I begin here so

Presuppositions determine our destination

Presuppositions so determine outcomes. In my first focused writing that I will be going through with a few on Sunday evening I come reasonably clean. If we start at a given point we are probably going to end somewhere predictable. So I open with a personal bio that I suggest is more a personal bias.

If I think the world is essentially a burning building with everyone inside already in danger and eventually they will all burn in Gehenna and I run around pulling people out by the hair I will be deemed a hero. If a person refuses to come, I leave them to burn and pull the next one out I will have ethically been good. A presupposition. However if I view the work of the demonic to dehumanise and objectivise people, ‘befriend’ in order to evangelise (proselytise) and move on till I find someone who was elected from all eternity (or simply responsive in time) then my partnering in the act of pulling willing people by the hair will not be seen as a heroic act but something that even-in-part partnered with the demonic. And given who God is I will still have testimonies as to how he wonderfully broke in and people found salvation. The above I have put in extreme language… but my point is that where we start will shape behaviour, our assessment of what is deemed right, and for the sake of the writing that where we start will largely determine where we end up.

The challenge of belief is not that there are many valid faiths. There are many valid perspectives but not all perspectives are equal. In sharing my perspectives I am not seeking to convert readers to my viewpoint but ot provoke a journey toward their personal convictions. I do not expect to influence (e.g.) someone with a hard line Reformed position, or someone running round with a placard saying ‘Repent the end is nigh!’.

In the mid 90s I read an article that helped explain something. It was on the shift that had been taking place within evangelicalism. Previously to be evangelical was to sit with beliefs that were within a set of boundaries. There might be a few variations within the boundaries (e.g. eternal punishing – and this is normally written wrongly as punishment – in hell, or conditional immortality – again wrongly written as annihilation) but if one was inside the boundaries one was ‘in’ and outside one was a ‘heretic’. The author went on to describe the shift as being to emphasising two questions as being central. One question was with regard to what the door was to reconciliation to the Father, and the second what was the source of authority for one’s beliefs. The ‘correct’ answers to become a millionaire to prove one was still an evangelical were ‘the death on a cross by Jesus’ and ‘the Scriptures’. So far so good! But those who belief Jesus only died for the elect, and those who belief in Universalism both respond with the correct answers. And so it goes on and the diversity of views we see today expressed into current thorny issues such as same-sex marriage simply illustrate how the ground has shifted.

With a personal bias (starting point) we are shaped by our reading of Scripture, our experiences etc., but also by so much that is internal. I was talking to someone recently who was reflecting that a colleague of theirs was reacting to what they understood to be a ‘universalist’ perspective. They reacted with ‘well if everyone is saved why should I bother to follow Jesus.’ I am not a universalist, but if my reason for following Jesus is to avoid going somewhere really nasty it surely is time for me to push a whole lot deeper in my relationship to the Lord. Beliefs reveal so much!

An explosive Scripture

Well we can ask which one as there are so many!!

In this little old lockdown era, that signals something much longer term for us all, along with countless thousands of others I have been discovering the world of zoom. Yesterday Brazil, today Germany and so it goes on daily. At the same time I have been writing, working on writing a book, or a series of booklets, not sure what to do with them yet, but one thought I have is of some form of publishing and then with a small group of doing a zoom chat on a chapter per week. So for all the millions who follow this blog put that at the back of your mind as ‘I would love to do that.’

I am trying to write material that would tackle some of the theological issues in a down to earth simple way, not so that I can gain converts to my incredible movement but to be a resource. I am sure that our goal in life is not to convert others to our viewpoint but to help stimulate people to develop their own convictions. Sadly so much of what we can access is predictable and simply re-enforcing the status quo. I think some simple theological principles might help equip us for wider engagement. Or so go my thoughts.

And before the Scripture quote (one I have been looking at in the context of the writing) how about this for a stupendous quote, regarding being inspired by the natural world:

The deep swirling grandeur of our gorgeous planet drifting through space on a mission to increase compassion and wisdom (Stephen Harding).

