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Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Archives for 115 – Navigating Change in Churches of Christ

CaneRidgeA little over a year ago my Church of Christ congregation in Lexington, KY laid their hands on me and prayed as they sent me out to work with a local United Methodist congregation as an urban missionary. A little over two-hundred years ago a revival took place not far from Lexington in which Methodists and others came together in the name of Christian unity, and this ignited a movement to which I am very much committed today.

I have told many people that my work at Embrace UMC is an outworking of my commitment to the Restoration Movement, both in my hope that it will enrich churches within that tradition, and as a testament to the ideals of early leaders like Barton Stone and David Lipscomb. Stone and his congregation at Cane Ridge wrote in The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, “We will, that this body die, be dissolved and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”

In the recent months, the Southside Church of Christ and Embrace United Methodist Church have reinvigorated my hope for the future of the church. In many ways, socio-economically, denominationally, geographically, racially, and theologically these churches could not be more different, but a partnership is growing that continues to bear witness to Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17.

The preaching minister from Southside has delivered a sermon at Embrace, the Southside youth and campus ministry groups come monthly to prepare food and serve at Embrace’s weekly community meal, the whole Southside congregation held a diaper drive for Embrace’s diaper bank, and it was primarily Southside members who supported me financially when I was raising a salary for my work at Embrace. I am privileged to participate in the life of both communities, as I go to Sunday school at Southside, and worship service at Embrace, and I teach at both places.

Last night as we partnered to offer a thanksgiving meal to folks from around downtown Lexington I witnessed seniors from Embrace working alongside youth from Southside, then we all went upstairs to sing praises, and share communion together, a testament to the eschatological reality that we are one in the Spirit, one in the Lord.

There have been discussions about church polity, sacramental theology (a quip about sacraments), gender equity, sexuality, worship styles, ethics and so much more. Friendships are being formed, community is developing, hospitality is being extended, and in all of this Christ is being glorified.

The uniqueness of each congregation need not die, nor should either hide or downplay their theological convictions, but praise God that sectarian attitudes so prevalent in my tradition of the Churches of Christ are dying. Sectarianism needs to die so that unity can be resurrected. This sort of sectarianism died, even if only briefly, at Cane Ridge, and it needs to die regularly in the church today.

In some of the churches in which I grew up it would have been out of the question for them to bless me and send me out for a work like this, unless of course I was sent to be a missionary to those godless Methodists. Thankfully though, it was Methodists, and Presbyterians, and Baptists who came together to start our movement, and it has been Methodists alongside my Church of Christ family who have taught me about the ecumenical impulse of the Restoration Movement. It is time for another Cane Ridge revival. It is time for more last wills and testaments to be written. It is time for sectarianism to die, and ecumenism to rise again in our midst.

KingdomConspiracyWe are going to give away a copy of Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Early Church by Scot McKnight. This is happening over on our Wineskins Facebook page. Feel free to stop by over there and comment on the giveaway post!

In light of the previous review of Peter Enns’ book, “The Bible Tells Me So” I wanted to share some thoughts from Dr. Ben Witherington critiquing Enns’ view of scripture and myth from his book “The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible.” I appreciate Dr. Witherington and Baylor University Press allowing us to reprint this here. – Matt

Sometimes analogies can be stretched too far. For example, the author of Hebrews is sometimes quoted as saying that Jesus was like us in all respects, save without sin. In LivingWordOfGod-BWIIIthe first place that’s not what Hebrews says or suggests. The text in question, Hebrews 4:15, actually reads, “He was tempted in every way like us, save without sin.” That is a different matter. There are ever so many ways that Jesus was not like us. For example, he had an unfallen human nature and also a divine nature. It is always a dodgy and even dangerous thing to draw analogies with a unique being like the Son of God, all the more if the analogy is between a thing, namely the Bible, and a person, namely the Son of God.

THE INCARNATIONAL PRINCIPLE

The incarnational principle is the rubric that Peter Enns uses to explain the character and nature of the Bible. In fact he is willing to put it this way: “The long-standing identification between Christ the word and Scripture the word is central to how I think through the issues raised in this book. How does Scripture’s full humanity and full divinity affect what we should expect from Scripture?” “Identification” is much too strong a word here; “analogy” would be better. Furthermore, books do not have either humanity or divinity. We can talk about the books of the Bible being divinely inspired but not about their divinity, or for that matter about their humanity. All of the Son of God is not “fully human”; only his human nature is. Nor is all the Son of God fully divine; only his divine nature is. According to the classical Chalcedonian formulation, the two natures should not be fused or confused. This is very different from the nature of the Bible.

