Archive for February, 2015

WITNESS TO THE TRUTH

One point at which we cannot reach detente with the Postmodernists is in their suspicion of the category ‘truth’, and their preference for diversity instead.

However, short of the return of Christ our claims to truth must be open to critique, and not coercive. Truth is not something to be enforced. Rather it should be claimed in a way appropriate to its content. In the biblical narrative, it’s truth claims are often presented under the category of ‘witness’. This category has a lot to offer in a postmodern setting. It is non-threatening and non-self-serving. Witness, in the biblical sense, is about what God has done and what the witnesses have experienced. It is also witness against false idols – such as, in our context, the gods of consumerism. Because the witness is about God’s acts, it resists corruption into the usual human will to power.

Paul gives us resources to understand how this witness works in 1 Corinthians 1-4. His whole ministry was shaped by its witness to ‘Christ crucified.’ There we see that not only the content of our witness must be cross-centred, but also its form. I.e. it is only when the church’s community life stands as an alternative to the surrounding culture, when that life becomes part of our testimony to Jesus crucified, that we become faithful witnesses.

WITNESS IN A GLOBALISED WORLD

How can the church’s witness confront the massive voice of the modern narrative of worldwide economic power? There have always been totalising power narratives, such as those that drove the great empires of old. The biblical metanarrative generally stood over against these narratives, especially in the Apocalyptic writings, where a very different story of imperial rule is asserted.

The Roman empire under Augustus, for instance, was entranced with the project of world-wide dominance to the ends of the earth. Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8, by picking up this phrase ‘to the end of the world’, proposes a counter-narrative to that of Rome: a project not of power but of witness. Revelation explores the way these two projects clash and conflict. John sees the witnesses to Jesus as witnessing largely by not conforming to the imperial project.

This all gives us plenty of clues about what witness might involve today in the face of the modern narrative of global economic power that holds sway in the West.

THE BIBLICAL STORY AND CULTURAL DIVERSITY

Doesn’t this biblical narrative tend to over-ride and squash other local world-views? When God reverses Babel at Pentecost, he affirms the place of cultural diversity in his kingdom. The gospel is not a culture-crusher. The biblical story is hospitable to other stories, drawing them in to relationship with itself.

CONCLUSION

The Christian church is in a position to embrace some aspects of modern globalism as consonant with God’s global project. But also to expose other aspects as anti-God and anti-creature also. This is a challenging time for us. We have often failed to keep ourselves from the human will to power, but there is room for repentance!

ASSESSMENT

This chapter contains much gold, and I can only lament that it is so brief and covers so much territory that Bauckham’s ideas are left fairly undeveloped. I would dearly love to hear more of his thoughts about how we sit in our culture, and about what it might look like to be a faithful witness in the face of the new global empire. The stuff on Rome’s power project was very helpful.

RB’s vision for a witnessing church is one I find captivating. But I would like to see a more rigorous discussion of why the church has failed so extremely in this vision over so long. Is the gospel really so ineffective in the face of the human temptation to power? Or has there been a theological  problem in the church historically, that has distorted witness at this vital point? If so, where have we gone wrong? Which aspects of RB’s biblical-theological vision stand in tension with the church’s traditional narrative? I for one would have appreciated at least one further chapter!

But hopefully you’ve heard enough to be convinced that this is a little book worth reading and digesting, worth discussing and debating. A deeply theological book, that teaches us how to read Scripture more perceptively. A prophetic book, that has a message of challenge and hope for the modern church.

What does ISIS really want?

Posted: February 24, 2015 by J in General

Have you ever wondered? Worth reading this eye-opening article from the Atlantic  magazine. Very well researched and hard to stop reading once you start!

http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

515gxgjcZSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_SUMMARY

Bauckham has told his whole story now, of the God who reveals himself to the whole world through particular people and times and places, most especially through Jesus of Nazareth. He sums up his argument by quoting Lesslie Newbigin on ‘election.’ In his book The Open Secret, LN says election is God’s way of relating to us as the humans we are, i.e. all connected. Instead of sending salvation to each man directly – an isolating salvation – God makes it pass from one to another. So then, someone must be called and sent first for the others. And this is how LN understands ‘election’: it is not for the person alone but for the others that he is called by God. A salvation that suits human needs must involve election.

