2007 Web Writings

Web Writings from 2007

Here is some of what I blogged about in 2007:

January 5, 2007

The discussion with Jim Wilson continues.  Jim wrote:

The problem is, there are so many perspectives and portraits of Jesus, the Gospels, and the Bible as a whole – from different cultural perspectives, philosophies and understanding of historical context. The most intelligent and well-informed from each tradition can craft nearly irrefutable arguments that their Jesus is the correct one. Those who choose to believe in Jesus have basically two options – go along with what’s one’s been taught since childhood, or after however much one has studied, choose the Jesus closest to one’s own feelings and intuition.

I respond to Jim: To a certain extent, I agree with you.  In reading any great book, or trying to understand any historical figure, there will be a multitude of interpretations.  That is especially the case with a book like the Bible, which is a collection of works, of various genres, written over more than 1,000 years by dozens of authors.  It is also especially true with a figure like Jesus, who lived 2,000 years ago and left behind no writings of his own.  I don’t think the debate about Jesus’ character and significance will ever be finished this side of the Kingdom of God.

But, I do not think we need to jump to an extreme relativism.  There are better and worse interpretations of the Bible, and better and worse interpretations of Jesus, as witnessed to in the Newer Testament.  There is nothing intrinsic to the Bible that makes it incapable of being interpreted in better or worse ways.  For example, your interpretation of Jesus is more true to Scripture than an interpretation of Jesus that justifies torture, aggression, and oppression, and we could cite dozens of passages of the Gospels to make the case.  Using Jesus to justify such wickedness is like using Martin Luther King, Jr. to justify racism; it just doesn’t work.

Blog Entry #2:

Some quotes for today which relate to our contemporary situation:

Carolyn Dewald, writing about a theme of Herodotus’ Histories (5th century B.C.E.), explaining how the mighty Persian empire was defeated by the tiny Greek states:

…although Greek valour was necessary to resist the Persians, what really undid the Persians at the end were certain habits of thought that their long experience in imperial conquest had ingrained in them.  Kings and other powerful people in the Histories tend to assume that their power is more far-reaching than it is, and the Persian kings exemplify this trait particularly clearly.  Information was available to Xerxes from his Greek advisors that could have made his invasion of Greece much more successful than it was, but, insulated by his ambitious courtiers and his own assumptions, he did not take advantage of it.  (Carolyn Dewald, Introduction to  Herodotus’ Histories, 1998, pp. xv-xvi).

Marcus Annaeus Seneca:

Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.

One more, quoted perhaps too often, but deserving to be remembered:

Excerpt from “Why We Didn’t Remove Saddam” by George Bush [Sr.] and Brent Scowcroft, Time (2 March 1998):

While we hoped that popular revolt or coup would topple Saddam, neither the U.S. nor the countries of the region wished to see the breakup of the Iraqi state. We were concerned about the long-term balance of power at the head of the Gulf. Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have violated our guideline about not changing objectives in midstream, engaging in “mission creep,” and would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible. We had been unable to find Noriega in Panama, which we knew intimately. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq. The coalition would instantly have collapsed, the Arabs deserting it in anger and other allies pulling out as well. Under those circumstances, furthermore, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-cold war world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the U.N.’s mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the U.S. could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different–and perhaps barren–outcome.

We could also quote Jesus on counting the cost of going to war in Luke 14:31-32.

Blog Entry #3:

This is a continuation, in a way, of what I wrote earlier today on “Interpreting Jesus.”  Since the summer, I have been slowly reading Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament (having come out of a long theological and biblical slumber). So far, I have been intrigued by the vision of the OT as a complex conversation (debate, disputation?) about the God of Israel – a conversation we, in our own way, continue. The point, I think, is not that there is no truth, but that the truth is complex, dense, thick. There is no knock down argument to once and for all win the argument. Perhaps, then, the point is to continue the conversation honestly, faithfully, openly.

The interpretation of the Older Testament as a conversation about God holds also, I believe, for the Newer Testament.  This week, I have been studying Luke chapter 1.  Read Luke’s preface to his account of Jesus in Luke 1:1-4:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

Here are some points that strike me about this passage.

