Monthly Archives: April 2012

Do Evangelicals Neglect the Gospels?

In his book, How God Became King, N. T. Wright charges the church with neglecting the four canonical Gospels.  He doesn’t relent in his critique when it comes to evangelicals.  Those who claim the rhetorical high ground of “biblical authority” have also treated the Gospels badly.

He criticizes evangelical churches for reading the Gospels through a Reformation lens.  Evangelicals have inherited a certain conception of Paul and have shaped their theological vision accordingly.  Our gospel is oriented by justification by faith, and this has become the foundation upon which we construct our vision for ministry and understanding of Christian discipleship.

Wright charges that evangelicals tend to use the four Gospels merely as illustrative material for our already-developed theology.  They have little value beyond this.

Do you agree with this assessment?  Have evangelicals neglected or mistreated the Gospels in proclamation and as resources for theological development?  Why do you think this is so?


Midweek Semantic Snobbery

I’m a conservative when it comes to language.  I recognize that language is always changing, but I’d rather respect conventions than capitulate to what I see as misuses of language, failures to communicate properly.

Even when I text, I use actual words, complete sentences, and I do not abbreviate.

I say, “thank you,” and not, “thx.”  I text, “no problem, that’s fine,” and not, “k.”  I write, “I’ll see you later,” and not, “ttyl.”

Upon the commencement of my academic career, I was stunned that administrators—supposedly educated people—insisted on using “resource” as a verb.

“We will resource our faculty for teaching excellence,” one would say.  Another administrator told our department that he wanted to resource us.

I looked around the room, expecting howls of protest.

At the time, our institution was being rocked by controversy and I thought that people were taking themselves far too seriously.  I wrote one of the offending administrators a playful e-mail confronting his semantic shoddiness.  I inquired whether his willingness to use “resource” as a verb was a sign of worldview compromise and potential doctrinal drift.

The humor escaped him entirely.

Now, I’m prepared to imagine that there may be something wrong with administrators.  To faculty, of course, they are “The Dark Side.”  Perhaps they inhabit some alternative linguistic world, one filled with “actionable” items, where nouns and verbs trade places willy-nilly.

Surely scholars, on the other hand, know better—especially those in the humanities.

My jaw dropped the other day, however, when I opened N. T. Wright’s new book on the Gospels.  The very first paragraph of the book—the first paragraph!—ends with this sentence:

Yes, they’re about the beginnings of what later became known as Christianity, but what are they saying about that strange new movement, and how do they resource it for its life and work?

Simply staggering.


N. T. Wright on Evangelicals & the Gospels

N. T. Wright claims that various branches of the church have misread or ignored the Gospels.  In speaking of conservative evangelicals, he notes that they have spent much time defending the Bible’s historicity, but haven’t done so well at getting into the Bible itself, understanding its texts, reckoning with the canonical logic.

Evangelicals run the risk of flying the flag of biblical authority but saying what they expect the Bible to say, rather than what it actually does say.

Such “conservatives,” then, have stressed the historicity of the gospels as part of their insistence that “the Bible is true.”  But when it comes to interpretation and meaning, those same “conservatives” are regularly to be found on exactly the same page as Bultmann, reading most of the stories in the gospels as signposts toward the cross and the faith of the early church.  I recall one colleague proudly telling me that his Christmas sermon was going to be on Matthew 1:21: “you are to give him the name Jesus; he is the one who will save his people from their sins.”  In other words, neither incarnation nor kingdom were going to be mentioned; Christmas was simply another occasion to preach the (supposedly Pauline) message of the cross.  When such people claim to be “Bible Christians,” I find myself saying (at least in my imagination): “If you’re a ‘Bible Christian,’ how come you don’t know what the gospels are there for?  How is it that you simply treat them as somewhat random illustrative material for the thing you obviously want to focus on, the saving death and resurrection of the divine Savior?”