That’s a pretty cool way of seeing it. And it gives an ultimate point or direction to the human story – what Bauckham has been talking about all along: from the one to the many. LN says ‘Christian faith is thus a way of understanding world history which challenges and relativises all other models  by which the meaning of history is interpreted.’

POSTMODERN CRITIQUE

But, Bauckham points out, since the 1970s Postmodernism has challenged the very idea of an overarching meaning to human history. It rejects metanarratives as tools for projecting power. So isn’t Newbigin’s view – which is also the theme of Bible and Mission – suspect from a 21st century point of view?

This is where RB lets his model for understanding Scripture confront the modern world we live in. He wants to hear the critique postmodernism would launch at the Christian story. Is this Christian metanarrative simply a way of silencing the voices of others and controlling them? Certainly the church has been guilty of doing this, during its history. Yes. But is this dynamic of oppression built into the biblical narrative itself?

 The biblical story as a non-modern metanarrative

Postmodernism started as a critique of the metanarrative of Modernism, coming out of the Enlightenment. The dream of reason leading to progress was exposed as a tool of western domination. The biblical narrative does not share modernism’s dream of human knowledge and mastery. It sees history as the stage for the fulfilment of God’s purposes, not man’s. Much remains mysterious from our limited perspective. God’s action is not predictable but free, and often disruptive and unexpected. So mission is not a smooth expansion like Modernism’s ‘progress.’ Also, the biblical narrative, while telling an overall story, is told by many voices, and as such is manifold, untidy and multi-perspectival. It does not press all to adopt a single tidy viewpoint on life. And it does not suppress the minority voices as modernism would tend to do.

In other words the Bible’s metanarrative is not totalitarian and intolerant of diversity. There is plenty of room within it for the range of human experience and culture. The critiques of postmodernism are not really aimed at this sort of story.

ASSESSMENT

That’s pretty convincing, RB. Great to have your summary of the book at the start of the chapter. Great that you open your view up to critique, and face it calmly. It’s good to have the Christian story distinguished clearly from the Enlightenment one I grew up with – we still tend to mix them up!

I can see how RB deals with and ultimately escapes the critique of postmodernism. Does it matter? Surely the gospel is going to offend people anyhow, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that? Who cares if we upset a bunch of postmodernists?

I care, actually. Because key elements of the postmodern case seem to me to be just and true. Their critique of modernism leaves it looking oppressive and cruel. And when I see those attitudes and behaviours in the church or in her message, I want to repent of that. I want to be confident that we are not silencing the weak and siding with the strong. That’s stuff I’ve learned from Jesus.

In other words, Postmodernism has brought out strands in the Christian faith that have long lain dormant. It has preached to us things that we should have been preaching, when we were instead embarking on the grand adventure of empire. Its voice has been prophetic. God who can speak through an ass can even speak through a french philosopher! And so where it is true to the gospel, it behoves Bauckham (and us) to listen carefully and examine ourselves and the story we are telling – which is what he is doing here.

If the biblical story doesn’t fall foul of the postmodernist critique, why is it that the church’s behaviour often is oppressive and totalising? Why are so many church leaders bullies? And what does this biblical story have to offer that might challenge the abusive narratives which have captured our world? More on this next time…

Con Campbell’s Greek breakthroughs

Posted: February 20, 2015 by J in Bible, Linguistics

advances-in-the-studyMuch nonsense is foisted on the church in the name of ‘greek grammar’. Think of all the rubbish about the aorist tense we’ve heard from preachers over the past 50 years. The man in the pew doesn’t stand a chance, he can’t tell truth from error when it comes to ‘what does the greek say?’

Sadly I found a similar thing going on at Bible college, where many myths and pet views were sustained by dodgy exegesis of the greek text.

The thing is, there has been a lot of work done in the past generation or so to advance our understanding of how the Koine Greek works. Real progress has been made.

And sadly much of it has been ignored by pastors, preachers, college lecturers, NT commentators. Etc.

Con Campbell is at the forefront of recent scholarship on Greek grammar and syntax. He has been especially influential in the area of verbal aspect. Which gets a chapter in this book. He knows his stuff well. He has a good sense of what these recent insights have to offer and of where they challenge our traditional reading approach.

I know because I did his course at college, and I learned a lot. I use the stuff I learned all the time. Couldn’t do without it.

Now he’s turned it into a book. Good on him.

Are you using the greek NT? Read this book. Get yourself up to date. It’s a real eye-opener. And it’s not hard to read. Con writes in an accessible style.

