Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lent, Growth, and Bible Reading

A 2010 post from my "Journeys Home" blog. How does our growth in Christ (at Lent and other seasons) connect to our Bible reading? How is our spiritual growth guided by the Bible? How do we read the Bible not as a kind of cut-and-dried handbook for living, and more as a reflection and conduit of the spiritual power available to us through the Lord?

We don’t always think through the way the power of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the Spirit's ongoing presence in our lives guides the way we read and interpret the Bible.[1] This point came home to me strongly as I was reading Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture.[2] Goldsworthy says that, “while there is much in the Bible that is strictly speaking not the gospel, there is nothing in the Bible that can be truly understood apart from the gospel.”[3] Although his assertion by no means exhausts the different ways we can read the Bible, I find his argument quite interesting with regard to preaching, devotional Bible reading, and Christian practice.[4] How does the Good News—the wholly free gift of salvation of sinners through the blood of Christ and the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit—influence our Bible reading?

For one thing, the Good News gives is a larger interpretive framework with which to approach the whole Bible. For instance, consider the Torah. Jews revere the Torah as God’s direct word, while the prophets are God’s message communicated through the prophets’ words, and the books of the Writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, and others) are divinely inspired but are more definitely of human authorship.[5] If a person’s sole scripture is the Old Testament, then this hermeneutical approach makes sense and is consistent. But the New Testament changes these levels of authority. In the New Testament, the prophets and also the psalms take on greater authority; the “lesser” prophets and writings became keys for interpreting Jesus as messiah and, therefore, for interpreting the Torah. Consequently, Christians interpreted the Torah as a preliminary, yet not abrogated way by which God expresses his will (Matt. 5:17-20, Rom. 3:31, Heb. 3:1-6). Because of Christ, we must think about the ways that the Torah is scripture for Christians. Instead of quoting it randomly for proof-texts, or ignoring most of it altogether, we must interpret the laws in the context of the Bible’s whole witness.

Similarly, consider the prophets. Read through those books and you’ll see the harshness of God’s judgment against the people’s faithlessness and the direness of his warnings. A person could easily neglect the context of the prophets in ancient Israel and use prophetic judgments to address contemporary examples of unrighteousness and social injustice. (For instance, we use the term “prophetic preaching” to mean sermons and writings that confront, challenge and criticize.) The prophets’ themes are timeless: the formal practice of religion is no substitute for true righteousness, and true righteousness always includes justice (e.g. Amos 5:23-24). But when we look at the prophets with a broader view, we also see that the prophets focus not only upon then-current societal situations but also God’s plans for the future. God achieves his will for the people of the divided kingdom of the prophets’ times, but God also, through the prophets, announces his will for the more distant future: the person and work of Christ. To use the prophets primarily to address specific social problems risks neglecting the “canonical shape” that puts the prophets in context with Christ’s salvation.[6]

But not only does the gospel give us an interpretive framework for the whole Bible, the Good news of Christ's death and resurrection also informs how we understand New Testament teachings, so that we don't err and consider them a form of salvation by works, as Goldsworthy argues. The Bible's words are inseparable from the life and power of a living Savior who is our teacher, healer, and risen Lord. The Good News frees us from the law (Gal. 3:10, 3:23) and also makes us take the demands of discipleship all the more seriously, because we’re freed from the notion that God saves us when we, in our supposed personal righteousness, have checked off the “shalts” and avoided all the “shalt nots.”

I thought of several ways this is true when we think during Lent (and other seasons) about our spiritual goals and growth in Christ.

* When I was young, I worried that God was keeping track of every time I became angry and called someone a “fool” (or “jerk” or “idiot” or more unprintable versions): Matt. 5:21-22. Yes, we’re held accountable for “every careless word” (Matt. 12:36), but we’re not saved by anything we do or don’t do (Rom. 3:28). We’re saved from our sins, without reservation, and we have ongoing forgiveness and power for salvation (Heb. 4:14-16). But when we look at this “fool” passage in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see afresh at how Jesus has saved us from all our sins (past, present and future), and so, thus freed from the fear of earning God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9), we can respond with a new sense of joy and love, both for God and for one another (Rom. 8:1-8). As Christ healed his contemporaries, his love and power heals our souls of angry words (although anger is a normal human emotion when appropriately addressed: Eph. 4:26, 31).

Thus, instead of interpreting that “fool” saying as a law, we see it as an even deeper challenge: how are we modeling Christ’s love? How are we growing in love through the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24, so that dismissive and contemptuous comments cross our minds less frequently? How is the Spirit of Christ changing the content of our hearts?

* Similarly forgiveness. “We’re supposed to forgive each other,” we might say. But we forgive each other in the context of a lively, growing relationship with Christ. When we are freed by Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness is not a law or a hard obligation. Forgiveness is a response to Christ’s unearned love. Even more, we don’t have to force ourselves to forgive through our own will power, but we find power to learn to forgive (and even empowered forgiveness isn’t always easy) as we deepen our relationship to Christ.

* And prayer. Another verse that worried me when I was young was “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV). I couldn’t do that! Nobody can: our brains are not neurologically set to focus continually. But that verse isn’t a law that requires every single thought to be prayerful. That verse is a call to deepen our love and concern for one another as we receive the resurrected Jesus’ love and power. Instead of interpreting the verse primarily as a rule, we focus upon Christ as our Savior and helper when we fail. Through Christ, our minds and hearts acquire the habit and impulse of prayer.