What I observe is this.  Faced with a choice between the creed (some version of it) and the canon of scripture, in which the four gospels occupy such a central position, the church has unhesitatingly privileged the creed and let the canon fend for itself—which it hasn’t always managed to do very successfully.  The same is true when, in Protestantism, the great early creeds are implicitly replaced as the “rule of faith” by the various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century formulas that highlight the Reformers’ message of “justification by faith.”  This too, in its turn, becomes the central thing, and the four gospels are valued insofar as they illustrate it and not much beyond (pp. 23-24).


N. T. Wright & Christian Neglect of the Gospels

In his new book, How God Became King, N. T. Wright argues that the Christian tradition and various strands of the modern church have neglected the Gospels.

This may sound like an outrageous claim, but Wright cites the church’s historic creeds as evidence.  When “they refer to Jesus, [they] pass directly from his virgin birth to his suffering and death” (p. 11).

About the Apostles’ Creed, Wright says this:

So much detail, and yet nothing at all about what Jesus did in between being conceived and born, on the one hand, and being crucified under Pontius Pilate, on the other.  Why not?  If the aim were to summarize the key focal points of Christian faith, did that imply that that faith didn’t really need, shall we say, Matthew 3-26?  Would chapters 1-2 (Jesus’ birth) and 27-28 (his death and resurrection) have done just as well?  Was Matthew, and were Mark, Luke, and John for that matter, wasting time telling us all that stuff in the middle?  Were they just giving us the “backstory” to satisfy any lingering curiosity the church might have about the earlier life of the one Christians now worshipped as Lord (p. 13)?

Christians do much the same today.  Evangelical Christians, for example, have an “atonement” theology that captures the transaction whereby people are reconciled to God (or, one version of it), and their understanding of Jesus begins and ends with whatever is relevant to informing that transaction.

He reports the following conversation:

In 2003 I attended a conference where a well-known Christian leader from another continent requested some time with me.  He had been reading my book Jesus and the Victory of God in the weeks before the conference and was intrigued by it.  He wanted to know how it all made sense in terms of “the gospel” that he believed and taught.  We had a cup of tea (some British and Anglican stereotypes don’t change) and talked for an hour or so.  I tried to explain what I thought I was seeing: that the four gospels had, as it were, fallen off the front of the canon of the New Testament as far as many Christians were concerned.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were used to support points you might get out of Paul, but their actual message had not been glimpsed, let alone integrated into the larger biblical theology in which they claimed to belong.  This, I remember saying, was heavily ironic in a tradition (to which he and I both belonged) that prided itself on being “biblical.”  As far as I could see, that word was being used, in an entire Christian tradition, to mean “Pauline.”  And even there I had questioned whether Paul was really being allowed to speak (p. 9).

I have found that this dynamic pervades evangelical theology and culture.  I remember hearing a major evangelical preacher say precisely this—that there was no reason for Jesus to live an entire life except that he needed to earn a store of righteousness that could be imputed to believers.

John Piper’s recent address, “Did Jesus Preach the Gospel of Evangelicalism,” is another example of how the Gospels aren’t so much ignored as not taken seriously on their own terms.

We use the gospels.  We read them aloud in worship.  We often preach from them.  But have we even begun to hear what they are saying, the whole message, which is so much greater than the sum of the small parts with which we are, on one level, so familiar?  I don’t think so.  This is the lifetime puzzle.  It isn’t just that we’ve all misread the gospels, though I think that’s broadly true.  It is more that we haven’t really read them at all.  We have fitted them into the framework of ideas and beliefs that we have acquired from other sources.  I want in this book to allow them, as far as I can, to speak for themselves.  Not everyone will like the result (p. 10).

I think there are some reasons for this and I’ll discuss those in subsequent posts.  For now, though, do you think Wright is onto something here?


