Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Looking for Law in All the Wrong Places

I think I may have just (at least for a time) solved something for myself that I have been bothered about for quite some time. The question is "how do we honestly approach the New Testament?" Why would I ask such a question? Well I've been noticing something about what we do with the New Testament. It seems to me that everyone draws the line somewhere. Every different group and their teachings chooses what part of the New Testament to take literally and which to pass off as cultural detritus or explain away some other how. Complementarians say a women is to function at a reduced authority level in the church but they don't make them wear head coverings. Egalitarians say that none of the directions about women in authority apply anymore. Catholics say Jesus' directive not to raise anyone to fatherhood doesn't apply to them. Surprisingly, many of these groups still want the New Testament to be a rulebook, maybe a playbook. They still hold to some form of belief in the authority of scripture, specifically the New Testament. It's a belief that seems to be something to preserve at all costs in the face of mounting reasonable doubt. I recently had a Facebook discussion with someone with serious cred in the area of biblical scholarship over the complementarian/egalitarian issue in which I gave the option of simply disagreeing with Paul's attitude to women and thereby dismantling the inerrancy doctrine. His response intrigued me. He thought that maybe Paul was being sarcastic and obviously overstating the case to demonstrate how silly the bigoted arguments were. Maybe he was right. But what he didn't seem to register, at least not publicly, was that still dismantles inerrancy. If you are intimate enough with the text to pick and choose based on nuances like that, then you still don't have the rulebook that people want. And the truth is that at some level every group picks and chooses. So even they don't have the rulebook -- they don't have the very inerrancy they nonetheless espouse as a Capital Letter Doctrine. (sometime I'll do a post on Capital Letter Doctrines.)

Then there are things that I just don't agree with anymore. One example occurs to me. "Don't let the sun go down on your wrath" literally applied in today's late bed time culture means trying to solve a complex emotional issue when you are not emotionally equipped to do so. Just makes things worse.

In the face of this I, myself, have experienced the presence of God in this same book that I troubles me so. To pick one example of many, I have been present when reading a passage from, say, one of Paul's epistles has brought sudden positive change in my friend's life. So I am compelled to say that this is a great book. God is there when we read it. And it's been worth preserving. Without it we would not even have a starting place to think these God thoughts at all. Think of it. We in the western world have no oral tradition any more and haven't had for centuries and we have a multiplicity of languages. There is no chance at all for us to ever have heard of Jesus if there hadn't been a New Testament to read and translate into our native tongue. Still, my wish is for honesty when we approach it. So what do I do with the New Testament?

First of all I propose the following, something I never thought of before though I don't know why. Try this statement: The Old and New Testaments are fundamentally different books.

 The Old Testament consists of history, God addressing his people, wisdom and worship literature. It's written against the backdrop of a people called to live out the Kingdom of God in a physical location led by God's appointed agents -- judges and later, kings. Each of these was anointed to be such by a unique presence of the Spirit of God that was not shared with any other. Their calling and anointing made them utterly unique. As well as anointed leaders God himself provided, codified for his people a framework, system of laws to govern it as any sensible temporal nation state with a state religion would functionally need. And God kept on addressing his people directly through prophets, bringing correction as the waywardness of humanity kept on rearing its head in their degenerating practise. Much more could be said.

The New Testament consists of history, Jesus addressing his disciples, and disciples addressing other disciples and one book of visions. Similar to the Old Testament in some ways, yes, but don't forget that it's written against the backdrop of a brand new reality. Instead of the Kingdom of God being established by a nation state with all the attendant nation state needs, and instead of being governed by uniquely gifted leaders, the people of God all have the Spirit of God as a fulfilment of God's promise to write his laws on their brand new "hearts of flesh." Patriarchal leadership has been explicitly dethroned by Jesus himself. (Yes, you can tell that the "call no man father" passage is very important to me) And there is no longer a written code. Even the Sermon on the Mount, which can rightly be compared to the giving of the Mosaic Law on Sinai, is not a set of rules but rather a series of challenges which cut much deeper than laws to deal with our heart motivations first, and our actions second. But a large portion of the New Testament is, in comparison to the Old, really a new thing. Suddenly we have the People of God discussing Him, the meaning of his works, and a host of other things. With each other. I'm not saying it hadn't happened before. The rabbis had been discussing God for many years and writing it down, too, I'm sure. But this kind of talk has now for the first time actually made it into the central holy book. And that's significant because it dominates at least a half of the New Testament. For most of the Epistles we actually only get one side of the conversation. But it is evident to me that there really is a conversation. Which should not surprise us because Paul is not Moses the Law Giver. In the new regime of the Spirit he is the actual equal -- in a way Moses was not -- of all the believers he is admonishing.

