Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Two Testaments pt 2: Christ and Preceding Jewish Tradition

In part 1 of the Two Testaments, "Christ the Lord of Scripture", I argued that the Bible is the Word of God in a sense derived from its content, and that Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God is the Bible's content. In other words, there are not two Word's of God, Scripture and Christ, but only one, Christ; the Bible can be spoken of as the Word of God to us only because that is where we meet and hear Christ, the incarnate Word of God, speaking to us.

In this post I'd like to try to speak about the difference the Old Testament and the New Testament. If you recall from last post, my reason for laying all of this out is to clarify why, while I'm predisposed to take everything in Scripture at more or less face value, I'm not compelled to take all the stories from the Old Testament, particularly those from its earlier parts, absolutely literally, while I take New Testament accounts basically literally.

In part 1 I wrote that Christ bound himself to the testimony of his apostles, as we see in Luke 10:16, a verse that is becoming more and more important to me theologically: "He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me." Christ spoke these words to a group of 70 (or 72) of his followers as he sent them out on a mission to towns he would be going through in Judea on his way to Jerusalem. In Luke's second writing, the book of Acts, just before Jesus ascends to heaven, he tells his apostles "you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Thus Christ binds himself to the apostles' testimony about him as their ministry of testimony expands beyond Judea into the whole world. This sets the church and all of its tradition in motion. All of us who believe in Christ today and are thus a part of his church are a part of that ongoing tradition of speaking of Christ as Lord to the ends of the earth. (More on this in part 3.)

However, early in the church's life it recognized the need to set apart the first generation's testimony as uniquely authoritative. It saw that though Christ himself is our Lord and example for how we must live, in a certain sense it is the apostles that are really our model. Though Christ reveals both God and our true humanity to us, he is himself not a Christian; as a union of God and humanity in one man there is a sense in which he is something we cannot be. The apostles are the first Christians and establish the pattern for how subsequent Christians are to live. In this sense Christ's statements in Luke 10:16 and Acts 1:8 quoted above apply uniquely to the apostles; it is in their testimony to Christ that he is to be heard - he is heard in our testimony only to the degree that our testimony conforms to theirs. Thus the writings of the apostles were set apart by the early church as a recognition of their unique authority in order to guard the church's testimony to Christ from slipping into error by holding it up to the standard of the apostles' testimony. This is what the New Testament is. To read it is to read the first Christians proclamation of the gospel that took place before their eyes and in their lives. At least for us Gentiles, as we come to faith in Christ, we come to hear him in the apostolic testimony of the New Testament.

So what of the Old Testament? Why do we read it if it comes before Christ and doesn't explicitly testify to him by name? We read the Old Testament because Christ binds himself to it, but in a significantly different way than the New Testament. Christ doesn't come from out of nowhere. He doesn't come onto the scene of humanity and try to start over from scratch. He comes in fulfilment of promises God had been making to a particular people for thousands of years. We read the Old Testament because we recognize that Jesus is a Jew, and we cannot understand him as such unless we read the Jewish Scriptures he read and regarded as authoritative. Almost everything Jesus says about himself he appropriates from the Old Testament.

But whereas the New Testament is something like a time capsule, the testimony of a single generation frozen in time, the generation of those who were eyewitnesses of Christ's life on earth, the Old Testament is a collection of writings composed and edited over hundreds if not thousands of years. It is a sample taken from a very living tradition and most of it is probably taken from fairly late in that tradition's life. The stories it contains were told and retold generation after generation as a part of Israel's culture and tradition, a culture and tradition that God had bound himself to and promised to bless all nations through. Jesus, as the fulfilment of those promises, binds himself to that culture and tradition as the context he is to be understood in, as when he opens the scroll of Isaiah and reads vv. 61:1-2, pointing to himself as their fulfilment. In this light, we Christians must then read the Old Testament as God's preface to his Gospel, the introduction of appropriate conceptual and linguistic (to borrow some language from Torrance) and religious practices with which to understand God's Messiah when he was to come. The Old Testament is thus indispensable to us, as it was to Christ and his apostles.