Out of Con’s books, this is the first one to get. Check it out here:

http://youtu.be/gK8_djAW5tQ

And those of you who know Con, check out the new accent! 😉

03990_000_bible-map-8I’m inviting you to read through RB’s beaut little book with me – hope you’re enjoying the ride.

The biblical theme of movement from the one to the many that RB is describing, necessarily implies Geography. This is a much-neglected dimension of Scripture. But places are particulars, and the crossing of geographical boundaries is part of the meaning of mission with its universal agenda. How then does geography function in the Bible’s big picture?

1. Horizons and ‘Representative Geography’

Judging from the table of nations in Genesis 10, how did the OT writers see the world? It extended from Spain west to Iran east, from Ethiopia south to the Black Sea north. This sets the scene for the rest of the OT histories. The number of nations – 70 – is symbolic. Seven was often used in lists that represented a more comprehensive whole. They are real nations but numbering 70 they stand for all the nations on earth: this is what RB calls ‘representative geography.’

The ‘ends of the earth’ is an important bible concept (with Israel at the earth’s centre). But unlike the Greeks the OT does not glamorise these lands: they are just far-away places. The ‘scattered ones’ of Zephaniah 3 who come from the far South are real people – but through their link with Babel they also stand for all those who are far off. Often OT prophets speak of a future for particular foreign nations, but in a way that makes them representative of all nations: as in the list of seven nations in Isaiah 66. The particular leads to the universal.

2. Centre and Horizon

Though placing Israel firmly at the centre of the world, the OT prophets do not imply a superiority for the centre as was common in Hellenistic culture – or for the fringes, as in Herodotus. Rather the centre is a matter of God’s election. Likewise Paul rejects ethnic superiority in Colossians 3: in Christ there is no longer Greek and Jew, etc.

Much of the OT plays down Israel’s calling to be a blessing to the nations, but her place in the midst of the nations is always acknowledged. By the time of the NT, Jews had been scattered and were living in many of these countries. This international structure to Israel’s life and thought became the framework within which Christian mission arose.

3. Seeking and sending

Does the Bible envisage a centripetal or a centrifugal movement with regard to the centre? In the OT and the gospels, very often centripetal, with the nations coming in to Zion.

In the NT the sending of the apostles and others has a centrifugal direction built in. However the geographical force of this sending is not always full-strength, as the concept of the temple-as-centre came to be identified with the local Christian community rather than with the Jerusalem temple. In John’s Gospel, Jesus himself becomes the temple, the centre of God’s presence on earth, the particular through which God reaches the whole world.

4. A Diaspora People

One other geographical image is important in Scripture: the OT image of God’s people as scattered exiles is appropriated in the NT to describe believers living as a minority in a world where their beliefs are marginalised.

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Assessment

I find this discussion of geography in general refreshing and different, since the theme is so often ignored in bible scholarship. But RB demonstrates its value. His ‘representative geography’ concept is persuasive, and I think very helpful for our reading of Scripture. It enables us to read the OT prophetic vision in its particulars while remaining sensitive to its universal scope. The framework of centre and edges to the world is so important for reading Scripture from within the right world-view. It also gives us some framework to help in structuring our thinking about what the church is, then and now.

The idea of diaspora is perhaps the most urgently relevant geographical idea for the Western church, struggling as it still is to throw off the shackles of its privileged, state-backed past. Once we face up to being a powerless minority, rather than, say, society’s moral policeman, ‘this may improve our witness to the Christ who was himself so often found at the margins’ – as RB points out. I think he has in mind that our long-outdated sense of entitlement is one of the least attractive aspects of the church in the modern west, with its hostility towards entrenched power and privilege. Good call.

repentanceThe fourth and last trajectory RB identifies is not a specific narrative, but a characteristic of them all: it is about movement of people. At Corinth God demonstrates his MO of working through the least to reach the many (1 Cor. 1:26ff). Thus God constantly overturns human status by initially prefering the lowest.

This strategy is epitomised at the cross, where God is revealed fully in a dehumanised object of shame. When God raised this one he defined the dynamic of his kingdom: blessing to the many through the lowest. His love ‘has to reach the strong via the weak’ (p.50). Paul’s own ministry was unsettling for people because he modelled the same pattern, thus radically contradicting social values.