So here's where things get messy. "What? No Law? How will we know what to do?" Well, I'm sorry to say that Jesus has one answer and but the church has another. Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will be our guide. The church has turned instead to the New Testament, that book without a formal code to use as law, and has proclaimed itself to know more than the original writers that this collection of letters and so on is not just what it appears but is the actual authoritative Law of God. (OK, so they say 'Word of God' but they treat it very similarly to how the rabbis treat Torah, that is, a book to be dissected and have every last drop of theological and practical meaning wrung out of, lest we ever find ourselves actually following the real example of the characters in the bible and finding out the answers to our problems from the Holy Spirit ourselves.)

Let's think about the formation of the first century church. It was a subversive underground movement, with pressures from the inside and outside. But it was able to govern itself pretty well. "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" is a phrase that should haunt our churches. The all-togetherness of it is staggering. Since when have we been able to decide like that? Think of Paul being sent out by that church and forming new churches run by elders. Maybe with the hope that someday they would all grow up to be able to perceive what "seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us." But no, that's not what happened. Elders became presbyters, priests, bishops, overseers, pastors, and so on. But Paul was doing what worked in an authoritarian culture and no one can fault him for that. And he naturally keeps in touch with the churches he's started, writing letters to address specific and maybe unique issues in churches he has left behind. But he's definitely making it up as he's going along. In Athens he tries what is now called apologetics. In Corinth, the focus is on miracles. From a reading of the first section of I Corinthians, one gets the impression he never wanted to try the apologetics thing again. All of this is pretty consistent with the new regime of the Spirit, the mustard seed conspiracy, the yeast that works its way into the whole lump of dough. Constant development. Experimentation. Change. Where it all falls down is where the church looks back on his and the others' amazing lives and says that those were the good old days. Instead of a vibrant example, we look back and see a template. Instead of a conversation in which we are equal players, we see a playbook. And this is what I see as the basic message of inerrancy. We can never get it as right as they did, because they, in some counter-intuitive fashion, so unlike any other fledgling movement, got it right the first time. We can never progress beyond what they were, because unlike us, they were able to articulate perfectly every essential doctrine of our faith. But this is utterly inconsistent with the idea of a church where every member is an anointed agent of God, with an 'earnest' of the Spirit, making them equal with all other members, past, present and future. It's also utterly inconsistent with a church that is flexible enough to be able to truly incarnate the Gospel in new cultures enabling them to speak its truths in their native cultural languages.

So where does this bring us -- this idea that maybe, just maybe the New Testament is not a rulebook but rather the working papers of our fellow labourers whose distance from us is a matter of time and culture but not unattainable uniqueness? Well, for one thing, maybe we would not waste so much time becoming entrenched about issues like whether or not a woman is allowed to teach or lead. The reality is that women are teaching and leading the whole world over. Mother Teresa is a woman. Her wise sayings are cropping up everywhere and teaching us all sorts of things we need to know. Women are leading governments. But, as the saying goes, I digress. Many other examples exist of the church majoring on minors. Ultimately, we would be less concerned with getting doctrine exactly right and be able to focus on doing what Jesus told us to do.

Hey, in my heart I'm seriously starting to apply Paul's famous statement about the Old Testament -- "all scripture is inspired by God" to the New Testament again. as I haven't done for years. But I'm convinced that we have yet to really grasp what 'inspired by God,' so easy to grasp in the literal sense, really implies. I also am fascinated by the absence in that famous statement of an affirmation of its final authority. No, Paul uses the word "profitable," instead of "authoritative" as if maybe teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness are already proceeding in the context of the guidance of Spirit and we just need to be reminded, as a support for that, to use the scriptures, too.

So back to my half-humorous title. (I smiled when I thought of it anyway.) The New Testament is not a new 'Law and the Prophets' and even though it's become traditional to do so, I maintain that you shouldn't use it as such. Wiser heads than I have talked about it being an unfinished story which the church is still involved in progressively writing. At any rate when this --here I link to a blog post by Rachel Held Evans about John Piper's personal rules regarding receiving teaching from women. Read the post. He seems almost talmudic in his legalistic convolution-- when this, I say, is possible, we've gone off the rails into 'Looking for law...'

I'm trying to bring this thing to a conclusion but I maybe leaving it open-ended might be just as good. This discussion will continue on it's own. This is just an instalment.