* And speaking of prayer: how do we pray the Psalms as Christians? Obviously the psalms are Hebrew and Jewish prayers, now part of the Christian canon, too. But as Christians, we could very easily neglect to connect the psalms to Christ’s death and resurrection. For instance, if you’re in (what I call) a “Psalm 51 state of mind,” are you praying the prayer as a plea to God for forgiveness and restoration? Do you also and simultaneously keep firmly in mind that we have forgiveness and restoration already through the crucified and risen Lord? I admit, I've prayed the psalm without connecting it strongly to Christ's saving death and resurrection! But David prayed his prayer without Christ. Psalm 51, classic though it is, we Christians HAVE to connect it to verses like Romans 7:24-25 and 8:37-39, where the assurance of Christ’s salvation of sinners is affirmed.

* What about using a Bible verse as God’s holy word in condemnation of another person? Jesus himself stood condemned by God’s word; he was under a curse because of God’s law (Deut. 21:23). He also gave grace and a new opportunity to the woman of John 7:53-8:11, when people used God’s word against her. Certainly the Bible warns us and can be used to warn. But one particular warning, Matthew 7:1-5, is all the more keen when we’re tempted to employ the Bible in a condemnatory way. This is good to remember--always, but also during a time of self-assessment and honest introspection during the Lenten season.

* As we grow in Christ, we're called to make disciples. Is our evangelism always supposed to achieve great results? The contemporary decline of membership among mainline denominations has added urgency to evangelistic efforts. Acts 2:41 and 47 imply that, if we’re doing evangelism right, God will bless our efforts with great numbers. This outlook dovetails well with American concepts of success; but “getting great numbers” was not a concern of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46; nor was Paul’s ministry among the Athenians effective in practical terms. Yet no one would say that Paul shouldn’t have taken his ministry among the Greek intellectuals. Our command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19) is relevant whether we make a few disciples or many: the real work of conversation is not done by us but by God’s Spirit.

* How about using Bible characters as models? Let me use David as an example, for the Bible calls him a “man after God’s heart” (1 Samuel 13:13-14, Acts 13:22), in spite of his very flawed life. If you’re like me, you want to be a person after God’s heart, too! We ask, “How can God use me? Does God see me as somebody he can use?” Neither is necessarily an easy question to answer. As we develop a good spiritual life that includes regular worship, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer, and a certain amount of spiritual discipline, we try to keep focusing back to God. We try to stay open to God’s guidance and purpose. We take comfort that a flawed person like David could be so well used by God.

But we can’t raise these questions only in the context of David’s stories! Goldsworthy makes this point concerning Bible heroes in general. First, we need to be careful not to place ourselves on a similar stature as David, to make ourselves equal somehow to him, or to make God’s plans with Israel similar to the patterns of our lives. (Besides, David was an Iron Age warrior and killer of many, many people; to focus upon and identify with only his spiritual humility is to ignore significant things about him.) David and his people were special in God’s salvation history, while we’re beneficiaries of the groundwork God accomplished through them.

Second, although we can certainly learn with aspects of Bible characters’ experiences, we need to seek God’s will about these stories in the context of our salvation in Christ. For instance, we all actually have a better chance to become close to God than David because, now, God’s Spirit is poured out to all of us. We potentially have a clearer notion of God's will for our lives than Abraham, for we have the Spirit and a community to help us discern God's leadings. God’s Spirit gives gifts of power and ministry unimaginable in ancient times, taking God’s will for us to new levels (John 14:12).

So often we take Bible passages and Bible commandments and separate them from the key things: our covenant relationship with God, our relationship to God through Christ, our assurance of salvation, and the power of the Holy Spirit which is at work in us. The way Goldsworthy puts it, "The problem is when the gospel is viewed only as how we start the Christian life, for then the only way to continue is law. Yet the perspective consistently set out in the New Testament is that we need the gospel [Christ's saving power] to grow. . . The greater our sense of being forgiven and justified sinners, the greater will be the likelihood that others will see in us the character of Christ." [7]

1. The idea of “progressive revelation” affirms the development of God’s truth from lesser to greater clarity. Scriptures such as a prophetic messianic text or a messianic psalm have has meaning for their own times but gain additional meaning when we connect the passage’s original sense to Christ.

2. Preaching the Whole Bible As Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching by Graeme Goldsworthy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2000).

3. Goldworthy, page 95.

4. In its variety of witnesses, the Bible allows for a variety of readings. For instance, Walter Brueggemann warns: “[T]he task of Old Testament theology, as a Christian enterprise, is to articulate, explicate, mobilize, and make accessible and available the testimony of the Old Testament in all of its polyphonic, elusive, imaginative power and to offer it to the church for its continuing work of construal toward Jesus. That is, Old Testament theology, in my judgment, must prepare the material and full respect the interpretive connections made in the New Testament and the subsequent church; but it must not make those connections, precisely because the connections are not to be found in the testimony of ancient Israel, but in the subsequent work of imaginative construal that lies beyond the text of the Old Testament.” Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy by Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), page 732. Brueggemann differs in his approach from the canonical readings of Brevard Childs.

5. The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures by Stephen M. Wylan, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), pages 22-23.
This is not to say Jews cannot interpret the Torah laws, and certainly Jews do not regard the law as a form of self-salvation, which is a Christian stereotype. Jews recognize that not every law is applicable today and therefore they must be discussed and considered. Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), is a publication from the Reform tradition that interprets and discusses the Torah material.

6. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context by Brevard S. Childs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), pages 128-132.

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