Reconciliation – how?

The second question that Johnson’s article presented was how we answer the question of how is a person reconciled to God. Through the atoning work of Christ on the cross being the answer.

Good answer… and the ‘sub-‘answers?

Well they can really vary. He died for all and all means all and all are saved / reconciled. He died just for the elect, those predestined by God. He atoned for sin in the sense of paying for our debts… he appeased God… and so the answers go on.

So given that I am responding to the article and so cannot be put outside the box as unorthodox here are a few pointers as to where I am at.

  • A first and very important point for me is that God did not need to be reconciled to humanity. The issues are not on his side! He was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. There is no sense of God being appeased, his ‘wrath’ is not some sort of mega-anger!
  • The death of Jesus is for all, not for a few. Fully understanding how his death accomplishes this might finally evade us, evidenced by the variety of metaphors used in Scripture. In some way his death is for Israel, he is their representative, so that the curse if broken off them. The chosen people then are all those who are in Messiah – first the remnant of (natural) Israel who respond to Jesus and those grafted in of Gentile disciples. This does have implications for who are ‘the chosen people’. Messiah is chosen and all in him are chosen. The death of Jesus makes a difference to all previous divisions. There is literally a new humanity whose task is to prepare the materials for the new creation.
  • All those who by faith receive this Jesus as Lord are part of that redeemed community. Those who knowingly reject this Jesus (and not simply a Jesus presented to them theologically) are lost.
  • The warnings of Hebrews are not theoretical as there has to be a continuance in the faith. Those who persevere to the end will be saved.
  • Getting ‘saved’ has been reduced to a prayer and a pronouncement that the person who has said that prayer is now ‘born again’ (using a phrase that Jesus only used once!). Salvation in Scripture is far more than being safe. It is about moving from one dimension to another, living out what is seen – living as though there is already a new creation.
  • There should be clear evidence of reconciliation. The ‘sinner’s prayer’ might be a good starting point. It is certainly a very bad end point. The evidence of reconciliation has to affect every aspect that the falls damaged. This includes human inter-relationships, care for the creation (‘mother earth’ is not too big a heresy – humanity came from the earth, but creation is not divine, nor was my mother!). We are rightly appalled at the appeal for abortion on demand, yet the way we are happy to pollute the planet and rob future generations of life seems OK. That is not how it should be.
  • Will all be reconciled to God? Will there be those who lose their salvation? We’ll find out one day.

I am convinced that there will be some major surprises when this creation is transformed by the appearance of Christ. Surprised how far the death of Jesus reached and to who. No one will have made it there through their own self-effort. Even for those who ‘fear God and do what is right’ in every nation (regardless of faith) will make it because of the death of Jesus.

A narrative going somewhere

How do we read Scripture? Many decades ago I came across an early lecture by NT Wright where he suggested that the authority of Scripture lay in its narrative. This probably should not surprise us, after all so much of Scripture is narrative. It is certainly not laid out as a systematic theology. Even the books of the law are mainly narratival, and where we have laws they are in the context of being given to a people on a journey.

An aside: the image is of Derek Flood’s book ‘Disarming Scripture’. I am not covering the material he covers here and it is more than worth a read. He says we can have an approach that is a blind obedience to what we read or a faithful questioning. He suggests that the Bible itself demands the latter, and in approaching the violent texts of Scripture shows how both Paul and Jesus selectively quote passages and ‘delete’ parts. I suggest this is not a cop out and challenges us to read, ‘be read’ and place Jesus at the centre of all things.

The narrative takes us from Creation to New Creation. It travels through a series of ‘falls’, the calling of Israel, the failure of Israel, the beginnings of a faithful remnant as marked by the baptism of John, centring in on the baptism of the only true human / remnant of Israel (Jesus). It is inevitable that once he is baptised John must decrease, the one who was the ‘greatest born of women’ prior to that watershed, for from then on the least in the kingdom of heaven would be greater than John. The watershed is marked and huge. The NT, and indeed Jesus himself does not give us the option of being faithful to the narrative of Scripture by equalising all things. With Jesus there is a seismic shift. This is why he has to be the lens that Scripture is read through and critiqued, and in that sense parts of it ‘rejected’.