First, “many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.”  Numerous people have written Gospels, accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.  Every Gospel is unique, and every Gospel was written by a different person with a different voice, a different perspective, and different sources.  When you read the four Gospels, especially in the original Greek, you are struck by the truth of this.

Second, these accounts record what was “ handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”  Luke and the other Gospel writers are for the most part second or third generation followers of Jesus, putting in writing what was handed orally to them.

Third, by his own testimony, Luke’s Gospel is a human work, a product of the author’s careful investigation.  Luke is testifying to the truth of what he has written down.  His intention as an author is to convince Theophilus (‘friend of God’) of the truth of the narrative he is beginning.  See also the beginning of his sequel to Luke in Acts 1:1-2 – “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.”  Who wrote the first book?  “I” did, says the author.

I believe that the Bible is inspired testimony, by many authors, of God’s character and actions in the world.  But for a Christian view of biblical inspiration, you have to look to scripture itself.  I believe Luke’s testimony, that he actually wrote Luke and Acts.  If you could go back in time and find the author of Luke and ask him, no doubt he (?) would tell you that he wrote it.  He would also tell you that he believes in what he wrote, and believes it is an accurate account of Jesus’ life and ministry.  He might even tell you he was inspired to write it.  What he probably would not express to you is a belief in the inerrancy of what he wrote, or a belief that he was nothing but a tool in God’s hand, a word processor for God.

In any case, a view of divine inspiration of Scripture has to respect the nature of the works of Scripture.  You misread Paul’s letters, for example, if you deny that they are actually letters, by Paul, to other Christians.

March 23, 2007 – reply on my blog[1]

Rabbi Jonah,

Good question.  All too often, the Pharisees are caricatured or demonized in Christian writings and speech (and action), and that is unacceptable.  The fact that Jesus and many Pharisees interacted so often is a testament to how close they are – Jesus’ disagreements with, and criticisms of, Pharisees are a family affair, brother to brother, Jew to Jew. 

I guess that, having been reading Luke for a while this year, I was set up to be suspicious of the motives of these Pharisees – which is unfair to them and a reading into the text something that is not there.  I am sorry for that error.  Thank you for correcting me.  Thinking of the wonderful Pharisees in scripture – including Nicodemus, Gamaliel, and Saul/Paul, it is foolish and false to paint them all with a villainous brush.

Personally, whenever I read about Pharisees in the Bible, I try to apply any of Jesus’ criticisms of them to me – after all, I am a ‘religious professional.’  If Jesus walked in the flesh today, he’d have lots to say against the religious people of the world.

I also recognize that much of the Newer Testament reflects the internecine feud between the early Christian movement and the Jewish community from which it broke away.  I reject any notion of supersessionism, as if Christianity has superseded God’s promises and covenant with Israel.  The fact that I believe the Christian message (which I comprehend dimly, as in a mirror, to quote an apostate Pharisee) to be true in no way entails that your faith is false or deficient.

Thank you for reminding me of the insidious and subtle nature of prejudice.

March 24, 2007

Addition to yesterday’s comments: In looking back, I realize a couple things. First, I should have clarified in whose scripture Nicodemus, Gamaliel, and Saul/Paul are mentioned as Pharisees (the Christian Newer Testament, of course). Second, I went back to my sermon of three years ago (of which this was a last minute update), and realized that the prejudicial comment was in that old sermon. Hopefully, I will be a wiser, more gracious preacher in the future than I was in the past.

March 29, 2007 – Blog entry

I’m putting my youngest child, age 4, to bed tonight. Here’s part of the dialog:

So, is Jesus in heaven?
Is Jesus also here?
God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit can be in lots of places at the same time.
How can God do that?
Well, God’s pretty amazing…
So, can God ride a unicycle, paint, and wear a dog costume at the same time?
I think so.