Moving on to the Scripture I was meditating on yesterday. In John 10: 47-53 we read of a behind the scenes meeting:

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

So much detail from the insider meeting. The corruption of the Jewish hierarchy, their collusion with Rome so that in the symbiotic relationship (you scratch my back and I will scratch yours) there was a recognition how everything could be sustained if they did not rock the boat. Jesus was rocking the boat and everything was being challenged, with a focus on the loss of the Temple. They decide Jesus has to be put to death to save the Temple. Ironically Jesus said ‘destroy this Temple and I will raise it in three days’, and he also said that within 40 years of his death the Temple the hierarchy cared about would be destroyed… wait for it… by the Romans. Irony, or irony?

The area that interested me in the text was that ‘Jesus would die for the Jewish nation (and not only…)’. We have focused our theology on ‘and not only…’ and in a very personal way – for the sins of the world = for my sins. However there is a huge theme in Scripture (or at least in the Pauline writings) of ‘the Jew first, then the Gentile’.

I think so much of our theology has been removed from the historical narrative of Scripture so much so that we have approached the Bible as if it was there as a book to develop systematic theology. Here is my illustration. We have a jigsaw puzzle, the biblical texts being the pieces. We know the finished product, the picture on the box (=my theology). I work my way through the pieces finding the ones that fit the picture, ignoring all along that are pieces in there that don’t fit the picture, they seem to belong to another puzzle. But we are convinced we have the right picture! So we proof-text (choose the bits that fit the picture) and ignore the non-proof texts. But the Bible is not a book of systematic theology it is a narrative. (Before moving on I simply need to state very humbly that I do have the correct picture and all texts irregardless of colour, shape or size fit my picture, but I state this humbly.)

In making a systematic theology we run in to the cross of Jesus and sadly often come down to some crude system that splits the Trinity. Jesus is definitely good, the one we call the Father… maybe some anger issues there? That is often the result of seeing the cross in a vertical way… God and humanity. (BTW I have written yesterday a chapter on the ‘wrath’ of God… appetite whetter there.)

If however we follow the biblical trajectory the cross is not primarily presented vertically but horizontally, it is set in a very exact time frame. If so then it needs to be explored what history is it bringing to an end, and what future is it opening up. No need to start with ‘God is angry’ and wrath can then fit in where I think it does elsewhere in Scripture, so we end up making a shift as the writer in Isaiah 53 did, from ‘we considered him smitten of God, BUT…’

Caiaphas prophesying said his death was for the nation. That is historical, that is horizontal, that is narratival, that is Jew first, then the Gentile. So the cross of Jesus answers an historical issue first. If we don’t start there I think our systematic theology will be squeezing the texts to fit with the courthouse dramas that came from the Reformation era not the narratival story of Jesus coming ‘to save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21).

Forces for good

I was recommended this book and am enjoying it. Paul Hargreaves is an entrepreneur and is unashamed about such issues as profitability, but what I like is that is not his only, nor primary, bottom line. His concept of ‘purpose driven business’ outlines four bottom lines:

  • people
  • planet
  • profit
  • personal change

It makes a great read… I think there are also a few other considerations to be added – like how to strategically lose money as that is one of the first tasks Jesus set himself. He broke the power of mammon at the start.

Another area I found very interesting was where he listed 7 feminine traits (mostly found in women) that make for great leadership:

  • empathy
  • vulnerability
  • humility
  • inclusiveness
  • generosity
  • balance
  • patience

Masculine traits, Paul suggests, include:

  • competitiveness
  • goal-orientation
  • independence
  • assertiveness
  • protectiveness

Probably true. But are they masculine traits – or simply sinful? Jesus died as male!

So the last few parts are my musings. The book is great.

Take up your cross

RevolutiionWe have just picked up this book again as I have been away in the UK… and of course cannot possibly read without Gayle! This is our current reading and we began Chapter 3 yesterday. I will probably not post on each chapter of the book, but the section was so hard hitting that I have to reflect back. The first part of that chapter was on crucifixion in the ancient world, and how Rome used it to make a point of showing ‘subject peoples who was in charge and to break the spirit of any resistance.’

Wright points out that in 88BC Alexander Jannaeus had 800 Pharisees crucified for resisting his rule; in 4BC the revolt of Judas ben Hezekiah resulted in 2000 rebels crucified; and how in the 66-70 rebellion that so many were crucified that they ran out of timber for the crosses. He then opens up that those in Galilee knew about Rome and its power to control with the horrendous death penalty of crucifixion as the ultimate and very visible symbol of power. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries would have seen, and certainly been told of crucifixions.