If I understand 2 Timothy 3:16 correctly, the whole Bible is suffused with both divine inspiration and human words. Some of it is more directly the word of God (e.g., the oracles), some of it more indirectly, but it is always the word of God in human words whether it involves oracles where God speaks directly or some more indirect means of communication.

What Enns wants to argue most vociferously about, however, is the “humanness” of Scripture. Put another way, he wants to insist on the historical givenness of Scripture—that it is written in a particular language in a particular cultural setting, reflecting particular cultural customs and conventions and ways of thinking in order to be a word on target for the original intended audiences. “The Bible, at every turn, shows how ‘connected’ it is to its own world [which] is a necessary consequence of God incarnating himself.… It is essential to the very nature of revelation that the Bible is not unique to its environment. The human dimension of Scripture is essential to its being Scripture.” Missing entirely is any discussion about how this human givenness of Scripture may or may not affect the truth claims of the book. Are we being told that incarnation requires a full participation in wide-ranging human ignorance, errors of various sorts, misjudgments, misrepresentations, mishandling of scriptural texts, and the like?

“To err is human,” as Alexander Pope reminded us, but do we need to turn that equation around and say “To be human, one must err”? If one says that, one has a rather large theological problem. To say that incarnation involves certain limitations of time and space manifested in historical particularity is one thing. It is quite another to suggest that incarnation involves participating in human fallenness, including in its fallen understanding of things. Revelation or
even revelation incarnate does not in the first instance mean historical givenness, though Enns puts it that way. Revelation means God’s truth expressed in particular ways that humans can understand.

But let us allow Enns to flesh out what he wants to claim. In his discussion of “myth,” particularly in regard to ancient Near East parallels to the creation and flood stories in Genesis, Enns settles for a definition of myth as follows: “It is an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” This definition is problematic. In the first place, it is not what the term mythos means in the NT (cf., e.g., 1 Tim 4:4), where it is a pejorative term referring to something that is not true. In the second place, even where the term “myth” was used in a positive way in antiquity, it meant something like a story about a god or the supernatural. On this definition, lots of the Bible is myth as it recounts the mighty salvific acts of God, but that tells us nothing about whether it records historical events or not, unless you believe that there can’t be any kind of supernatural incursion into the realm of the natural. Isn’t it ironic that Enns spends so much time in his study arguing for the historical givenness of these ancient texts, but he wants to define terms in a wholly modern way that the biblical audience would not recognize or grant? What’s wrong with this picture?

Yet Enns, rightly in my judgment, asks, should the Bible be judged on the basis of modern standards of historical inquiry and scientific precision? Surely the answer is no. But these texts should be judged on the basis of ancient standards of historical inquiry and truth telling. Let us suppose the author of Genesis is making historical claims of an ancient nature. They are more general and less precise than we perhaps would want to make today, but nonetheless, historical claims are being made. Taking the nature of ancient historiography into account, we must still assess the resulting historical truth claims. Is the author of Genesis claiming there was a historical Noah and a historical flood of great magnitude during his era? Surely the answer to this question is yes, and even more tellingly NT writers—and Jesus—also thought the answer to this question was yes (cf. Matt 24:37–39; 1 Pet 3:20). Revelation, as it turns out, doesn’t just mean incarnational speech. It means truth telling in incarnational speech.

To claim that the Bible is God’s word implies always and everywhere that it is making various sorts of truth claims—indeed, claims on us. And we do no service to the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life if we do not wrestle with the question “What is truth?” whenever we deal with the biblical text.

——————–
From The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible by Ben Witherington III. Copyright © 2009 by Baylor University Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.

EnnsI just finished reading Peter Enns’ book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. It was an easy, enjoyable read. I have rarely (okay never) read a book covering biblical history and biblical interpretation that has actually made me laugh out loud. You would have thought I was watching a Jim Gaffigan stand-up special. He’s a genuine funny scholar. Yeah, I know, hard to believe. It was hard for me to put down. I read it in 3 days.