The Old Testament thus stands as the promise and the New Testament testifies to the promise's fulfilment. Christ binds himself to the Old Testament by standing within its tradition and drawing it to its long awaited fulfilment. Christ binds himself to the New Testament by promising to be present in the apostle's testimony as they take his good news to the ends of the earth. Christ is thus Lord over both testaments and both exist to testify to him. The differences between the two, however, the centuries long tradition of the Old and the eye-witness time capsule of the New, must be borne in mind as we read of their varying testimonies to his coming and his having come. In this light, while the history of God's covenant of promise with Israel which the Old Testament enshrines must be understood as a real history with certain crucial and defining moments (the exodus of Moses, the kingly reign of David, the exile), it would seem right to suspend judgement about (not reject) the historicity of discrete narratives from particularly early in Israel's history.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Two Testaments pt 1: Christ the Lord of Scripture

What is the Bible? It is divine revelation. It is God's inspired Word. Certainly these statements separate me from all liberal theologies that reject from the outset the possibility of divine revelation and focus instead on the subjective religious experiences of humans. However, my aim in these posts will be to draw out how one can be faithful to these statements, faithful to the divine authority of Scripture, without being a fundamentalist.

A fundamentalist approaches the Bible in basically the same way a Muslim approaches the Qu'ran. Christian fundamentalism and Islam have essentially the same notion of divine revelation: God bestowing facts about himself and his will to human beings. Both of these religious movements claim that God has bestowed these facts, and thus revealed himself, through a book. My contention is that this notion of revelation is radically unbiblical.

It is unbiblical because it is impersonal. Revelation in Scripture begins with God's covenant with Israel, a relationship God establishes with a particular people that is to be one of love and trust (their trust in Him). God gives Israel the Law (Torah) not as a set of universal facts about his will but as the terms of their relationship, much like marriage vows, giving concrete expression of what it ought to look like for Israel to live a life of love and trust in Yahweh. But the New Testament goes further in the personal direction of revelation; we could even say that the New Testament radically personalizes the Jewish understanding of divine revelation.

Two classic texts help us to see how radical the New Testament notion of revelation is. The first is John 1:1-3, 14: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made...The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." In Christ, the Word of God that is eternally with God and is God, God has not just given us facts about himself which could be contained in a book, but given us his very Self. God thus reveals himself to us through himself, himself made one of us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. He took on a human existence and revealed himself as God in that form to his apostles ("We have seen his glory"). This kind of revelation cannot be understood simply as the giving of facts, but as fellowship, personal and intimate communion in which God reveals himself to us through his personal presence, much as a newly wed couple reveal themselves to each other through time spent in intimate personal encounter (we are the bride of Christ after all, Rev 19:7).

Second is Hebrews 1:1-3: "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word." This gives us much the same picture as the one we saw in John, but here we see an emphasis on the superiority of the personal revelation of Christ as the Son over the previous "many ways" God had spoke to Israel through the prophets. I might be so bold as to paraphrase, "In the past God sent messengers to give us messages from him, but now he has personally come among us himself in the person of God the Son, making his glory known to us directly."

Taking these two passages together, what emerges is an understanding of revelation that is firmly tied to Christ as the Word and Son of God, the exact representation of God's being. So how is the Bible the Word of God if only Christ reveals God and thus only Christ is the Word? This is where fundamentalism gets off track. It basically believes in two Words of God, Christ and the Bible. By understanding the Bible itself as the Word of God in a direct and unqualified way, fundamentalism treats every word in the Bible as God's direct speech. It that understanding, no differentiation can made between any two parts of the Bible; no part of it stands over the rest as the having more importance because every word is God's Word. In effect, its authority is flattened out so that all of its historical narrative must be taken strictly literally. Questioning whether or not there really was a talking serpent in a literal garden of Eden or whether or not Samson's power was contained in his hair impugns the Christian faith exactly as much as questioning the deity of Christ or his resurrection from the dead. In fact, for fundamentalism, and this is its most serious crime, the reliability of Scripture replaces the Lordship of Christ as the foundation of Christian faith.

To illustrate, when a fundamentalist sings "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so", when he/she ought to mean by that something like "Jesus loves me this I know because He tells me so through the Bible", what he/she actually means is "Jesus loves me, and the reason I know that is because the Bible tells me so, and anything the Bible says has to be true because its God wrote it." In other words, God has revealed everything we need to know about him and his will in a book, and that book happens to tell me that God wants me to believe in Jesus.