From Incarnation through resurrection and outpoured Spirit the narrative follows those who have responded to the ‘Gospel’ and are collectively known as the body of Christ: those caught in the in-between, already having received the firstfruits of the Spirit but not yet living totally out that fullness, nor living in the fullness of what is yet to come. A new humanity on a journey, a narrative pushing for a fitting end, with a new heaven and new earth (a merism for all of creation being renewed).

Now when I read Scripture I kind of have that overview. Texts that come from an earlier part of the story are from that part of the story. They might not be relevant as is for me today. How to treat slaves might not be what I need, but there might be principles there that apply in the ‘chapter’ of the story that I am living in. Not harvesting to the full extent of the field might or might not be a good principal in an agricultural society, but surely the ‘deliberately not maximising profits’ and making sure that we make it easy for those who need to get something of ours even though they have not worked for it, could well make those earlier instructions to continue have relevance in our current chapter.

I am not so interested in was there an historical Adam (I don’t think so), or where was the Garden of Eden. I could even on a certain day be convinced that the devil does not exist (in the sense of a personal devil) – though whether he does or not I am committed to cast out demons and seek to confront demonic powers where I see them! It is quite easy being an agnostic on such things when there is a conviction that God is the author and he will be the finisher of the story that we are living within. On some issues I am not ‘orthodox’. In spite of living for two years in the Tarshish where Jonah was headed for, I think it is a made up story. But one with such a point. And a narrative worth referring to as if were ‘true’, for the (point of the) story is so true. Nineveh never took three days to cross, but always our Ninevehs take 3 days to cross (

I could go on with other examples. And with great joy I realise I could be quite wrong on some of my readings. What seems more important to me is that there should be growing evidence that Jesus, the God-human, is reflected in who I am, what I say, and how I act. To continue that journey I will need to go back to Scripture, read and re-read the various parts of the narrative, regardless of what ‘chapter’ they are of the story. I will have to let those texts ‘read’ me, while I keep an eye on where God is taking it all. To a New Jerusalem that can only come from another dimension, but can only be assembled from the acts of kindness and love carried out in this dimension.

Reading and being read

Understanding Scripture is a life-long challenge. What was once obscure can become clear, and vice versa! Johnson’s lecture sits in the context of a shift from ‘if you are orthodox you will tick the infallibility / inerrancy box’ to ‘so you accept the authority of Scripture so explain to me how you read it’.

There are die hard 7 day creationists, not because of compelling scientific evidence, but because of a prior commitment to a biblical view. There are also convinced evolutionists who are evangelical believers, e.g. Francis Collins who led the Human Genome Project that was at the forefront of mapping DNA. His book ‘The Language of God’ ties together his work as a scientist and his firm belief in God as the author of life.

There are (really there are) those who believe in the priority of male over female as part of creation and redeemed order, and there are those who refute that. That was a disputed area some 30+ years ago and although the discussions rumble on there certainly is not the same strength that suggests anyone who explains ‘man as the head of woman’ in a non-hierarchical way is denying the authority of Scripture. The same arguments abounded a few generations earlier with the debate on slavery where one well-known evangelicals of the day said that slavery was one of the clearest tenet of Scripture! Now issues of sexuality are centre stage, with evangelicals on both sides of the many divides.

I have become more agnostic on certain issues, realising how we can use Scripture to defend us, reading there what we want to read. Dare I suggest God is more interested in my ability to reflect Jesus than he is in my doctrinal set of beliefs. Orthodoxy (right doctrine, though one could argue that the word should mean giving right glory) and orthopraxy should go hand in hand. The Pharisees knew the Scriptures but…

The challenge that the shift Johnson outlines is how do we read Scripture if we are not simply finding a set of textual evidences that back our view (and sometimes either ignoring ones that don’t or doing them a disservice by squeezing them into our already formed box). There is a challenge beyond how we read the Bible – it is allowing it to read us! That’s when the ouch can hit our rightness. More tomorrow.

How long is the cord?

I wrote yesterday about how Johnson’s article presented two questions; one concerning authority and the other concerning reconciliation to God. The former relates to Scripture, the second to the atoning death (and resurrection) of Jesus.

In the old days, particularly when the authority of Scripture was being challenged, doctrines such as infallibility and inerrancy developed. Those terms took a belief beyond inspiration. Of course even with those terms there were added terms such as ‘as originally given’. The original manuscripts of course we no longer have, so in all very hard to prove. What also were we to make of statements such as ‘the mustard seed being the smallest of all seeds’ – not scientifically accurate.

