Friday, November 29, 2013

You Can Have My Spot

In Romans 9:1 Paul says something that really catches my attention. See if it catches your attention, too.
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—
Why would Paul so strongly say that he isn't lying? This seems very close to Paul saying, "I swear by God (the Holy Spirit)."  Besides that, if he's inspired, why does he need to remind us that he's telling the truth? This verse has always intrigued me. 

In normal conversation when I hear something like "God knows I'm not lying," I immediately think that something unbelievable is coming soon. That's exactly what we have here. Paul is about to say something shocking. Notice Rom. 9:3.
For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh:
Wow! Did Paul just say that he wishes he could give up his own salvation for the sake of his Jewish friends? Paul in essence says, "I love these people so much that I wish I could go to hell for their sake." Let that sink in for a moment. Wow! What an outrageous claim! Indeed, he needed to precede that with "God knows I'm not lying".

If the essence of the gospel is "you can go to heaven," then Paul's willingness to give up heaven for someone else amounts to a rejection of the essence of the gospel for himself. Going to heaven isn't what it's all about.

In another place, Philippians 1:23-24, Paul says something similar. Rather than wishing himself accursed for someone else, Paul decides it's better to stay out of heaven a little longer to continue to serve people who are already believers. This context in Philippians 1 shows that it's good to desire heaven, to desire to be with God. Paul had a strong desire to be with the Lord. Heaven is good and important and something to desire. But getting to heaven was not Paul's top priority. His top priority was serving those around him.

He continues to expound on this idea in the next few verses, especially Phil. 2:5-8. In the same context of chapter 1 where he says "I'd rather stay and help you than to go be in heaven right now," Paul points us to Jesus's example of doing a very similar thing. Jesus was in heaven and He left that. Jesus left heaven at great risk. (If there were no risk, then the temptations are meaningless). He did not view heaven for Himself as top priority. No, His top priority was serving others.

And Paul says in very, very strong terms that we should think this way (Phil. 2:4). He basically says in Phil. 2:1-3 that if following Christ means anything, if love means anything, if God means anything to you, then put others above yourself. Putting others above yourself so you can get to heaven is one thing. It's paying a small price in the here and now for a huge payoff in the by and by. If getting a reward or avoiding punishment is our primary motive, then our primary motive is selfish. But to give up our spot in heaven for someone else? That's the depth of the service that God asks from us. Serve others because you genuinely want to serve them. Love others passionately even if that means complete self-sacrifice. That's the gospel call.

I admit. This is shocking to me. So often when we give and serve, it's for our own good in some way. Truly loving and serving takes our reward out of the picture and just loves and serves because loving and serving is good for others.

What happens after death is important. It's a beautiful promise that God has given us and it shows His love for us to give us such a promise. Part of faith is trusting God to make good on His promise. But when we make the gospel all about what happens after this life, we miss the point. By placing so much emphasis on getting ourselves to heaven, we change the focus of the message from others-oriented love to a self-serving something-for-nothing bargain contract. Reducing the message to "Jesus died so you don't have to go to hell; believe and be baptized so you can go to heaven" cheapens the gospel and it downgrades God. It turns the gospel into sin management to avoid punishment. It turns God into a petty tyrant who cannot forgive without legally extracting blood for every sin. This simplified message is unbiblical. The gospel message is a shining light that drives away darkness by enemy-loving others-oriented self-sacrificial love. It turns conventional wisdom upside down by teaching that it's better to give than to receive. It teaches of an almighty Creator who didn't use His power to force His will but rather demonstrated true power by radical self sacrifice and gave us a guarantee of the truth of this power by raising from the dead.