September 6, 2007

Five Things My Children Should Know

I’ve been tagged by David at Here I Stand to write five things I want my children to know.  It’s a great question as we prepare for a new year of Christian education at church.  Here are my five (finally), sitting on the shoulders of giants:

  1. See things as they are, not as you wish them to be – including yourself.  David McCullough lifted this up as a strength of George Washington, and it was also a strength of Abe Lincoln and Jane Eyre.  So much good leadership and good judgment depends on seeing yourself and the world clearly.
  2. Be honest with yourself and others.  This is related to number one.  Be transparent.  Be real.  Be the same person in all contexts.  Don’t hide your limitations and strengths.  Let the real you shine forth.
  3. Do justice.  Be fair.  Challenge and strive to change unjust social structures.  Treat all people as equals.  Treat all people as children of God.  Realize, for example, that an Iraqi life is as precious to God as an American life. 
  4. Love mercy.  Share your bananas.  Help the poor.  Visit the sick and imprisoned,  Clothe the naked. House the homeless.  Help those in need.
  5. Walk humbly with your God.  Pray.  Read the Bible.  Have an inner life.  Make space in your life for silence, reflection, listening.  Be open to hearing God speak through many voices in your life.


September 11, 2007 – Breaking the Silence

On this sixth anniversary of 9/11, I remember and honor those who lost their lives in the acts of terror that day.  I also honor all the American soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq since that day.  I remember the hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi citizens killed directly or indirectly because of our actions in those countries.

I must reflect on the issue of partisanship today.  I have been thinking about this especially since I received an issue of the Word Alone Network’s newsletter (located online here) – especially Robert Benne’s article ‘Replacing the Center with the Periphery.’  Now, I resonate with many of the supposedly core concerns of Word Alone – the five ‘solas’ or ‘alones’ of the Reformation: salvation through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, as revealed in scripture alone, with all glory to God alone (solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, soli Deo gloria).  Now, how those ‘solas’ are understood or worked out theologically is another question, and I am sure that I differ from many Word Alone members (I am not a Word Alone member) in that regard.  But I share the conviction that we need to keep the main thing the main thing – and that main ‘thing’ is a Person – Jesus Christ.  If you put any other good thing in the center, be it social justice or peace or equality, for example, you actually work against those goods, because what properly motivates Christians to seek justice, peace, and equality is a living faith relationship with God through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Benne outlines a schema of concentric circles, with “core Christian beliefs” (the Triune God, etc.P at the center, “implications of Christian beliefs in history” next (Benne cites the example of “the overturning of slavery”), and finally specific “public policy and legislation” at the periphery.  He then argues that the leadership of the ELCA treats the core as fuzzy, but is dogmatic about the periphery.  That is to say, the ELCA treats the ‘solas’ as less than ‘sola,’ while peripheral issues take center stage.  Specifically, Benne argues that the ELCA’s “social ethics and public policy commitments” suggest “a thorough accommodation to ‘the world’ – in this case to the world of left/liberal elite opinion.”  Benne cites many ‘peripheral’ concerns of ELCA leaders as evidence of a liberal agenda, including “whether or not we should have invaded Iraq,” quotas to ensure “inclusivity,” “global warming,” and various commitments to fight racism, sexism, heterosexism, and imperialism.

Now, I am not particularly interested in defending the leadership of the ELCA in Chicago.  I think they can do a capable job of that themselves, and frankly, I am more concerned with what’s happening on the local level of the church.  Sometimes, I do share the Word Alone impression that the leadership of the ELCA is out of touch with what matters in the local church.  For example, I recall all the energy the Bishop’s office spent in advocating Called to Common Mission – our full communion with the Episcopal Church.  It caused a great deal of division in the church, and has very little practical effect in most churches.  I cannot think of any practical difference it has made in either of the churches I have served.  Episcopalians could receive communion in our churches before the agreement, and they can after.  We could cooperate in mission before, and after, the agreement.  The only practical difference my Bishop in Northeastern Minnesota could see coming from CCM was that, as Bishop, he now had to go to all ordinations in the synod, instead of almost all of them.  It didn’t practically affect any of the 75,000 other Lutherans in the synod. 

I also share the Word Alone Network’s concern to keep the ELCA decentralized and representative.  The concentration of power in the offices of bishops would not, I believe, empower and enable the spread of the gospel at the local level.