The controversial nature of the topic from a controversial scholar also made it hard to put down. Dr. Enns who was let go from his professorship at Westminster Theological Seminary in 2008 for writing a previous book that they determined violated the seminaries statement of faith regarding the inspiration of Scripture. The endorsements on the back of The Bible Tells Me So reads like a Who’s Who in the “I like to think outside the box” publishing group (Brian McLaren, Rachel Held Evan, Rob Bell, Tony Campolo, Tony Jones). When Tony Campolo is quoted as saying, “I have some problems with what he’s written,” you know you’re in for a ride.

So here is my summary of the book: “Don’t read the Bible like it is faith’s owner’s manual, recipe, or a rule book. If you do, you’ll completely mess it up and you can be accused of trying to make the Bible behave like you want it to. Instead, read it like what it is – a model for our own spiritual journey – even though it’s got some disturbing parts in there. And also, read it like it’s God’s Word even though very little of it can be trusted to describe anything that actually happened. It’s not history per se, it’s stories from people who had an encounter with God and told a story to make a point about that. For Christians, the Bible is all about Jesus so read it like it’s all about him, that’s what the early Christians did.”

Now to dig a little deeper.

In the book, we learn that Enns does not believe that God worked in the ways described in Bible, because he does not think most of it happened. Instead he believes that the majority of the stories in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, are “encounters with God” that are “genuine, authentic, and real.” But he sees the narratives in most all the Bible as unhistorical or embellished stories at best. For Enns, these “encounters” with God were real in some way other than witnessing things that actually happened.

According to Enns, the Bible is to be seen as “God letting his children tell the story.” This means that we can count on a lot of embellishment, contradicting accounts, made up stuff, and straight up errors. Enns explains away the Canaanite killings in Joshua as “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Israelites.” What he means is not that the Israelites were delusional about their task to take over the Promised Land. Actually, he believes that nothing in Joshua or the Pentateuch really happened, including the killing of the Canaanites. It was just a story told by one of “God’s children” who was wrong or making it up.

Enns believes that the stories in the Bible before King David have no historical basis. Enns is concerned that the silence of archeology and other ancient histories, like Egypt’s, don’t come up with anything that would confirm the historicity of the Old Testament narratives before David. Even after David, Enns believes that even though there is some historical and archeological evidence to stand on, there was a lot of freedom to embellish history to make some point the author had in mind. He points to the differences, or “contradictions,” in the histories in Chronicles and Samuel/Kings as his example of this.

Okay. If the Bible cannot be counted on, for the most part, to tell us things that actually happened, how should the Bible be read according to Dr. Enns?

Enns believes that in the Bible we should look to discover a “model for our own spiritual journey. An inspired model, in fact.” He throws the word “inspired” in there once or twice but does not define what that looks like for him other than a general belief that God had something to do with its composition. The more you read the book though the more you experience a picture of the Bible as a human work written for human reasons as opposed to a work overseen by the sovereignty of YAHWEH and guided by his Spirit (the orthodox view of the inspiration of Scripture). It seems to me that the God of Scripture, if he indeed can be adequately understood through the narrative of Scripture, would want the readers of his Word to feel confident in it as a reliable witness to the historical religion it describes.

A final point of note is Enns’ Christocentric Hermeneutic. He believes that Jesus is the lens through which we are to read the entire Bible. He displays how the New Testament writers, and Jesus himself, felt free to use the Bible to make whatever point they felt was important to them, even if that point was never in the mind of the Old Testament writer. They used the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures to make a new point about what God was doing through Jesus. They might have failed Old Testament Exegesis class but they made great first generation Christian theologians.

So what do I think?

Enns believes that ancient Scripture writers, both ancient Israelite ones and the early Christians, “encountered” God somehow, to give us mostly fabricated stories with which we should “model” our spiritual lives. Sounds nice, but I don’t think that’s what the biblical writers intended. Enns goes on a tour of Biblical literature to make his point that the Bible cannot be read as a “rulebook,” which is Enns’ antagonist in the book. Although I definitely think that the “rulebook” reading of Scripture is faulty and dangerous, and also not the way that the biblical writers intended it to be read; his own proposition, conclusions, and approach do not seem to me as any less dangerous to faith.

