its transmission, down to its translation.

What does this historical reality mean for people who read the Bible to find theological truth and encouragement for faithful discipleship? It means that we must first do the hard work of interpretation, reading the Bible as historically informed people who understand that God has given us minds for critical thinking. It also means that the truth of scripture is not dependant on an error free Bible. Rather, the truth of the Bible is found in the practice of those who are transformed by its message of grace and redemption.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Gospels’ Discrepancies Do Not Nullify Theological Truth

Is the Bible true? From a faith perspective, the Bible is true in the sense that it reveals what its authors believed to be true about God, humanity, and the world. It is also true in terms of its message of hope and salvation that has been received and experienced by people throughout time and space. And it is true because it continues to be a living text that shapes the lives of those who consider it as a source for their understanding of God. But is the Bible entirely factual? The answer to that question is more complicated.

For most of Christian history, questions were seldom asked about the historical reliability of the Bible. During the period in which the books of the Bible were written, copied and eventually collected in what is called the canon, and during the Medieval Period, in which religious truth was the only truth, the historicity of the Bible was never under question. However, with the coming of the Renaissance, when Christian humanists began to be concerned with the texts of the Bible in the original languages, and then when the Scientific Revolution opened serious questions about what the Bible says about the universe, there followed the period of the Enlightenment in which critical challenges to the historical reliability of the Bible were being made. Such questions were especially concerned with discrepancies in the four Gospels of the New Testament.

Are there discrepancies in the Gospels? The answer is yes, and here are just a few that relate to important events in the life of Jesus. In reporting the baptism of Jesus, both Mark and Luke state that the voice from heaven declares, “You are my beloved son,” indicating that Jesus is the only recipient of this revelation. Matthew records that the voice says, “This is my beloved son,” implying that more than Jesus hears the voice. John does not even narrate the baptism of Jesus, a very peculiar omission. When we consider how each narrative treats Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, we find that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus does this at the end of his ministry. In John he does this at the beginning; the timing of which is historically unlikely. While all four Gospels tell of the death of Jesus, they vary somewhat in the details about the crucifixion. John even narrates that Jesus dies on a different day than he does in the other three stories. Finally, in the empty tomb scene, while two messengers appear in Luke and John, one messenger appears in both Matthew and Mark. However, in John these messengers appear after Peter has come to the tomb and not before. And although the resurrected Jesus appears in Matthew, Luke, and John, he never does in Mark. What are we to make of these inconsistencies as a challenge to the historical reliability of the Gospels?

First, we must recognize that the Gospels were not written to record history as are historical accounts written in the modern world. The Gospels were composed for the primary purpose of encouraging faithful discipleship in those who chose to follow Jesus as God’s Messiah, but they were not written for the purpose of historical information as modern biographies are.

Second, the Gospels are theological interpretations of Jesus’ life. Jesus was a real historical figure, who lived as a first century Jew, and who died on a Roman cross. These facts are historically accurate. Yet, in their encounter with Jesus, his closest followers experienced him in a much different way than did others. They experienced him as God’s Messiah, and this experience shaped the way they told his story. Thus, the Gospels are interpretative theological representations of a real historical figure and real historical events, even if the facts are not always accurate.

Third, those discrepancies that we might find troubling were not troubling to these ancient authors. They did not live in an age of science and rationalism, and they were not concerned to get all the facts correct. Indeed, they altered, and even created facts to suit their theological story-telling purposes. While modern historians could never get away with writing history in this way, the ancients accepted this way of telling history.

How are historically conscious people of faith to read the Gospels? We read them from a faith perspective, meeting Jesus through the stories, and finding our place in his story. In this encounter with Jesus we are asked to follow him in faithful discipleship. It is this way of reading and living the Gospels that expresses the real truth of their stories.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Bible Cannot Answer Scientific Questions

For over a century debates have raged over the ability of the Bible to tell us about the world, particularly how the natural world, and beings that inhabit this world, came into existence. These debates have only continued the arguments between science and the Bible that started with the 17th century Scientific Revolution when Galileo challenged a literal reading of the words of scripture by showing that the sun, and not the earth, is at the center of the universe, and that the universe functions because of mathematical laws. Yet, in our politically charged culture, the conflict between the Bible and science seems more heated than ever.

The issue, as I see it, seems to be whether the Bible can answer the questions of science, and whether science can actually prove the Bible, as some think. Of course, at the heart of the current conflict is the contentious debate between the scientific theory of evolution and the religious belief in creation. The challenge of science to faith has become so threatening that attempts have been made by some who hold to a literal reading of Genesis 1-2 to use a form of pseudo-science to propose a theory known as intelligent design; but at its core, this teaching is only a refurbishing of creationism. The problem with this view lies in our misunderstanding of the first chapters of Genesis as a basis to prove the idea that the natural world was literally created in seven days from nothing.

Admittedly, I am not a scientist, so I cannot speak about scientific theories in much depth, and certainly not in this brief article. However, as a biblical scholar, historian, and theologian, I can address what I see to be the problem from an interpretive and theological point of view.