But, here is what I find interesting: when you search the Word Alone Network’s website as Benne searched the ELCA website, you also find some interesting emphases.  For example, whereas the ELCA website has 677 references to “Iraq,” many of which refer to statements by the Bishop’s office or social policy resolutions on the war,  Journal of Lutheran Ethics articles on our ethical obligations to Iraq, etc.; a Word Alone website search turns up only 5 references to Iraq, none of which are serious reflections on the war.  And yet, the Word Alone website has about 149 references to “homosexual,” while the whole ELCA website (a much larger archive than the Word Alone website) has 247.  A third example: the Word Alone site has 0 references to “torture” and 0 references to “Abu Ghraib” to the ELCA’s 108 and 8.  Poverty: 21 for Word Alone and 1,730 for the ELCA.  Refugee: Word Alone – 0, ELCA – 534.  Immigration as a contemporary issue: Word Alone – 0, ELCA – approximately 508.  (Word Alone on “abortion” – 11, ELCA – 108.)

Benne argues that “public policy and legislation” issues are peripheral, and that would explain Word Alone’s silence on Iraq and torture.  But their focus on homosexuality would imply that that is a central issue for them – and indeed, Benne puts “traditional Christian teaching on sexual morality” at the core of Christian convictions, along with “salvation through Christ alone” and “the Trinity itself.”  Based on the material I receive from Word Alone, the seven verses in Scripture that seem to address homosexual behavior overwhelmingly outnumber (in importance) the 3,000 verses that address issues of justice for the poor and oppressed, the widows, orphans, and aliens.  It is fascinating that Benne states that whether or not we should have invaded Iraq is a complex issue, about which “Christians of good will and intelligence differ” – but he does not say the same thing about homosexuality.  For him and the Word Alone network, there is no room for differences on that issue.  If I disagree with them on that supposedly core Christian issue, am I not a Christian of good will and intelligence?

I agree that the Iraq issue is complex, and Christians of good will and intelligence differ on it.  The ELCA is a big tent, and in our congregations we have liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans and every other political persuasion.  We will disagree on many issues.  But thank God the leadership of the ELCA is at least taking a stand and engaging in the public sphere.  They are a part of the conversation.  From my admittedly partisan perspective, we Americans were duped by deliberate misinformation into a war in Iraq that was not necessary, that was incompetently managed for years with no consequences for incompetence, that has enriched the friends of our leaders who started the war, while taking the lives of thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and unleashing Al Qaeda and civil war into Iraq.  Our missteps in the Middle East, including our growing tolerance for torture, have raised up a whole new generation of terrorists, and made Americans less safe for many years to come.   Now, I wholeheartedly support our troops.  They are striving hard to bring good out of the foolish decision our president made to shock and awe his way into the history books, and they are indeed bringing good out of evil at great cost to themselves.

Now, you can disagree with me about the war in Iraq, and still be a Christian of good will and intelligence.  I, for example, have no clear opinion on when or how we should withdraw from Iraq.  We made the mess there.  I know we can’t just leave today and say “see ya!”  I honestly do not know how to maximize the good and minimize the evil in Iraq in the near future.

But let’s talk about the Bible.  Were the Hebrew prophets, like Amos, silent in the face of injustice, oppression, or violence?  Did Jeremiah keep silent in the face of foreign affairs blunders that affected the safety of the nation of Judah?  Did Jesus keep silent in the face of the religious-political-economic leaders in Jerusalem?  Did John the author of Revelation keep silent in the face of the violence of Imperial Rome?  Moving ahead in history, was Martin Luther silent about the major political and social issues of his day?  Did he not at least have something to say about them?  Why is Word Alone so focused on what committed, faithful homosexual couples do in bed, when war, terror, torture, starvation, mass homelessness, AIDS orphans in Africa (the list could go on) abound?  Why are those issues not on their radar screen?  Why be so bold in standing up to the supposed evil of blessing gay unions and so timid in facing the real pressing issues of our time?  Are issues of justice and peace really peripheral Christian issues?  Are they not pervasively biblical and theological?  Is there no Christian response to, for example, torture? 

