The Word of God for the people of God

We often use these words after we read from the Bible in worship: The Word of God for the people of God.

But I wonder if we always mean it.

Do we mean it when we call the Bible the Word of God? Many of us do not. We do not take the words of scripture to be the words of God to us. They are not from God, but about God. They are the words of humans grasping at an invisible and unknowable truth. That is what many of us believe, even if we do not say it in so many words during worship.

What would it mean for us to be a people who actually lived as if those words we speak out of liturgical habit were held in our hearts and not just on our lips? If the Bible is the Word of God rather than a word about God, shouldn’t we take it much more seriously?

Violence in the Bible – Two approaches

Adam Hamilton recently published three blog posts about violence in the Old Testament.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Allan Bevere recruited Ashland seminary professor Dan Hawk to provide a response.

Part One 

Part Two

Part Three

The posts on these two blogs and the comments they have generated would make an interesting small group study.

Here is how Hawk concludes his second post:

On the question of divine violence as in so many others, the canon calls faithful readers out black-and-white thinking and into the gray; out of an impulse that seeks to simplify, dichotomize, and resolve in order to determine who is right– and into a communal conversation as fluid and contentious as the clamor of voices that vie with one another in the biblical canon. The plurality of voices, postures, testimonies, and declarations that configure Scripture reflect the diversity of the same that characterize the church. The very nature of Scripture, then, directs the community shaped by it to seek the truth from all sides and prayerfully ponder together what God is doing in any given day and age and so to align its witness and involvements accordingly.

I notice the reference to living in the gray, which may or may not be a reference to one of Hamilton’s other books. Reading Hawk’s response to Hamilton, I am mindful as well of another response to this question about the violence of God. Some — and John Wesley would fall in this camp — that we are all creatures of God, and so God is justified at any moment if he destroys us for any reason. We are like clay pots the potter can smash on a whim.

This “clay pot” solution to the violence of God comes to mind as I was reading these posts because it strikes me as the mirror image of Hamilton’s approach. Hamilton — as I think Hawk rightly argues — simplifies the witness of Scripture too much by shearing off those parts seem to conflict with a certain vision of who Jesus is. Wesley — and contemporaries such as John Piper — simplify the witness of Scripture the other way by smashing clay pots every time someone raises a qualm about Hell or the destruction of Jericho.

Hawk — quoting Walter Brueggemann — testifies to a God who defies simplification, and in that way becomes much more dangerous and awe-inspiring. You just don’t know what God is going to do next. Such a God is hard to cram into a Sunday School lesson or a sermon. Such a God certainly is not chiefly concerned with making us comfortable. But such a God — at least for me — feels much less like an idol created out of my own imagination and needs. Such a God feels worthy of worship, fear, and love.

Five things United Methodists say about the Bible

David Watson discusses the mainline Protestant tendency to say more about what we don’t believe about the Bible than what we do believe.

He ends his post with five statements he drew from the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church:

1. Scripture is the primary source of divine revelation in our tradition. Other claims to divine revelation should be tested against scripture.

2. Everything we need to know to receive salvation is in the Bible.

3. The Bible is the true guide for Christian faith and practice.

4. The Holy Spirit helps us to understand and apply scripture to our lives.

4. Christian tradition, such as is found in the creeds, helps to interpret scripture for teaching the historic faith of the church.

5. Reason and the experience help us to understand scripture, but on matters of salvation, and matters of faith and practice related to salvation, they should not contradict scripture.

My postmodern friends, I suspect, will object to some of these statements because they suggest that scripture has a meaning independent of the community of interpretation.

To address those kinds of objections, I find I need to talk about revelation and the work of the Holy Spirit. But we ground those statements — or at least I try to — on scripture. So, there is a certain circularity in my argument that I do not see how I can avoid.

In the end, I find that I adopt the attitude that scripture is something we receive as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, and in light of that attitude of reception I embrace the five statements that Watson offers above.

More than faith, hope & love

We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 1:3, NIV)

I’m not sure why this caught my attention recently. I noticed the 1 Corinthians 13 triad of faith, hope, and love while reading 1 Thessalonians. And then I saw how Paul here connected each one with an outcome. Faith produces work. Love prompts labor. Hope inspires endurance. Here is a portrait of the church that Paul celebrates.

Faith, hope, and love are all great and wonderful. But isn’t Paul here pointing out the true indications of these three things? Show me your faith separate from works. Show me your love that does not result in labor. Tell me of your hope that does not give you the endurance to walk through trials. You cannot. If you have not endurance, then your hope is fragile. If you do not labor then you do not love. If you do no work, you have no true faith.

Paul pairs these terms in offering praise, but heard rightly they are a challenge to us as Christians.

God will repay

God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (Romans 2:6-8, NIV)

The larger context of this passage is that God’s response to good and evil ignores the distinction between Jew and Gentile, but we should not let the distinction that Paul feels he has to make a case for obscure from our vision the claims about God that Paul feels no need to defend because everyone agrees, namely that God punishes those who do evil and rewards those who persist in doing good.

This is so fundamental to biblical religion that we render the Bible incomprehensible if we suppress this fundamental claim about God.

The old Methodist teaching took this for granted. And it equally took for granted that we are no able to do the persistent good that Paul writes about. We might do good here or there, but we cannot form a life grounded in persistent goodness out of our own resources. And we cannot erase the crippling stain of sin by our own good deeds. We cannot, in other words, deserve the reward.

This old Methodist message has many detractors in United Methodism, but what I have find even more perplexing is the resistance to the fundamental biblical claim about God rewards those who do good and punishes those who do evil.

 

Does Parker Palmer get vocation right?

In Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak, he writes with great passion against the notion that a calling is something that comes from outside yourself. For Palmer, calling arises when we listen to the inner voice of our own authentic self. As you might guess, Palmer does not buy into the doctrine of total depravity. He teaches the essential goodness of humanity that is only distorted and suppressed by society and external demands. Happiness and joy are only found in honoring the inner voice and embracing all of who we are — light as well as shadow. In this way, he reminds me very much of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other romantics.

What his vision of vocation does not remind me of very much is the Bible. I am hard pressed to think of a clear example in the Bible where a calling comes to a person from within themselves rather than from outside. Moses, Isaiah, Mary, Paul, and on and on: They are summoned to God’s vision in ways that they do not want or did not seek.

As far as I can see, the biblical notion of call — or vocation — is experienced as an alien summons that goes directly against what you would choose for yourself. The Garden of Gethsemane — not my will but yours be done — is the first image that comes to mind when I ask myself what vocation looks like in the Bible.

Or this comes close after that: In teaching the disciples, Jesus tells them to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him. I wonder how Palmer reads and interprets that?

I know a lot of people find Palmer’s writing quite helpful.

I have a hard time squaring it with what I understand to be the witness of Scripture.