First and foremost, we must understand that the narratives of Genesis were written by ancient humans, who, without the skill of modern science, sought to explain their world and the origins of the natural world from a religious viewpoint. Genesis, then, was the ancient Hebrews’ story of their beginnings and the origins of the world and humanity as they saw it from their theological, but not a scientific, point of view. Like other ancient peoples, the Hebrews justified their religion and their view of the world by telling their creation story, which detailed how the world came about as an act of their God.

In the case of the Hebrews, the Genesis narrative was an attempt to define their God as the only God of the universe, who is transcendent, and who, in God’s infinite wisdom and power, created the physical world, including humanity, which is literarily represented by the characters of Adam and Eve. Thus, the beginning chapters of Genesis are theological narratives that express how the Hebrews viewed their God as supreme over other gods, a theme that continues throughout the Hebrew Bible. But the Genesis narratives are not scientific accounts or explanations about natural phenomena, and they cannot support such a literal reading. Doing so misses the point.

Does this view dispel any notion of God? The answer to this question is simply no. While some who hold to evolution as the answer to the origins of the natural world do dismiss the idea of a divine being, science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Alternatively, neither can the Bible prove that God exists. The Bible can only describe how ancient people of faith, Jews and Christians, understood God. A belief in God comes only through faith.

Is evolution a threat to the authority of the Bible? The answer is again no. The Bible is theological literature, written by ancient people, who wrote from the perspective of their religious faith and how they understood the world, humanity, and the divine. The creation story from Genesis is a theological explanation of the world from a monotheistic Hebraic perspective, but it is not a scientific explanation.

What does this mean for people of faith living in a world of scientific knowledge? It means that we must approach the Bible not as a scientific document, for the scriptures cannot answer our scientific questions. Rather, we must view the Bible as a religious text that shapes the way we live in the world, and we must interpret the Bible theologically, investigating what it says about God as the ultimate reality and how we should live out the image of our God in our world.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Seeking the Truth Demands Questioning our Faith

Anyone who knows me very well, knows that I am adventurous when it comes to asking questions about the Bible, theology, and the practice of faith. For me, no question is off limits. I am a person who is not completely satisfied with the common idea that if the Bible says it, then that settles it. I am extremely open to new ways of thinking about the Bible and theology, for in my mind Jesus’ statement that the truth will set you free is the hallmark of our quest. Yet, there are specific reasons why I also encourage others to ask such challenging questions.

One reason for my determination to raise critical questions about faith, and why I encourage others to do so also, is that I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition in which queries about the Bible and faith were not appreciated. This was particularly true when one tried to ask questions about the inconsistencies found in the Bible, or when one tried desperately to harmonize a belief in a good God and yet the reality of suffering. As a teenager I was told that such questions are not important, and even dangerous to ask; only knowing Jesus and believing in him were necessary. I became satisfied with this answer until a later time when I began to discover the intellectual obstacles one encounters when approaching the Bible for clear answers. It was then that I returned to ask those serious questions, which opened more questions, and which eventually led to evolutionary, and indeed revolutionary changes in the way I view the Bible and the Christian faith.

A second reason for my critical approach to the Bible and faith is that I perceive a regrettable weakness in the way many churches see the Bible. More liberal minded churches have almost abandoned the Bible as a source for faith and life. While they may read from it in worship, many of them see little or no value in looking critically at the Bible for the basis of theology and practice. I have not reached that point in my Christian journey. On the other end of the spectrum, more conservative traditions have emphasized the hypothetical inerrancy of the Bible, holding a view of the Bible that completely ignores the discrepancies in the Bible, and more importantly, the long and complicated history of the Bible’s transmission and translation. For these Christians, if the Bible says it, then it must be true. I have moved from this position, which I was taught at a younger age. But neither the more liberal nor the more conservative positions are tenable in my mind.

A third motive for my critical look at the Bible and faith logically follows the second in that an insufficient education in our faith, and in the Bible on which our faith is based, has led not only to biblical illiteracy as many people do not know the Bible, but more tragically, to ignorance when it comes to biblical interpretation and theological thinking. Most Bible study groups do not seriously consider the complexities and conundrums inherent in reading ancient texts. Instead, they focus on how we as individuals can improve our lives, and the discussions usually center on what the Bible has to say to me at this point in my life. While this is important for people of faith, it is secondary to delving deeply into the text of the Bible. Failure to do so will only lead us to assume what the Bible says, or to make it say what we want it to say without giving careful thought and attention to the text itself.

Over the next few weeks I will be raising some questions about the Christian faith, and primarily about the Bible. Obviously I will be writing from my own perspective and from my own experience of thinking about these issues. Many of you will disagree with me in part or altogether. I embrace such dialogue, for I appreciate diverse views as long as they are supported with rational arguments based on evidence. I have given many hours, days and years to considering these questions and to seeking answers based on available evidence. I will not claim to be the last word on these issues, and my mind often changes, but if I can persuade my readers to think more seriously and critically about their faith, regardless whether we come down on the same side of the theological fence, then my ministry in this area has been effective. After all, I am convinced that Jesus was right when he said, “the truth will set you free.”