Robert Benne has, indeed, lifted up the political and social concerns of the ELCA leadership which, indeed lean to the left – and more to the left than the average Lutheran church member.  That’s not really surprising, any more than it is surprising that college professors tend to be more liberal than their students.  And, I am not even, at this point, defending any single stand of the ELCA leadership, though I tend to agree with them on most of these issues (as you can see).  But it is equally obvious that Word Alone, in its publications, has an equal and opposite bias.  They have placed a conservative view of sexuality at the core, and moved the prophetic emphasis on justice and righteousness to the periphery.  Their silence in the face of the evils of empire is a tacit approval of them.  Benne rightly lifts up the Gospel as the center of church life, and the Word Alone Network serves a good purpose when it reminds us all of the priority of the Gospel, the ‘solas’ of the Christian faith.  Would that Word Alone also truly kept the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the center, and not a conservative quietism that is silent in the face of social, national, and international evil.

September 13, 2007

I know I got a little hot under the collar on Tuesday night, when I wrote the long blog on the Word Alone Network.  I am just sick of their claiming that title, when the ‘word alone’ that seems most important to them is sex.  Another comparison between the Word Alone and ELCA websites: “Sudan” – Word Alone: 0, ELCA: 186.  About genocide, the ELCA has 97 substantive references, compared to one mention of genocide on the Word Alone website in an article about – you guessed it – homosexuality; in fact, the article only mentions genocide to equate homosexual practices to other sins, like… “incest, rape, bestiality, genocide.”  It reminds me of the difference between The Christian Century and Christianity Today magazines during the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the Century was printing articles by and about Martin Luther King, Jr. and about the civil rights movement, and Christianity Today was silent – for which an editor of Christianity Today has since apologized.  Silence in the face of evil is an endorsement of the evil. 

My hope, though, is not to get embroiled in fruitless partisan arguments.  Generally, what you see in these church discussions on sexuality is various people of good will and intelligence, who genuinely believe in the authority of scripture (word alone), seeing and honestly interpreting scripture differently, out of our different perspectives.  Is it any wonder that conservative people read the Bible and interpret it in line with their conservatism?  Is it any wonder that liberals do the same, and interpret the Bible liberally?  Is it any wonder that the reverse doesn’t happen?  I am not advocating relativism, but a recognition of reality.  The discussion is still worthwhile, because we are not confined to the boxes of our perspectives.  We can learn from one another, from Scripture, and the world.

September 13, 2007

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women!] do nothing.

– Edmund Burke


Here is a comment I wrote on NewProclamation.com, to hopefully get a discussion started:

A perennial challenge for me is how to preach faithfully about potentially partisan issues.  Now, I know our call is to preach the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.  But we are also called to preach the law, which reveals our sin and drives us to Christ.  It seems to me, that if we confine ourselves to ‘personal’ sin (though what sin is purely personal?), and ignore corporate sin, then we are being unfaithful to the biblical witness. 

For example, I’ve recently compared the Word Alone Network and the ELCA’s websites by searching for some key terms, and here are the number of hits I came up with (keep in mind that the ELCA website is much larger):

“Iraq” Word Alone: 5 (0 sustained reflections on the war) ELCA: 677

“Torture” Word Alone: 0  ELCA: 108

“Refugee” Word Alone: 0  ELCA: 534

“Immigration” Word Alone: 0  ELCA: 508

“Genocide” Word Alone: 1 (in an article comparing homosexual practice to it)  ELCA: 97

“Poverty” Word Alone: 21  ELCA: 1730

“Homosexual” Word Alone: 149  ELCA: 247

Based on that list, on what is the Word Alone Network’s sustained theological reflection focused?  All of those are political issues, and every one that Word Alone ignores is an issue of corporate, national and international action. 

So, without descending to partisanship, how do we preach faithfully and prophetically about the life and death issues of the day?  If we remain silent in the face of evil social, political, and economic systems, are we not in fact supporting them, and bowing to the golden calves of nationalism, racism, imperialism, sexism, etc.?

