Who’s Up for (the exciting conclusion to) An Honest Reading? John 6:37-40

Theological discussion in various venues often pits one position of belief against its opposites. Supporters of one position or another like to issue proposition statements of the form ‘If they would give _____ an honest reading’, ‘once I gave ______ an honest reading’,’ you can’t read _________ honestly and still believe’ or various other permutations that are meant to couch the idea that your position is unsupportable in the light of clear interpretation. In other words, the veiled inference is that theological presuppositions have colored your interpretation of the text and if you would put them aside and engage an honest reading of the text, you would certainly see the validity of the opposing position. Let’s see if that’s a valid argument…

image Before we jump into the conclusion of this series, let’s have a look at how proof-texting works so that the danger in the practice becomes apparent. Suppose we want to ‘prove’ the horrible doctrine of infanticide exists in the Bible. [Atheist polemics use this argument all the time.] The proof-texter searches the Scriptures looking for individual verses or passages that appear to support this abhorrent practice so that they can proclaim the ‘truth’ that God approves the killing of children for pleasure or sustenance and they find these passages:

Psalm 137:9 -  he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

2 Kings 6:28-29 – She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we’ll eat my son.’ So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him,’ but she had hidden him.”

God killing the first born, the Flood, etc. Okay, a quick show of hands. Who believes that God advocates or even suggests a doctrine of infanticide?

No one? Why not?

Because we know the dishonesty of pulling a passage from its context to try to make it match our desired meaning. We know that we are not free to dismiss the surrounding circles of context in the process of developing doctrine and yet, we continue to do so.

The Honest Reading

In the previous post we looked at the importance of making sure that the language we are reading (in this case English) holds the same meaning in the text as it did in the author’s original language. In the passage we are studying, there weren’t any surprises for the honest reader but the reader who wants to load a theological presupposition into the passage might find a bit of difficulty.

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Who’s Up (today) for An Honest Reading? John 6:37-40

image Theological discussion in various venues often pits one position of belief against its opposites. Supporters of one position or another like to issue proposition statements of the form ‘If they would give _____ an honest reading’, ‘once I gave ______ an honest reading’,’ you can’t read _________ honestly and still believe’ or various other permutations that are meant to couch the idea that your position is unsupportable in the light of clear interpretation. In other words, the veiled inference is that theological presuppositions have colored your interpretation of the text and if you would put them aside and engage an honest reading of the text, you would certainly see the validity of the opposing position. Let’s see if that’s a valid argument…

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  (Jn 6:37–40)

It’s All Greek to Me

Yesterday we looked at the various contextual levels in which the reader encounters a bible passage. To avoid mishandling a text or inappropriately proof-texting out of context we need to recognize the material that surrounds the passage to varying degrees of immediacy. We close by turning our attention to the language used by the original author and how well our modern translations accord to the original meaning of the words used. This will come as a shock to some but the Bible was not delivered in Elizabethan English. God elected to transmit His truth through authors in Hebrew and Greek for the most part and if we are going to delve beyond our English (or whatever translated language we read) we need to dive into the original texts. Caution is advised here; words in Greek and Hebrew often have ranges of meaning just like their English counterparts and it is easy to manipulate the interpretation of a passage

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Who’s Up (again) for An Honest Reading? John 6:37-40

image Theological discussion in various venues often pits one position of belief against its opposites. Supporters of one position or another like to issue proposition statements of the form ‘If they would give _____ an honest reading’, ‘once I gave ______ an honest reading’,’ you can’t read _________ honestly and still believe’ or various other permutations that are meant to couch the idea that your position is unsupportable in the light of clear interpretation. In other words, the veiled inference is that theological presuppositions have colored your interpretation of the text and if you would put them aside and engage an honest reading of the text, you would certainly see the validity of the opposing position. Let’s see if that’s a valid argument…

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  (Jn 6:37–40)

A Text Without a Context May Be a Pretext

We closed our discussion yesterday with a brief discussion of the necessity for recognizing context in interpreting biblical texts. In all cases, we want to avoid the interpretive error of proof texting which, unfortunately, has become a substitute for sound exegesis. In our pursuit of an honest reading, let’s have a look at the context in which this passage occurs, starting from the immediate and moving outward.

