Recently a friend of ours sent an email in which, among other things, he said the following:
I have recently been thinking about some very fundamental ways that my religious beliefs have changed (or are changing, as I'm not sure quite where I will end up on some things) in recent years. … Some of the areas in which my beliefs are shifting, that I would not have foreseen a few years ago, include
· my view of scripture
· existence of hell
· importance of a conversion experience
· substitutionary atonement
· beliefs about homosexuality
The questions he raises are questions for many people today, and especially for those of us who grew up within what is sometimes called Evangelicalism. [Defining “Evangelical” is another blog, and has been worked in detail by good Evangelical scholars; I won’t say more about it here.] Although I do not sense a radical shift in these areas in my own thinking, I also have thought a lot about these questions. This brief essay is an effort to suggest what I have been thinking. Obviously this is not the space for an in-depth consideration: These are beginning thoughts.
1. Scripture. Within the Brethren in Christ Church inerrancy-infallibility has never been part of our official statement of belief. Many of our people subscribe to some form of such language, but I have never found it helpful. Clark Pinnock’s book, The Scripture Principle, stated well what I thought 30 years ago, and what I still believe. I accept Scripture as my final written authority in matters of faith and life.
Here is a brief summary of why I hold the view I do.
· We need some authority outside of ourselves in order to evaluate what is true. If that outside authority is only societal norms, they are as subjective as my own personal opinions; I need something with deeper grounding than “the spirit of the age.”
· Scripture (OT and NT) has a clear general validity so far as ancient documents are concerned. F.F. Bruce’s The NT Documents: Are They Reliable is an older statement of this validity within the NT, and I find it persuasive. Good arguments do not become false because we keep questioning them! [A current example is the tendency of some to think that climate change will go away if they can resist the findings of climate scientists long enough. They are wrong; the findings of the experts stand, whether we question them or not.] The Bible’s general truthfulness does not prove its authority, but it does mean we can rely on what it says about the life and death of Jesus, for example. Which leads to the next point.
· The importance of Scripture in our lives today rests on what it teaches about Jesus. The NT tells us that Jesus taught his disciples [most people today like what they know of his teaching]. The NT also tells us that Jesus claimed a unique union with God—that he was one with God. Among the Jews such a claim could only lead to his death for blasphemy. The NT says that he was duly executed, and that he rose from the dead. In Surprised by Joy C.S. Lewis tells how an atheist history tutor at Oxford helped lead to Lewi’s conversion to follow Jesus. In an after-dinner conversation, the tutor commented on the NT along the following lines: “Rum thing, Lewis,” he said, “It looks like that resurrection thing really happened.” Speaking as an historian, he found the documents credible. The tutor remained an atheist, but Lewis saw the force of the statement and recognized that Jesus must be more than human.
Such an abbreviated argument for the reliability of Scripture does not deal with weaknesses in the argument or with objections to it. I am doing no more than sketching the way that I conclude that the Bible is true and that it leads us to God. This line of thinking leads me to search for Scripture to find how God—the Creator of all—reveals God’s self to us—human, finite creatures. The problems that people raise within Scripture are of less interest to me than this search for what God reveals about God through the self-revelation of Jesus.
Infallibility-Inerrancy gets bogged down in other questions: Seven days of creation [which Genesis 1 has no interest in teaching]; Jonah and the big fish [an acted out parable not intended to tell us about marine biology]; the extra day from thee time that Joshua told the sun to stand still [really? We’re chasing ancient calendars to find God?] The language of Inerrancy superimposes our scientific categories on people from two to three thousand years ago. If Scripture had been written to answer our modern questions of science, it would have been incomprehensible to the people for whom it is written.
Hard passages of Scripture (such as the apparent calls to genocide in the OT) must be understood through the lens of the language and culture and literature of the people for whom they were written. We wrestle with these passages because we read them as moderns (and sometimes as post-moderns) who don’t know the categories and thought patterns of the ancients. Here is a link for a sermon in which I try to understand one such passage. And here is a sequel.
My summary statement is that my faith rests on Jesus, forged through my relationship with Jesus, the Son of God. Scripture is the only written witness we have to meet God in God’s self-revelation. I read the Bible to know Jesus and God better. Those passages that stump me become paradoxical problems that stimulate further reflection and continued searching. In most areas of learning, unresolved problems lead to new discoveries. When one decides to set aside a paradoxical problem and go around it, one loses the chance to penetrate further into the mysteries of life as God’s creatures in this world.
2. Heaven and Hell. My friend wonders then, is Hell there? The question of Hell is one that theologians wrestle with. Jerry Walls is an example of a philosopher who has researched in this area (Hell: The Logic of Damnation). My friend Terrrance Tiessen is an example of a theologian who has thought deeply about such questions (“Thoughts Theological”). Here are a couple of my own thoughts.
· It seems to me that it is primarily Christians in prosperous relatively stable countries who want to do away with Hell. Christians in Zimbabwe may pray for Mugabe and desire his conversion, but they can understand the logic or need for Hell. [I have a good Zimbabwean friend who believes that all people, including Mugabe, will finally be with God, so my statement is not universally true.] My sense, however, is that our desire to do away with Hell takes the reality of evil in our world too lightly.