September 14, 2007 – blog response to Jim Wilson[2]

Jim, Thanks for writing.  Very good questions.  You help me think through what I believe.

You ask, “In other words, does this Word Alone group endorse State aggression against the private activities of non-ELCA members, or does it merely want to enforce what it believes to be Biblical standards within its own faith community?”  In answer, while their focus is definitely on influencing church policy – kind of a ‘take the church back from those damn liberals’ movement – there is no doubt that their intent is more than just ecclesial.  As an analogy: can you imagine a southern church in the ‘50s being both against full equality for African Americans in the church on biblical grounds, and for civil rights and integration in the public sphere?  I doubt you will ever see a member of WA advocate for civil unions for gays and lesbians, while fighting the blessing of such unions in the church.  Nor would they say that their view of homosexuality only has application within the church, without application outside the church.  Their focus as an organization is within the church, but there is not doubt that, were they in charge in the church, they would use that platform to try to affect public policy.

You also ask, “Along the same lines, I ask whether the ELCA condemns U.S. action in Iraq while at the same time recommend that the U.S. sacrifice American lives and spill bloodshed for one side or the other in Darfur or some other troubled region.”  In that case, I have to answer yes.  The ELCA is not a purely pacifist church.  Last year, for example, the ELCA, along with about 60 other churches and organizations, sent a letter to Congress asking for support for humanitarian relief, and the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS), which helps get the humanitarian aid to the people on the ground.  Now, I know you have a philosophical aversion (by which I mean deep, well thought out reasoning) to any such interventions.  But, if you read the list of signatories, it includes virtually all the NGOs that are on the ground in Darfur trying to provide relief for the millions of people affected by the conflict.  I cannot believe that they would support violent intervention that will cause more harm than standing by and doing nothing.  Look at the list of NGO signatories: were any of them calling for the US to invade Iraq?  That doesn’t mean the situation in the Sudan is not complex and fraught with dire consequences whichever way you go.  But I think there’s a difference between qualified support for AMIS and Bush’s unilateral war in Iraq.

About Paul’s words in Romans 13: that passage is not the only word of scripture on the relation between people of faith and political authorities.  Part of the background of that passage is the fact that he was a Roman citizen himself, which was a privileged position in the Empire.  His relationship to those in power is different than, for example, Jesus, who was a Galilean peasant, or John of Patmos, writing the book of Revelation later in the first century, after decades of violent persecution of Christians – or, for that matter, Amos the shepherd in the 8th-century BCE.  I imagine that even Paul had a more nuanced opinion of the ruling authorities  in Rome, and the Christian’s relation to them, in the days before they beheaded him for following Jesus.  Would he say that his executioner was ‘the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer”?  In any case, it is one thing for the tiny, persecuted early church to keep a low profile in the Roman empire; it is another thing for Christian citizens of the US to keep silent when our elected officials act unjustly, or neglect to act justly.

September 22, 2007 – blog response to posting of my 1/29/1997 article on Inerrancy

Dear Kris and David,

Thank you for the response.  Just this week, we had a Pastor’s Retreat in the NWMN Synod, and Audrey West and David Lose spoke on biblical interpretation.  It was good conversation – we even got into a discussion of this Sunday’s Gospel text, Luke 16:1-13, which is a very difficult passage for me to comprehend – so hopefully my sermon tomorrow will be better because of the communal wrestling with the text.

David Lose gave a helpful description of two different ways people view the Bible.  One is to view the Bible as a chain, with each book, each passage, each verse as equal links in the chain.  With this view, it is understandable that some people view any criticism of a part of the Bible as a threat to the word of God as a whole: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  When you question the literal, historical truth of a story in Genesis 1-11, for example, you always get the question, “Well, what about the resurrection of Jesus?”  On this view, any old verse in Proverbs or Chronicles is equal to John 3:16; the book of Ezra is on the same footing as the letter to the Romans.

