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.