This trajectory gives the church’s mission an inescapable socio-economic aspect. It must begin as a downward movement towards to people at the bottom of the social heap. The rest will only be saved through and with them.

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I love this little section. It hits hard. I only wish it were more expanded. This bit of theologising draws its insights from all the bible discussion that’s come before. It adds value by identifying this common thread running throughout, and showing how it reaches its climax at the cross. RB’s description of the cross in this passage (p.52) is worth the price of the book!

And there is so much challenge here for evangelical churches, entrenched as we are in the middle/uppermiddle classes; addicted to reaching the educated first. ‘To all the least by way of the privileged’ – that is surely our motto. We haven’t nearly faced up to the gospel reality that RB draws out here. We don’t like to admit that mission can have a socio-economic or political dimension. Until we do, we will fail the test of faithfulness – let alone fruitfulness!

kingDavid_lgBauckham’s next strand of ‘particular to universal’ relates to Israel’s King and his throne in Zion. For OT believers,  Zion is the seat of God’s universal rule, the temple being an earthly version office heavenly throne. The Davidic kings also were supposed to be the earthly version of God’s heavenly rule. However the reality fell far short of this ideal. Not only were they unfaithful, they didn’t rule over the whole world as Yahweh does. Kingship was an ambiguous symbol for Israel, full of tensions.

These tensions were to be resolved in the Messiah. His reign would be universal, his solidarity with humans total. The specificity of Jerusalem as centre is lost in the NT, but the particularity of the King is not: both throne and rule are located in Jesus of Nazareth.

CONCLUSIONS:

Bauckham then draws conclusions from his analysis of these three strands: worldwide blessing through Abraham/Israel revealing God to the world/God’s universal rule established through the King.

He comments that while none of these equals mission, yet together they make the church’s mission intelligible within the biblical metanarrative. They establish directions in which later the church’s mission can flow. The NT gospel is not novel in its universal view-point. Election was always God singling out some for the sake of others.

Ultimately all these particularities come together in the election of the man Jesus before they can become truly universal. And the church of Jesus Christ is therefore caught up in this movement out.

ASSESSMENT:

This conclusion is where big B brings home the bacon. This was the problem he started with: a loss of confidence and clarity about mission in our post-modern context. And he has shown how the Scripture story, rightly understood, gives us back a reason for mission. Bauckham’s key word here is ‘intelligible’: he has shown us that, in spite of a century of uncertainty, mission still makes sense.

That’s worth its weight in gold.

I love it that instead of wrangling with postmodern critiques in the abstract and trying to construct a defense of mission, RB just goes to Scripture and retells the story. And when he’s told it, he can just say, “The church is caught up in that. Deal with it.” So he stays on the front foot throughout. He tackles it through theology, rather than through politics or general philosophy or ethics. Nice.

crossingHow does Bauckham’s model of ‘movement from the particular to the universal’ help us make sense of the Bible’s broad story-arc?

The second strand which Bauckham follows through the Scriptures starts in the book of Exodus. Although Yahweh elects one nation as his special possession, he does so as the one true God of all nations. By choosing Israel he makes himself known to the world. The emphasis here is on the name of Yahweh, i.e. on revealing his identity, as opposed to bringing blessing as in the Abrahamic narrative strand.

Here the particularity of election flows out to the universality of world-wide recognition. This is seen to occur paradigmatically at the Exodus, and throughout Israel’s history. The prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah see Israel’s future return from exile as a witness to the nations. Solomon views the temple functioning as a centre from which Yahweh’s name will go forth and draw the nations to worship. Often the idea of blessing is included in this revealing: in Isaiah especially the God who is revealed is the universal Saviour.

New Testament believers were immersed in this Isaianic viewpoint. The apostolic mission was seen to be the fulfilment of this hope: Jesus had achieved a new exodus at the cross, and now his chosen ones went out to announce it to the world. The goal was that ‘every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord’ – i.e. the mission was to reveal the true identity of Yahweh to the nations: he was the one who had acted in Jesus.

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This strand adds considerable richness to the first Abrahamic one focussed on blessing. It emphasises the relational nature of God’s mission: not just to fix things but to restore a right relationship between him and us. There is no idea in the gospel of our being helped apart from knowing God.

Once again Bauckham persuasively and simply guides us through the Scripture, showing the strong continuity between the testaments, showing how his model (one to many) opens things up for us. Nice.