After Easter: A Homily

*Given at Midtown Christian Community, April 25, 2009

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Micah 4:1-5
Acts 4:5-12
Luke 24:36b-48
Psalm 98

We are a week into the Easter season, when we celebrate God having raised Jesus from the dead.  The resurrection of Jesus is the climactic moment of God’s great work of salvation and it’s significant in many wonderful ways.  In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God defeats sin and death.  Death, of course, our great enemy, is unable to hold onto Jesus, powerless to keep him in the grave. 

Our horrible enemy is now defeated—that’s good news!  The death and resurrection of Jesus is also significant because it is God’s confirmation that he really means to do what he has said he’s going to do.  God promised that he was going to make all things new, renew the world, end suffering forever, remove the curse from creation.  No more hunger, no more betrayal, no more poverty, no more hatred and fighting, no more broken hearts.  When God’s kingdom comes, all our hopes for a world made new will be fulfilled.

Well, where is it!?  Where is this new world!?  That’s the right question.  We want it now, God!  That’s the proper prayer, though we usually say it like this—“may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

It isn’t here yet, but Easter teaches us that it’s on its way.  Paul says that Jesus is God’s “yes” that his promises are indeed on their way to being fulfilled.  It’s been so long that humanity has waited for these promises to come true, but when God raised Jesus from the dead, it was his way of saying to all of us, “It’s coming.  The new world is on its way, with Jesus as King.  Be patient; only a little while longer.”

And God has begun to fulfill his promises in the church.  When Jesus ascended into heaven to sit on his throne, he sent his Spirit to dwell among us.  God’s kingdom has broken out among us, God has created us to be the Kingdom of God and he has done so by his own resurrection power.  The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work among us and in us to truly fill out and understand and explore and perform that reality called The Kingdom of God.

It is vital, therefore, that we live in the shadow of Easter Sunday.  The resurrection must dominate our community, our lives, our relationships, how we imagine who we are and what we’re supposed to do.

There’s a small problem, however.  We find that living in the shadow of the resurrection isn’t all that easy to do.  It’s one thing to believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but an altogether different thing to know how that changes anything.  What difference does it make?

We are not at all used to seeing the world differently in light of the resurrection.  It’s far easier to confine the resurrection to something we talk about once a year.  It’s natural to live as if other things are more real and far more significant—we’re just used to it.  It’s difficult to truly see God’s salvation in action. 

We find ourselves to be a lot like the disciples in the Luke passage.  Just before Jesus showed up in their midst, they were talking excitedly about how Jesus had risen from the dead.  Unbelief is not the problem here.  They truly believed it.  But when Jesus actually showed up among them, they were gob-smacked and had no clue what to do.  When he appeared they thought he was a ghost, they were afraid, startled, and terrified, and were even doubting.

We find ourselves to be just as clueless, if not more so.  Believing in the resurrection is one thing.  It isn’t difficult to affirm it as an article of faith.  But knowing what we’re supposed to do in response to it, in light of it—that’s an entirely different thing.

But this is the role of the church; this is our task—to see the world anew in light of what God has done in Jesus.  We are called to imagine the possibilities created by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This is how God actually wants to change the world here and now—through a church that sees the possibilities in peoples’ lives in light of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

That’s a high calling.  But that’s why we just prayed together the collective prayer; “open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.”  This is a prayer for greater and more effective faith.  We need a clarified vision to always be seeing the reality of the resurrection more clearly and to always be knowing how it changes everything, because that’s hardly ever obvious and hardly ever straightforward.

We see the prophet doing this in Micah 4.  Micah looks forward to the future when all the nations of the world will stream to Jerusalem and will worship the God of Israel—the one true God.  He rejoices in this and draws strength from it.  He needs that strength because that reality isn’t there yet for him.  The passage ends on a wistful, slightly tragic note.  “Things will be awesome in the future . . . ,” but then the heavy sigh “. . . we’re not there yet.”

He longs for that day because right now all the nations are walking after their own gods, not the one true God.  And of course this leads to all sorts of oppression and injustice.  But he holds on to that vision so that he can have the power to live in light of it.