The call to ‘take up your cross and follow me’ cannot be sanitised. The political undertone is clear in that call. It is the call of the resistance. How far we have moved from that call to the ‘in this sign you will conquer’ of Constantine and christendom. Taking up the cross was to take up the means of brutal punishment that the Imperial powers would use to crush all dissenters. It was not taking up a weapon of warfare to defeat and crush others.

The political and revolutionary message is as strong in the words of Jesus as on the lips of any would be revolutionary leader. The difference is that of laying down one’s life not taking the lives of others to correct the status quo. The cross is the sign of victory, in this sign we do conquer but only because of a belief in the resurrection.

I had not seen, till reading this chapter, that the call to take up the cross, the call to discipleship was a political call. It now sits for me alongside the Caesar / Jesus is Lord proclamation; the parousia language of the visit of the emperor / Christ; the basileia language of kingdom / empire; pax Romana / peace by the blood of the cross; son of the divine Caesar / son of God and the many more references and allusions to the Imperial context.

The gospel is political – not in the sense of party politics. To debate capitalism / socialism is to miss it somewhat, particularly when we either inject meaning into those words that do not implicitly belong there, or we only understand capitalism through the lens of unbounded neo-liberalism (Reagan / Thatcher and beyond) or that of hegemonic state communism. The political nature of the gospel is understood as carrying the seeds for the reformation of society (the polis). It is first a call to those who are aligned to Jesus to lay down our weapons of control and to walk the walk, with the cross, with the very instrument that those who oppose us can kill us. In the year that… the belief that through losing our lives there will be an advance of the kingdom is the challenge. Maybe we have lost sight of that because the reality of the cross and what it was is not visible in our society. Only by sanitising the cross, and thereby distorting it, can we rejoice when the powerful are enthroned.

Like Israel before us any enthronement denies true good news to the nations. There is another, and only one king, and his rule is visible at the cross.

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Uncontrolling Love

uncontrolling_loveNot everyone enjoys what I enjoy, but read this book and of course you will love it! Oord is one of the leading ‘relational theologians’ and this is the first book of his I have read. It is well written and easy to read – I read it right through in a few hours. I have been heavily influenced by Open Theology, ever since having a connection with YWAM and the teaching of Gordon Olson, then the works of Clark Pinnock and Greg Boyd (and… and…), and of course the main sticking point for those who come in the opposite direction is that of ‘but God has absolute foreknowledge of all things’.

Oord begins with a strong defence of Open Theology, that the future is not predetermined in terms of its details, and is defensive of ‘accidents’ as being ‘accidents’ and not part of some ‘mystery’. I have never been comfortable with the inevitable (sorry for the illustration) that the drowning of tens of thousands in the Med is part of God’s allowed (or predetermined) plan that we do not understand, so his full-on attack of such explanations resonated strongly. Nothing new in that area but his breadth of apologetic was appreciated.

He, however, moves beyond some Open Theologians (he uses John Sanders as his dialogue partner in this) where he posits that we have to understand God kenotically. God is not to be understood as sovereign in the sense of ‘all-powerful’ but his government is one of self-emptying love. This to me, of course in resonance with Roger Mitchell’s works, was where the book became very exciting and provocative. The ‘core’ of God’s being kenotic – from this a position that he cannot act differently other than to pour Godself out. For many Open Theologians freedom is before love… but Oord seems to reverse this. God is love, he creates and gives freedom to creation.

In a very real sense – and here is where I am most exercised – God cannot ‘do’ certain things in this world. He needs our co-operation. Now then ‘come on intercession’, stand in the gap, act as a conduit for change from heaven to earth.

An easy read, harder to process the implications. I probably need to read it again to let it get deeper under my skin as (a very important area) it could really provoke also some fresh thinking on the atonement, prayer and miracles.

PS: For those who advocate ‘God is all powerful’ this always has to be qualified with what that means. He cannot make a four-sided triangle, a stone heavier than he can lift (logical fallacies), through to moral issues – ‘he cannot deny himself’. The ‘but God is all-powerful’ is not a good fall-back position as it is at best a theoretical position. Hence, for all, other than the real extremists the omnipotence of God will always need to be a qualified position.

PPS: Link to Thomas Jay Oord’s website.

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