I understand the desire to make the Scriptures incredibly strong and therefore totally trustworthy, but to strengthen them in that way I am not sure is warranted.

I like to talk of the authority of Scripture and how we are to live (faith and behaviour) as followers of Jesus in faithfulness to the narrative of Scripture. So terms such as authority, truth etc. fit comfortably for me. However I also have to accept that even the term ‘Scriptures’ are somewhat problematic. Which canon? And please do not exclude the book of Revelation (or even call it a ‘disputed book’ as Luther did), the surest exposure of the politics of empire that exists!

There are elements of faith with any approach to Scripture – I am very happy to accept what I read (66 books) as the canon. That means I have to exercise some measure of faith in the process the church was involved in that eventually formalised a canon (or different canons). The work was not unlike that of the formation of the Jewish canon. They used the law, the prophets and the writings, and eventually made sure some books were excluded, seemingly to make sure that ‘Christian’ writings were not used. The canon were, more or less, the books in use (found useful, cf. 2 Tim. 3:16) that were formalised. In the same way the Christian canon developed, hence the different canons.

By what authority – for me the 66 books of our old and new testaments are that authority. I cannot prove they are the right ones nor necessarily the only ones, but by faith in the work of God within the historic Christian community that I identify with those are the ones.

Inspired – for sure. Inerrant – not ready to tick that box. Contradictions within the books – maybe I would rather use the word ‘conflicts of views’. I don’t think we are to iron them all out so as they disappear, but rather with a Jesus-lens we let them argue it out, and we seriously have to raise the volume of the texts that carry a Jesus-revelation. Ultimately Jesus is the revelation of God that Scripture bears witness to. We cannot place Scripture above Jesus, nor can we create a Jesus of our own making that Scripture does not bear witness to.

In the next post I will amplify a little on the adjustment of the volume of the text so as some are louder than others. We have to ask ourselves ‘how do read that text?’, ‘what does it say to me / us?’, and also ask ‘how are we being read by that text’. We might not always get it right, but the Scriptures point to Jesus, not simply with a historic meaning, but primarily in the sense of calling us to identify with and follow the only embodiment of the Godhead in human flesh.

Labels – useful or not

The early followers of Jesus were given the name that has stuck to us ever since. They were called ‘Christians’. Not a term we tend to use in Spain as with all labels they communicate what is understood by the hearer. Of course coming up with alternatives is not always easy.

Most of the readers of this blog I guess have grown up with the label ‘evangelical’. A number of years ago I read a very informative article, a lecture given to the American Theological Society in 1995 by Robert Johnson entitled ‘Orthodoxy and Heresy: a Problem for Modern Evangelicalism’. (My words) in the old days defining heresy was easy. Affirm the inerrancy (or at least plenary inspiration) of the 66 books and that only those who have prayed the sinner’s prayer are / will be saved. He describes that approach as a ‘bounded-set’ approach. If one has a set of beliefs within the boundaries one is orthodox; step outside and one is a heretic. He then shows how there had been a shift – and the lecture is almost a quarter of a century ago so the shift has continued – from a ‘bounded-set’ approach to a ‘centred-set’ approach.

With the centred-set approach there are two key questions. One related to the Scriptures and one related to ‘salvation’. The questions are:

  • By what authority do you believe what you believe and teach what you teach?
  • How is someone reconciled to God?

The answer to the first is on the basis of the authority of Scripture and the second through the atoning death of Jesus. Many, many different versions of the Christian faith can answer those two questions in the affirmative. A ‘hard-line’ fundamentalist can certainly answer it, as can a person affirming same-sex committed relationships as being approved of by God.

Hence the difficulty. Difficulty in defining who is in and who is out! Maybe though the challenge is bigger than the difficulty. The challenge is to be defined more by who we are than what we believe. The early followers of Jesus were just that – followers of Jesus. The label was terminology to focused more on their behaviour than their beliefs.

Following Jesus is very personal. I have to interpret what that means for me – in the light of being faithful to the narrative of Scripture. I am certainly not on the fundamentalist end of the faith… I am centred in with the two affirmative answers I outlined above. Having put a stake in at that point, how long is the cord attached to the stake? A lot longer than would have restricted me to stay within the old-bounded set approach of yester-year. I’ll try and explore how long my cord is over the next few posts.