So, God has raised Jesus from the dead—everything’s changed!  And we must embody that reality in our lives and in this community.

How?  What on earth might that mean for us at Midtown?  How do things change in light of the resurrection.  I’ll mention just a few possibilities from our passages.  If these provoke further suggestions, let’s discuss those, too.

First, we’re a community of healing and restoration.  We see this obviously in the Acts text with the man born lame.  This is one of our most basic tasks—to do good in the name of Jesus.  To look at ourselves and this neighborhood, take an honest assessment, identify needs, and then come up with creative and imaginative ways to bring about restoration and healing—seeking to get people back up on their feet.  And we don’t do this in order to get a hearing for the gospel.  Doing creative acts of restoration and healing is the gospel.  We carry out redemptive acts that signal that God is making the world new, because these are the kinds of things we’ll be doing all the time when the world is made new.

And, just like in Acts, when we have the opportunity to do good, we mention plainly that we’re doing these things in the name of Jesus, whom God raised from the dead.

We’re also a community that gives praise to God.  Praise dominates the Micah text, the psalm, and Acts.  When we praise God we’re doing several things.  We’re pondering the great things that God has done—it’s educational.  We’re re-learning and remembering what God is like and how gracious and good he is.  But we’re also training our emotions to love and prize God, and to long for his creation to be made new, just as he’s promised.

The Apostle John draws several implications from what God has done in Christ.  In the 1 John text, we see that we must be a community that confesses our sin to one another and to God.  If we deny our brokenness and our being sinners, we are liars, refusing to recognize our need of God—refusing to live in reality.  We must confess our condition as sinners, always owning our need of God in Christ. 

We must be a community that confesses our sins.  This isn’t easy.  When we sin against one another, what do we typically do?  We typically seek for ways of getting out of the situation while preserving as much of our dignity as possible.  If we need to maybe apologize a little, we’ll do it grudgingly.  But doing that doesn’t lead to restoration and to community wholeness.  Only when we sit before a person  and name what we’ve done, recognizing the damage that we’ve done with our words or deeds, and asking for forgiveness, do we actually enjoy complete restoration with a person we’ve wronged.

We must do the same before God.  When we’ve sinned we must trust God that if we speak honestly and plainly to him that he will do what he says he does, and pardon our sins and forgive and cleanse us from any and every stain.

These are just a few indications of how the resurrection re-defines a community.  We are not some random community group.  We are the church, owned, claimed and oriented completely by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Because that’s the case, we must take up the wonderful task of seeing the world anew, always asking for grace from God so that our vision may be renewed and restored for the glory of the risen Lord Jesus.


Prayer for the Weekend

Almighty Father, who gave your only Son to die for our sins and to rise for our justification: Give us grace so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Suffering as God’s “Discipline” in Hebrews

Biblical discussions of suffering are often removed from their biblical contexts and turned into abstract principles for all kinds of suffering.  This usually has disastrous results as we try to interpret the causes of trouble that comes into our lives.

James Thompson sums up very well how the author of Hebrews directs his comments about suffering and the Lord’s “discipline”:

The description of suffering as discipline in 12:4-11 is not an attempt to explain why bad things happen to good people.  Nor is it advice to those who are suffering in abusive relationships to endure passively.  Taken out of context the message that suffering is educational could be destructive for those who are confronted each day with illness or abuse.  Instead, the author speaks encouragement to a vulnerable community in a specific situation, offering hope that their suffering is not the end of the story.  To follow Jesus in suffering is also to follow him into the presence of God.  In using the wisdom tradition, the author is not making a categorical statement that all suffering results in education but encouraging the readers to see that God can work in their circumstances to train them to be faithful.  His encouragement is a challenge, especially to Christians in affluent societies, to recognize that the Christian confession offers no guarantee of ease or comfort but rather an invitation to follow the suffering of Jesus, who “learned from what he suffered” (5:8).  Although not all suffering is educational, this exhortation indicates that participation in the suffering of Jesus is a component of the path of discipleship (p. 256).