The alternative perspective that Lose advocates is to view the Bible as a series of concentric circles, with the cross and resurrection of Christ at the center.  He justifies this view by looking at how Paul, especially (the earliest writer in the Newer Testament), puts the cross and resurrection at the center, and understands the rest of Scripture (in his case, the Older Testament) through that lens.  Luther looked at Scripture this way, as the cradle of Christ.  This view of Scripture is not as ‘easy’ as the chain view, which is driven by a fear of chaos and uncertainty; but it is true to the nature of Scripture, which is, in fact, a conversation across the centuries about God.  The Christian church, in my view, is that community or those communities which read the Old and New Testaments through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In fact, everyone come to the Bible with some view of the center, some lens through which the books, passages, and verse are read.  The question becomes, which lens (or lenses) are most true to Scripture and the God who inspires it?  Which lenses help us get to the meaning(s) of Scripture?

September 23, 2007 – blog comment

I know, it was a bit unfair – in this comparison, you’d expect to see significantly higher numbers on the ELCA’s side.  Word Alone has been around for a decade or more, and serves as a gadfly to the ELCA – which is a good thing!   Yes, let us focus on Christ, yes, let us focus on the word of God.  But then, they seem to do the very thing they accuse the ELCA of practicing – relying on ‘human experience, wisdom and tradition’ to the neglect of scripture.  You would think that a grass-roots theological movement focused on scripture would more faithfully reflect on major themes of scripture (like justice, righteousness, peace), and not just on their favorite 7 passages about homosexuality.

October 2, 2007 – blog comment

simul justis,

Thank you for your comment.  Here is what the ELCA’s constitution says about Scripture (2.02b and 2.03):

The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.

This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.

That is not the same as stating that the Bible is inerrant.  Inerrancy is a modern concept foreign to the Scriptures.  As Donald Juel once noted in a seminary class, when Paul wrote his letters, he did not assume that his words came straight from the mouth of God, so that his readers just had to accept what he wrote as inerrant or infallible.  No, he had to make his case, argue his position, appeal to Scripture (for him, the OT).  It is quite possible, as I do, to affirm our constitution’s view of Scripture as the inspired word of God (I like to reserve the capital ‘W’ Word for Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to avoid turning the Bible into an idol – but a capital ‘W’ for the Bible is not inappropriate), without adopting the modernist view of Scripture as inerrant.  Scripture is a collection of reliable witnesses to the work of God in the world, especially and uniquely through Jesus the Christ, who is the one truly ‘inerrant’ Word of God.  Can you accept the Bible as reliable testimony to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit, without needing to assert the Bible’s inerrancy?  Inerrancy is a myth; it’s not a quality that the Bible actually has, when you actually read it.  So, to base our preaching and teaching on a myth is to build our house on the sands of illusion and self-deception.

There is a false dichotomy here: either the Bible is inerrant and we can inerrantly read it, or anything goes, and we fall into chaos, where every perspective is equally valid and there is no truth.  David Lose does a good job dissecting that false dichotomy in his book Confessing Jesus Christ: Preaching in a Postmodern World (which I just started reading).  The fact is, it is simply true that what we see depends in large part on where we stand.  The fact is, we simply do read the Bible through lenses.  This side of heaven, there is no neutral, unbiased reading of Scripture – we are finite and sinful.  Yes, our lenses are human constructs; but do you read the Bible without one?  That’s why it’s no surprise when Word Alone Network members read Scripture and find a socially conservative message there, and ‘progressive’ Christians read the same Scripture and find a progressive message.  In both cases, what we see in Scripture tends to reflect our perspectives. 

But, that is not to say that we are stuck in our perspectives.  The Bible also challenges both conservatives and liberals.  The text of God’s word cannot mean everything and anything.  The word of God is alive and active.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God speaks to us through Scripture, upending our preconceived notions, challenging and expanding our perspectives.  If we abandon the myth of inerrancy – which really means the abandonment of the belief that my reading of the Bible is inerrant – what we are left with, as David Lose argues, and as I argued back in college, is critical conversation.  We wrestle with Scripture and with one another, seeking the truth and finding it, not in an ultimate, inerrant sense – only God is Truth with a capital ‘T’ – but truth for us today, how to live and love and serve and follow Jesus today.  When I preach, I preach with confidence, confessing Jesus Christ to the congregation.  But I do not preach infallibly or inerrantly.  Anything I say about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is likely to fall short of the ultimate, inerrant truth, which we’ll discover in the Kingdom of God.  But it is the word of God preached to us today, it is ‘local theology’ that is reliable because, by God’s grace, it is grounded in the reliable witness of Scripture. 