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Who’s Up for An Honest Reading? John 6:37-40

image Theological discussion in various venues often pits one position of belief against its opposites. Supporters of one position or another like to issue proposition statements of the form ‘If they would give _____ an honest reading’, ‘once I gave ______ an honest reading’,’ you can’t read _________ honestly and still believe’ or various other permutations that are meant to couch the idea that your position is unsupportable in the light of clear interpretation. In other words, the veiled inference is that theological presuppositions have colored your interpretation of the text and if you would put them aside and engage an honest reading of the text, you would certainly see the validity of the opposing position. Let’s see if that’s a valid argument…

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  (Jn 6:37–40)

Given the earlier promise of Jesus recorded by the Evangelist John in 3:16-17, the power of the good news that brought many to believe in Samaria recorded in 4:39, and his repetition of the earlier promise for any who believe spoken in 5:24, an honest reading of this passage leads the reader to two conclusions.

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The Calvinist Canard of Honest Reading

imageLike an AM radio signal, the amplitude of the eternal rhetorical war of theology is ratcheted up and wound down by adherents of a particular camp. A recent campaign of bomb throwing posts ignited an insignificant skirmish that left no dead but encouraged the chest thumping of one group to rise to deafening levels. The posts were of the typical ‘Arminians are Pelagians (Sovereignty deniers, Grace deniers, Works lovers, Depravity diminishers, et. al. ) who probably put catsup on their hot dogs’ offerings that regularly appear on this particular blog and, unsurprisingly, generated sound pressure in the echo chamber of Townsend-Blackmore-Young proportions. Continue reading

You, Theologian : Where We Begin

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As we accept our call to be theologians, the next logical question is to ask what that means. Many in the Christian community will default to the image of the sequestered scholar, surrounded by mountains of books and poring over the scattered papers piled before him. Theology, in this narrow view, is a field with high barriers to entry, only to be approached by a select few while the rest of us wait to receive their wisdom. Nonsense. This stereotype is not only damaging to the faith, it is flat out wrong. Go look in a mirror Christian. There is a theologian. Regardless of background, social group, education, or denomination even, you and I are called to be theologians and our theology is formed in two ways. One is by our experience of being a Christian. This is known as our embedded theology.

Our first order theology comes from the Christian environment that surrounds us. This environment, usually our church and this immediate community, usually drives what we believe about our faith. Since every church believes itself to be living by Christian principles, the initial framework of how we think about faith is organized on a similar framework to that which guides our church. The practices, stated doctrine, and general atmosphere give us some idea of what it means to be a Christian. We trust that those who developed the doctrines and traditions knew what they were doing and this confidence tells us we can accept these things without too much worry.

This is as far as many believers will ever go. If our church teaches it, regardless of the initial reasons, it’s good enough for us. Embedded theology works well for a while but some cracks in the firmness of the foundation begin to show when it is challenged. The first challenge often arrives in the form of a comparison between our church and our neighbor’s church. We may worship within a tradition that has a dry tradition toward alcohol and so we live as teetotalers. One fine summer day our neighbor Ed invites us over for a barbecue. Ed and his family are Christians who go to a different church but we still look forward to some fine fellowship. Knocking on the door brings Ed quickly to answer it, swinging the door wide with the hand that isn’t gripping his beer. Beer! Your embedded theology sends a message to your brain: smile, but watch this guy carefully since you know that no Christians use alcohol.

The barbecue is fine and later, as you nurse your third cola, you get a chance to talk to Ed alone. “Say Ed,” you say. “I noticed you drink beer.”

“Yep, I have a couple now and then. Why?”

You don’t want to lecture (but secretly you do) so you put a big smile on your face and say “Well, my pastor speaks against alcohol at least once every couple of months. I was just wondering how often yours does.”