· I do not see a particular need for what some Evangelicals call “eternal conscious torment” as part of our understanding of Hell. Scripture is remarkably sparing in descriptions of Hell, spending more time talking about the rewards and joys of Heaven. Jesus speaks more about Hell than anyone else in the NT, so we must take it seriously, but he does so in picture language that does not lend itself to systematic description. Jesus also tells us to not be afraid of those who can kill our bodies, but to fear [live in awe and respect towards] the one who can destroy both soul and body. Those who consider “annihilationism” refer to such passages as part of their belief.
· I affirm the reality of Hell, defined as a final and eternal separation from God, but see no benefit in describing Hell more precisely than that. I do not see Hell as necessary to serve God’s wrath, but rather as a logical extension of the dignity of free will that God has conferred on those of God’s creatures made in and as “the image of God”. God has given us the dignity of choice, and God respects our choice to be with God—or not—so much as to make that choice last forever.
3. Conversion. The importance of conversion lies simply in the need to choose and state the centre of our lives. Everyone has something or someone at the centre of his/her life. If our centre is not Jesus it will be something else. An emphasis on conversion derives from recognizing that God is the centre of life.
I don’t know in what way my friend was questioning conversion. This question may have to do with a related issue: Must one insist that only those who have a specific conversion experience are going to Heaven. That is a big question! I have found help in John Sanders (No Other Name!) and Terry Tiessen (Who Can Be Saved?). My short answer to the question is that Jesus is the only way to God, but we try to know more than we can know if we try to work out precisely what that means in each person’s life.
For my part I prefer to state core confessions without trying to harmonize them into the classical positions (exclusivism-inclusivism-universalism-pluralism). So I can say, “Jesus is the Only Way.” I can say that all who are with God in eternity are saved through the blood of Jesus on the cross. I do not need to decide what happens to each individual, but can affirm with C.S. Lewis and John Wesley (and others) that all who truly seek God will find God.
4. Atonement. This is a subject that I am thinking through in more depth at the moment. In a recent sermon I dealt with the topic briefly. Here it is enough to say that I think that those who insist on one model for atonement have gone astray.
· Some (often mainline Christians) hold up the moral theory (or imitation theory) [that we seek to live like Christ] as the essential model. But the ability to follow Christ is part of the new life described as “you must be born again”. We take up our cross (imitation), and God works in us to give us new life.
· Some (often Evangelicals and Roman Catholics) insist that penal substitution is the necessary model [in Jesus’ death “the wrath of God was satisfied”]. But this version of the satisfaction theory is only one way to describe what is happening in the atonement.
I could go through other models or theories in the same way. For now just these comments: 1) Any image of the atonement we use must be derived from Scripture. When we as finite creatures try to comprehend and describe the ways of God, who is Creator and infinite, we will fall short. So we use images from God’s self-revelation in Scripture. 2) We use those images that speak most clearly to us and help us draw closer to God in Christ. 3) We do not forbid others the use of other images of atonement, nor do we insist that our way is the only way we can understand what God is doing.
Many turn away from substitutionary atonement because they think it demeans God, who is Love. I would rather continue to use the biblical images, which include substitution. At some level, the idea of substitution is found in all of the images of atonement that the church has used. Jesus in some way beyond understanding did for us what we could not do, whether or not we can understand it. As John puts it, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus laid down his life for us, and there can be no greater demonstration of the truth that God is Love.
5. Homosexuality. Well look at the time! I must run! We’ll have to leave this question for another time!
Seriously, I won’t try to state my own position here and now. I will make a couple of observations. How we respond as the church to issue of same sex relationships is a great opportunity, one that for the most part the church has not taken. “Traditionalists” note that the story arc of Scripture is based on male and female as God’s image in the world. Embracing same sex relationships as marriage cuts against that story arc. “Progressives” note that another story arc in Scripture involves the way that God (and God’s people) includes those whom society has marginalized. Embracing same sex relationships as marriage is one way to include those whom we have too often rejected.
I have been part of difficult conversations about this subject, in which progressives make it clear that traditionalists are homophobic and unfaithful to the gospel. Such judgments do not help us move forward. In the same conversations I have heard traditionalists make it clear that progressives are “false prophets” and sinners. Such judgments do not help us move forward.
The societal shift that has taken place in my lifetime is so massive that it requires careful exegesis of our social setting as well as careful exegesis of Scripture to discover what God wants us to do now. I have more questions than answers. Question: What changed in our society to lead to where we are now? Question: Are these changes all good? Do we embrace them all? Question; What themes in Scripture speak to these issues? I am not particularly interested in proof texts, individual verses or brief sections of Scripture, but rather in the overall themes that shine through all of Scripture. Then I want to bring those themes together with what our culture teaches and look for how God speaks to us today.
Society is fickle and demanding. Same sex issues and transgender issues and many others are brought together with an absolute commitment to the rights of the individual, including those based entirely on their feelings. We insist too quickly on affirming one side of the argument or the other. I would rather take the time to listen and reflect and work at discovering what is truly good and right in a radically new situation.
I doubt that these brief thoughts are an adequate response to my friend’s probing thoughts and questions, but they are a beginning. It is important to keep thinking together, and not to submerge these issues. We do better when we think and talk together, listening together for God’s Spirit to speak within us.
29 July 2017