October 28, 2007

My Grandma Bea Holm died this past Wednesday, in her 89th year.  Her obituary is here.  Grandma was a beautiful person of faith, hope, and love.  She is missed dearly by her four children, eight grandchildren, nine great grandchildren, and many more dear friends and family.  At her funeral on Saturday October 27th, my father played her favorite hymns on the organ, my sons played a beautiful piano duet, and two of my cousins and I read some memories that we have of Grandma, and two of us read a beautiful eulogy written by my Aunt Ginny.
I wrote just a few sentences, knowing what others were already sharing:

Grandma Bea showed the difference one person can make with love.  She loved well, loved much, and loved many.  She prayed for all of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren every day, as long as she could.
They say ‘faith is caught more than taught’ – caught from other people of faith, especially from our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or other loving adults.  Grandma Bea was an infectious carrier of faith, hope, and love.  We miss her but we know she is close, because she is in the arms of her Lord and our Lord.

I just have to add that, just today, I was unpacking some books in my church office and, opening Grandma Bea and Grandpa Bud’s (Grandpa died five years ago, two days after the birth of our third child) devotional Living God’s Way by Reuben Youngdahl, I found a typewritten 3×5 card with a tightly packed list of people my grandparents were praying for, with the Lord’s prayer typed out on the other side.  Here were their categories of prayer:

  • Those we know in need:
  • For our family:
  • For our friends in need:
  • For our pastors:
  • For the Salem, Roseville, and Maplewood (Covenant) churches (to which they were connected)
  • For another pastor

In total, 84 individuals and families are named on the 3×5 card, which must have been made between 2000 and 2002 (after our second child’s birth, but before our third).  That is quite a legacy of prayer.  Several of their friends’ names are crossed out, as they had died.
I am just starting to grieve the passing of a generation.  Bea was my last living grandparent.  I was thankful to be able to visit the graves of all four on Saturday, since my other grandparents are also buried in the same cemetery.  Peace to Beatrice’s memory and Godspeed on her heavenly sojourn.

Here is my Reformation Sunday sermon, such as it is at a time of grief and loss…

[1]              In reply to my sermon of Lent 2C:

                Rabbi Jonah said…

                So. Why do you feel the need to question the integrity of the Pharisees that came to warn Jesus?

It seems anti-semitic to me…the age old adversos Judeos tradition in Lutheran theology.

Doesn’t make sense.

[2]              James Leroy Wilson said…

                I’m not a Lutheran. But I agree with Lutherans to the extent they endorse freedom, and disagree with them to the extent they endorse coercion. And so I have questions.

Has this Word Alone group advocated civil penalties on individuals over their sexual behavior? Has it advocated a civil definition of marriage, or supported tax-funded or legal privileges for one type of family arrangement as opposed to another? Or has it refrained from political controversies and reserved itself to addressing what it believes should be requirements regarding the sexual behavior of members of the ELCA?

In other words, does this Word Alone group endorse State aggression against the private activities of non-ELCA members, or does it merely want to enforce what it believes to be Biblical standards within its own faith community?

Along the same lines, I ask whether the ELCA condemns U.S. action in Iraq while at the same time recommend that the U.S.sacrifice American lives and spill bloodshed for one side or the other in Darfur or some other troubled region.

I understand why some or most segments of the universal Church remain “publicly” silent on civil aggression; after all, Paul kept quiet about Nero, and seemed to ask his followers to obey Nero if Romans 13 is accurate. But I will never understand how or why any segment of the Church would endorse aggression against anyone, for any reason.

From my outsider’s perspective, I would criticize Word Alone only to the extent that they promote State aggression, if they indeed do this at all. But I wouldn’t blame them for supposed failure to speak out in favor of other forms of State aggression.

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