U2’s “One” & the Unity of God’s People

One” is among U2’s biggest hit singles.  Over the last few decades it has resonated strongly with many who have experienced deep connection, love, conflict, alienation, and (hopefully) reconciliation.

It captures the complications of intense and intimate relationships.

One detail that many miss is the repeated statement that “we get to carry each other.”  It isn’t an exhortation, but a reminder.  It’s not that “we’ve got to,” but, “we get to.”

In the midst of relational conflicts, it’s easy to forget that we are gifts to each other.  “We’re one, but we’re not the same.  We get to carry each other.” 

The way forward toward flourishing, healthy community dynamics, and mutual enjoyment is set pride aside and discover together how we are gifts to each other.

The temptation, of course, is to make demands of one another, gain leverage, manipulate each other.  These are the ways of destruction.

Paul follows the same pattern as “One” in 1 Corinthians.  The Corinthians have split up into factions, rallying around their favorite early church figures (1 Cor. 1:10-12).  Paul reminds them that they have been united in Christ and that all the various groups and teachers in the church are God’s gifts to them all (1 Cor. 3:21-23).  Chapter 12, where Paul discusses the unity and diversity of their community as Christ’s body, is all about how they are one, but they’re not the same.  Only when they receive and serve one another will the entire community enjoy flourishing.

The same pattern can be discerned in Galatians, Romans, and even Hebrews.

Listening to the song again recently, however, I was reminded of Mark 2:1-5.

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Obviously there’s the paralyzed man literally being carried by his friends, but what resonates with “One” for me, and what I find so beautiful, is that the communal dynamic is essential to the forgiveness and healing (vv. 6-12).  Jesus forgives and heals when he saw their faith.

We belong to one another and we’re given to each other as gifts.  We do indeed lose sight of that quite often, seeing each other as obstacles to flourishing and mutual delight.  What’s needed, however, is clarified vision, a gospel-shaped imagination, so that we see once again that “we’re one, but we’re not the same.  We get to carry each other.”


Considering Seminary? A Great Opportunity . . .

If you’re thinking about going to seminary with plans to be in ministry, there’s an amazing opportunity here at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  The Kern Scholars Program provides a wonderful way to go through seminary, prepare for ministry, and avoid piling up significant and debilitating debt.  See the link for info and contact details.


Midweek Semantic Snobbery

I was reading a dissertation recently and encountered a strangely satisfying statement.  After identifying a flawed argument, the author stated, “Arguably this is to beg the question.”

This was satisfying because it was the first correct use of the expression I had seen in quite some time.

Expressions mysteriously enter the public lexicon and find themselves uncritically worn out by the lazy circularity of popular discourse.

Recent victims include “at the end of the day” and “game changer.”  There are others.

In the 2000 presidential campaign, someone mentioned that George W. Bush needed to select a running mate with “gravitas,” leading commentators to bludgeon the public with this new weapon.

Erstwhile Daily Show “correspondent” Mo Rocca asked a senator if Dick Cheney added “gravitas” to the GOP ticket.  As a follow-up, Rocca inquired whether the senator thought it was a “milk-based gravitas.”

Brilliant.

Somehow, “begging the question” has entered popular usage and is invariably used wrongly.  I’ve seen it in student papers, heard it in conversations with friends, and—this is the final straw—recently heard it uttered by Hannah Storm on Sportscenter.

“Begging the question” is not a synonymous expression for “raising the question.”  An example of wrong usage: “Bill Buckner’s career statistics beg the question of why he isn’t in the Hall of Fame.”  His career numbers raise the question, demanding an explanation.  Begging the question has nothing to do with it.

If one “begs the question,” one commits a logical fallacy, asserting as an argument the very conclusion one needs to prove.

Surely Tony Kornheiser, English major, wordsmith, and co-host of my favorite program, would know better.


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