Enns’ reading of Scripture as a “model” left us hanging for the most part not knowing what to do with all the troubling historical conclusions about the Bible he just exposed us to. I know that much of what he has to say about the historical background of the composition of the Bible has validity (there is no way to address these without a lengthier response to an already long review), but I wish he would go more in-depth about how to put his hermeneutic in practice in a community of faith.

In his concluding chapter, Enns states that an “unsettled faith is a maturing faith.” I think that a faith that wrestles with God is a maturing faith, but I’m not sure about how beneficial it is to have an “unsettled” faith that is unsure whether or not the witness of Scripture is historically trustworthy in even its redemptive events. But to be fair, Enns wants to say that Scripture is not the foundation of our faith – Jesus is.  Scripture points beyond its imperfect witness to a perfect Savior. Fair enough. I agree. But I fear that Enns’ view of Scripture does not help a struggling faith grow, but instead just erodes its trust in its foundational witness to Christ, leaving in its wake a Christian without a place to stand.

One final reflection, I detect a spirit and tone in Enns that I have heard from other Emergent writers such as Brian McLaren. An attitude of “I can’t stand my fundamentalist upbringing and its form of Christianity. I want to be able to think freely.” I completely understand this sentiment. I can go there myself sometimes. I also believe in freedom of thought and I have serious concerns with fundamentalist hermeneutics. Like McLaren and our postmodern culture, Enns does not believe that coming to final answers is as important as the questions we ask. Enns sure does raise a lot of questions in this book. This is what I want to ask though: All questions are valid but are all questions profitable for maturing and promoting faith?

I learned a lot, had some “aha” moments, some “that’s what I have been suspecting” moments, a lot of “I wonder if he really believes God is responsible for the Bible” moments, and many “that’s hilarious” moments. Ultimately, I hope and pray that “assuring people of faith” is what this book does, but I am afraid that it doesn’t.

ValleyDryBonesIt is inevitable that anything that is alive is going to go through some changes. That is true of living organisms as well as living organizations. This implies that there are there are such things as dead organisms and dead organizations as well…something we certainly want to avoid!

When God spoke to the prophet Ezekiel in chapter 37 God commanded him to prophesy to the valley of dry bones and he did,

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

The bones connected, bone-to-bone and tendons and flesh covered the bones but there was just one problem, they had no ruah…they had no breath…no spirit. In other words they were not yet alive because the very breath that shows we are alive was not present, the very spirit that gives life had not come into them…they were corpses. They had the appearance of being alive…they had a body but they had no breath, no spirit.

I am afraid that is where some are today…they look alive on the outside but get closer and you can tell it is a dead corpse. That is bad news but it is not hopeless news. No. There is always hope in Christ for new life. In times like those, what is needed is a renewed reliance on the presence of the divine breath…the Holy Spirit…to be re-emphasized in our midst.

In case you think I am overstating my case here and believe that churches are alive by default, hear the words of Jesus in Revelation 3:1-2,

To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.

It is entirely possible to look the part of real live person but in reality be dead. Jesus commands those in his position that all is not lost. What must be done is to “Wake up!” If we are willing to follow those instructions, even the most rotten looking corpse can be made new again and be given new life by the Spirit.

And so the word of the Lord came again to Ezekiel,

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Change is inevitable. Resurrection is change. Transformation is change. New life in Christ is change. Conversion is change. Salvation is change. Forgiveness is change. The church is always going to go through changes. Sunday school was a change when it was introduced and I am sure some railed against is as an ungodly innovation. Today, doing away with Sunday school would be met with the same accusation!

How do we, as Christians, navigate change in our lives and in the church? How might we love each other, pray for each other and bear the burdens even of those we disagree with? How can we be Christ-like in our actions and attitudes and show patience with those who we disagree with…who have met the same challenges and have come to a different conclusion?

Change is hard but it is necessary. Knowing what to change and what must remain the same is also a challenge. In this issue of Wineskins we will be talking about change and how to navigate the issues we face in ways that are biblical and pastoral. Our prayer is that this month’s issue is a blessing to many churches and Christians out there as we face many of the same things together…let us not commit to merely talking about these things together but praying for one another as well.

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