Peter Rollins tells about a friend of his who left the church. This friend told a parable upon his leaving the church. The exit parable goes like this (paraphrasing from memory).
I dreamed that I had died and was at the gates of heaven. I saw Saint Peter there and he said, "Hello and welcome in!" Just as I was about to step in, I noticed some of my friends there just outside. Some of them Buddhists. Some of them atheists. Some of them God knows what. And I said, "Peter, what about my friends?" Peter said, "Well, you know the rules." And just as I was about to step in, I remembered my reference point. Jesus. Jesus the friend of sinners. Jesus the friend of outsiders. Jesus who left heaven and became an outcast. And I said, "You know what, I'll just stay out here with my friends." Peter then looked at me with a huge smile and said, "At last! At last you understand! For God so loved the world that He forsook heaven!"
You see, following Jesus isn't just about getting myself to heaven. It's about driving darkness away and bringing heaven down to earth, like He did. I pray that I can be more about serving others for their good and not for my own good, more like Him.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Anchor Texts

Sometimes disagreements over Bible topics lead to one or both of the parties in the discussion questioning the other's commitment to Scripture. Unfortunately, I've been on both sides of this. Some think that if you reach a different conclusion on some topic, then you don't have a high regard for Scripture or you're dishonest or biased and that prevents you from seeing or accepting truth. I know some think this because I once thought this and I was taught this.

I must confess that I'm not always as committed to Scripture as I should be. I'm not always honest. And frankly, I read the Bible with bias. However, I also believe that describes everyone else that reads the Bible, too. I'm not saying that we should ignore blatant disregard, dishonesty or bias. But let's not be quick to throw out these types of accusations. People know these dangers and typically want to avoid them. Let's be optimistic about others' motives.

Bible discussions should be actual discussions of the text instead of accusations toward those who don't agree with us. We can't have loving discussions if we're going to turn the discussions into righteousness contests. If we're going to get into a righteousness contest, I probably lose. I know myself and my weakness and selfishness and darkness. I lose. And even if I happen to win the righteousness contest, I still feel like I lost for even being in a righteousness contest. It would be so much better if we discussed the text and the theological and doctrinal issues involved and seek to learn from one another instead of seeking to prove the wrongness and faithlessness of anyone who disagrees.

With that admonition in mind, I think I've stumbled upon a reason why people disagree that has little or nothing to do with one's honesty or commitment. Understanding this may lead to more thoughtful discussions, more seeking to understand, and less questioning of others' motives or faith. I think that the key is understanding the concept of what I'm calling "anchor texts". I've never heard or read this anywhere else, so take it for what it's worth. But I'd really like to try to I explain what I mean by "anchor texts".

Anyone who has studied the Bible seriously has noticed that there are some seeming contradictions. Some of these are trivial and easily resolved. However, other seeming contradictions are really difficult and diligent and honest study still leaves bona fide tension. Some Bible texts are not easily reconciled with other Bible texts. I don't know any Bible student who hasn't wrestled with Bible texts that are in tension.

One of the most classic examples of this type of tension is the tension between free will and predestination. Perhaps I shouldn't mention this one because it generates so much passion on both sides. But the passion and intensity in both directions of this tension set the stage for the character assassinations that so often happen, so maybe it is a good example to mention.

The most staunch 5 point hyper-Calvinist still has to deal with the fact that God changed His mind based on Moses' intercession in Exodus 32:14 (and several other instances of God changing His mind or course of action based on the actions of people). A Calvinist has to deal with the fact that the Bible presents people as having real choices, and the course of their lives and the lives of others and even God's actions are affected by those choices. On the other hand, the most convinced open-theist still has to deal with Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 1-3 and the fact that Paul was a chosen vessel. There is tension between predestination and free-will. There are texts in the Bible that seem to support both ideas. Both sides of this have explanations for the texts that seem to support the opposing view. But each side anchors their belief on a set of texts and explains the passages that seem to support the other view in light of their "anchor texts".

That's not the only example. Consider women's roles (another one with quite a bit of passion on both sides). The most egalitarian or feminist among us still has to deal with 1 Timothy 2:11-12, Ephesians 5:22, etc. The most complementarian or patriarchal still has to deal with Deborah, 1 Cor. 11:5, Romans 16:1,3,7, Galatians 3:28, etc. Again, both sides have explanations for the seemingly opposing texts, viewing their own "anchor texts" as more clear and therefore a guiding light for interpreting the other passages.