No, our faith is not in the Bible as such but in Christ, the incarnate Word of God. The Bible, however, is the Word of God to us because that is where Christ makes himself known to us. As we saw above, when we take the prologues of John and Hebrews together, we see that Christ, as the Word and Son of God, is the revelation of God. As such, he is both the promise of the Old Testament ("Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" Luke 24:44) and the content of the New Testament, as he commits himself and his gospel to apostles who are its source ("He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me" Luke 10:16). Thus, the Bible has a definite center, a definite focus on Jesus Christ as its true content. The Bible can never be understood as God's Word apart from that central content; it is that content, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, that makes the Bible the Word of God. When we read the Bible, our faith does not stop at the words we read; those words point past themselves to the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. It is he who reveals God to us and he does this as we encounter him in Scripture. Christ stands behind the Bible as its essential message; we hear him when we hear its message. Christ is thus the Lord over Scripture and it is submissive to him; as he speaks through it to us, his church, we submit to Scripture because in it we hear the voice of our Lord. This is what my theological hero T. F. Torrance calls the "depth dimension of Scripture".

More to come.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Prayer and Children

Dr. Myk Habets, lecturer in systematic theology at Carey Baptist College in Auckland, New Zealand, has graciously offered the following article originally published in New Zealand's The Baptist magazine as a guest post.

Prayer Sydney Style

During the day I teach systematic theology at Carey Baptist College and I publish books and articles on the doctrine of the Trinity and other related topics. Outside of work I am a husband and the father of two lovely little children – a three-year-old daughter named Sydney, and a one-year old-son named Liam. At bedtime my wife and I tuck Sydney in and then pray with her before she goes off to sleep. Early on in this routine I had to ask myself a question – How will I lead Sydney in prayer? Theology is produced by worship and worship is the product of theology, so prayer is an aspect of both theology and worship, something I lecture on all the time to adults. But how to inculcate in my three-year-old daughter good theological habits was the question. Now I don’t believe there is any one right answer to this question so what follows is not a ‘this is what you should do,’ or ‘this is the correct way.’ Rather, what follows is the way that I have adopted in teaching my daughter how to pray that is biblical, God-honouring, and theologically robust.

First some rules of Trinitarian theology the church has found to be faithful to Scripture. 1), God is one being, three persons. 2), each person has a distinct identity and yet each is fully God. 3), it is appropriate to think of the action of the triune God as one and undivided and yet to think of the work of the three divine persons as distinct. 4), Jesus is physically at the right hand of the Father. 5), God is Spirit and thus the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are everywhere present at all times.

That leaves us with prayer Sydney style. This is what I did not want to pray, not because it is incorrect, but because it is ambiguous and teaches, in my opinion, bad habits which rear their ugly fruit in later life. ‘Dear God, thank you for…, Dear God, we ask for…’ The word ‘God’ is perfectly fine, but it lacks any specificity and is, at best, impersonal, at worst it is an idea or concept divorced from the triune God of the Bible. So this is what we pray. ‘Dear God the Father in heaven, and God Jesus Christ in heaven, and God the Holy Spirit who lives inside me. We thank you for…We ask you for…’ Now that Sydney is getting older, we pray the following, ‘Dear God the Father in heaven, and everywhere, God Jesus Christ who is in heaven, and everywhere by his Spirit, and God the Holy Spirit, who is in my heart and the hearts of those who love him. We thank you for…We ask you for…’

I trust it is obvious what I am doing but let me spell it out briefly for the sake of clarity. I am using the word God in reference to the triune God who is intensely personal. This will (hopefully!) avoid Sydney having any ideas that God is an impersonal force, or energy or that he is static. I am using the personal names for God – Father, Son/Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit – in personal ways and in differentiated ways, so that she develops the habit of thinking of God as three persons but one being (not that this language is available to her at present). And I am making it clear that the triune God is personally present to her and at the same time universally present in creation and beyond. I am hoping this will forestall any individualistic notions of her Christianity and yet develop within her an intimacy with the triune God of grace.

Well this is what I am doing and why I am doing it. So if you see Sydney around church or Carey, why not ask her where the Holy Spirit is (or the Father or Jesus) and see what she says? Perhaps a follow up article in a few years is required to see how my experiment is going. I do pray to the triune God that she develops the mind of Christ in worship and comes to know and love God for who he really is, despite my theological and parental limitations.