“I’ve only heard him talk about it once.” Ed replies and takes the last sip of his beverage. “He taught us that the Bible talks about drunkenness but doesn’t say we must not drink alcohol. Didn’t Jesus drink wine?”

So it seems that some Christians do drink alcohol. How can the Bible teach both things? We trust our embedded ideas but often find them quickly challenged.

Second order challenges are much more difficult for this type of theological thinking. Imagine the family of the child who wandered away at the beach and got too close to the surf. She was swept out of reach of her searching parents and they lost her. How will the shallow theology of our community answer this tragedy. Why did God take the child? Were the parents secret sinners who were being punished? Was the child herself punished? Embedded theology is usually to fragile to deal with something like effectively. To come to grips with a loss like this requires a depth in the answers. It requires an intentional approach to theological questions. It requires that we practice deliberative theology.

Deliberative theology begins work right where we are by setting forth to reflect upon our embedded convictions. We question the beliefs that we have taken for granted and seek to place them among the spectrum of Christian belief on a subject. The deliberative approach looks into the various positions and seeks to understand that which is most satisfactory. Sometimes this is easier said than done since seeking answers outside of our narrow understanding can lead to challenges that we would rather not face. Beloved traditions and beliefs can be toppled in an instant and many will retreat to the shallow end of the pool when this threat becomes too real.

Sadly, we discover our need for a more intentional approach to theological thinking when the deeper tragedies of life occur. Our embedded beliefs prove unsatisfactory to answer the questions we have and we embark on a quest to understand. When we are prepared to set aside simply believing what we are told to believe and to make the effort to understand why we believe what we believe, we finally grow and mature as Christians. We see God as more than just Daddy. We seek out a deeper knowledge of His revealed nature and character. The result is a more satisfying faith and a more complete worship. We are living out our calling.

image by rogilde

You, Theologian

image I’ll move right to the conclusion. You and I, if we are followers of Christ, are called to be theologians. We, as Christians, have a tendency to assign this title only to a small sampling of our community, perhaps to pastors or scholars but this is wrong. To be a theologian has little to do with academic achievement or vocational calling. Rather, it has everything to do with processing all of our thoughts and actions through the filter of what we understand it to mean to be a Christian. To put this another way, our decision to speed a little on the way to work should be processed not only through the filter of civil law but through the notion of what it means to be a Christian who is disrespecting civil law and representing Christ as you do so. The witness you and I present to the world in the course of our daily lives reflects our understanding of the faith. We are not given the luxury to compartmentalize and separate life from life in Christ.

Theology is not some arcane art, to be grasped by a select few who have made the epic journey across the wild and unforgiving seas, fighting dragons as we go. Theology is the knowledge and understanding that you and I have of God. Theology is dual-faceted and it encompasses our doctrine and the resulting practice that comes from applying that doctrine. Doctrine can be generally defined as our beliefs about the nature of God and His actions, who we are as His created beings, and what He has done to restore our damaged relationship with Him. To the extent that we find our understanding in line with those of historic Christianity is the degree of our orthodoxy. The behaviors that result from this understanding are the external display to those around us of what our doctrine is. Orthopraxy defines our allegiance to our doctrine through the act of daily living. Say and do are not separated in theological reflection.

The tools of theological reflection are within the grasp of all Christians. We find our content in the sixty-six books of the Bible, the revealed word of God to and for His people. We bring to this content an assent to our personal biases and suppositions and are honest in admitting how they might tint our reflection. Finally, we bring our faith to bear on the whole of the endeavor. We believe in God who has revealed Himself to us in numerous and varied ways yet remains elusive. We have yet to be privileged to see Him face to face and so we trust. Here, we come full circle. Some have described theology as faith that is seeking understanding and this is is an excellent baseline definition. To understand what you believe and why you believe it and then apply this structure to your life, this is the task that you are called to Theologian. Godspeed.

 

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