Consider the doctrine of hell and this one has tension in three vectors. Eternal conscious torment proponents still have to deal with the passages like 1 John 2:2 and Rom. 5:18 that speak of salvation for all men. They still have to deal with the fact that the Bible provides two options, life or death and that destruction doesn't mean "kept alive for ever and ever in order to suffer". The annihilationists still have to deal with Matt. 25:46 and Rev. 14:9-11. The universalists have to deal with Matt. 7:13-14. And they all have their explanations of the other texts.

There are many more of these types of subjects. There is tension between faith and works. There is tension between pacifism and justified violence. There is tension between eternal security and the possibility of losing salvation, etc. The Bible is a work that requires interpretation and living in tension. Because of this variety of Bible teaching, "The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it" just doesn't work. Interpreting the Bible is more than just getting your hermeneutics right. Exegeses are interrelated and application is cultural.

Something that complicates matters more is that most people have a theological and cultural framework and background that shapes how they read everything in the Bible. In other words, what someone chooses as an "anchor text" is very much influenced by his theological and cultural background, his faith tradition, his system of interpretation. These systems, in and of themselves, are not bad. In fact, they're helpful. Without them, we'd be forced to go back to basics every time we read the Bible. So, the result of a system is that almost every exegesis is influenced by the results of a number of other exegeses. To change one exegesis will likely have an effect on several others, and the relationships among them are not simple and changing one exegesis could threaten the whole system, and that's difficult, complex, and frankly very scary.

For example, a member of a church of Christ and a traditional Presbyterian have a completely different set of anchor texts because they have different systems. If one isn't familiar with the other's system, then an attempt to discuss a topic like infant baptism will be woefully unproductive. They're coming from completely different backgrounds and for a member of a church of Christ to change his exegesis of Acts 2:38 would have far reaching consequences on his system. Likewise, for the Presbyterian to change his exegesis of Eph. 1:4-5 would have many far reaching and complex implications to his system. If they're not familiar with one another's system or not willing to admit that they're using a system, then the discussion has the potential to end in attacks on one another's faith. Almost every exegesis depends on a large number of other exegeses. We must remember this in our discussions. These two don't disagree because one has faith and the other doesn't or one believes in inspiration and the other doesn't or because one is biased and the other isn't. They disagree because they have different systems of interpretation and therefore different anchor texts.

To be sure, I'm not saying that one theological system is as good as any other. I don't believe that at all. But I do believe a couple of things about these systems. First, I believe that if your system condemns all who don't accept your system, then your system is inherently not subject to correction and should be abandoned. This statement may not be immediately obvious, but think it through. Correcting a system means that it had a flaw. So, this brings a couple of options. One is that it is possible to have a flawed system and still not be condemned. That should beg the question of "Why is my flawed system acceptable to God, but others' flawed systems are not?" Another option is that the system itself must be abandoned because it is flawed, and you were condemned while you used that flawed system. Therefore, a system that condemns all who don't accept it cannot be subject to correction. Any system not subject to correction is dangerous.

A second thing I believe about these systems is that one's system determines one's anchor texts. Shifting anchor texts will require modifying one's system or abandoning it in favor of another system. It requires a huge amount of humility and courage to subject one's system to the test of reason and Scripture. Modifying or abandoning one's system can be extremely painful. I know this first hand because I'm still hurting badly from changing my system.  But we must subject even our system to Scripture so that the system can be modified or even abandoned. The best way I can think of for this type of testing to happen is for loving community discussions of these things among people who don't threaten one another if these discussions reveal a need to modify or abandon a system. And if someone isn't willing to subject his own system to this type of examination and test, then he has no right to ask others to do so.

So, when someone disagrees with me, it has much more to do with a difference in anchor texts than it does with a difference in integrity. Disagreement does NOT mean that they don't value Scripture. It does not mean that they're dishonest. It just means that they have a different theological system and therefore a different set of anchor texts to explain Bible doctrines that are in tension.