Sunday, January 08, 2017

Following Jesus in Teaching: Do Bible Commentaries Carry a Risk?

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)
When we read the Bible, there are all kinds of commentaries to help us understand it. But what if they help us misunderstand it?
This Good news we call the gospel of Christ. After making people aware of their sinfulness and their inability to save themselves, Jesus assured them of God's merciful forgiveness. (From the Albrecht & Albrecht commentary on Matthew 4:23)
When I look at Jesus' ministry in Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and surrounding countryside, I don't see him spending a lot of time on "making people aware of their sinfulness and inability to save themselves". He talks about God as the God who blesses, who meets us with blessing exactly in the worst moments of our lives, whose answer to the problem of evil includes not only defeating it ("healing every disease and sickness among the people"), but proclaiming beautiful blessings for those who have suffered. I see him kindling a desire for holiness. I see him showing how "morality" is not about keeping rules, but about the time that someone's decency and goodness made them the hero of someone else's story (Good Samaritan). I see him reserving his harshest words for the religious leaders and the religious establishment (such as "the blind leading the blind").

As he went around the countryside teaching, he was rarely their accuser. Someone who bashes the people over the head with their sinfulness is not bringing good news; in many cases they are being verbally abusive. They may cover that by saying it is necessary; but if so, why doesn't Jesus do it so regularly? Neither does Jesus spend a lot of teaching time trying to create feelings of self-doubt and helplessness. He does not seek to undermine their hope or their self-love. Instead, he seeks to leverage their self-love into opening their eyes to the needs of others ("as you love yourself"). He seeks to leverage their wish for forgiveness into mercy for everyone -- because we desire not only mercy from God but the people around us as well.

Somewhere there are some passages where Jesus confronted people with their sinfulness; that does not provide a license for his followers to use those as the official general approach, when Jesus did not have that as his official general approach.

To what extent does fitting Jesus into our system, then commenting on Jesus from the viewpoint of that system, run the risk of making us blind to what Jesus actually said and did?


Martin LaBar said...

The commentary you cite, at least, seems to have emphasized the wrong things.

Aron Wall said...

It's surprising how often standard evangelical presentations of "the Gospel" begin by talking about things which are NOT the Gospel and which sometimes never even happened. For example, talk about what God *might* have done (supposedly with perfect justice) to people who sinned even once, if he had not sent Jesus to die for their sins. This just causes people to be resentful towards God for something which---he never did!

Because the real God did send Jesus. Jesus is what perfect justice looks like.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you for the comments and encouragement. I think if all the Christian groups agreed not to teach things that aren't directly taught in the Bible, it would eliminate many of our divisions. "The Trinity defense" is (IMO) a weak defense: there wasn't a formal definition of the Trinity in the early centuries, and Christianity got along fine. And (I know this is a a tangent to our original discussion) while the doctrine of the Trinity is meant to clarify things, create unity, and reduce confusion, I don't think it has done any of those things.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Aron Wall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aron Wall said...

Since the Bible contains paradoxes, it is not just necessary for Christian groups not to add things, it is also necessary for them to teach everything in the Bible. For example, there are "Calvinist" proof-texts in the bible and "Arminian" proof-texts, but very few denominations which actively teach from both sets of material. (Explaining why their verse doesn't contradict your verse, but then not using it in any concrete way to help build your theology, doesn't count.)

Of course, the Bible does contain a large number of statements about the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the nature of their unity and relationships. So it does seem very reasonable to have a word like "Trinity" summarizing this doctrinal content.

The reason why the early Church got along okay without a formal definition of the Trinity was that Arianism hadn't happened yet. Once you have people actively teaching that the Son is a creature, the Church had to either deny it or compromise with it. Various compromise formulas were proposed in various local councils and eventually rejected---including one which stated that the the Nicene Creed should not have talked about "essence" due to the word not being found in Scripture---but it's quite a counterfactual to ask how Church history would have been different if they had been accepted. What would your response to Arianism have been? Remember, they believed their position was supported by Scripture.

(I thought you were arguing earlier that Chalcedon is where things really started falling apart?)

Whatever other consequences may have come, there seems to be a high degree clarity and unity in Christianity specifically about the divinity of Christ! Don't you think that consensus is worth having?

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Aron

I do think a consensus is worth having, and I do think Chalcedon was a distinctive tipping point, without downplaying the skirmishes before then. That much said, I'd like to sleep on an answer, both because the hour when I'm spotting the comment and because I get the feeling I'm missing part of your point, & I'd rather not miss the point ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Aron Wall said...

Please don't worry about taking as much time as you want to reply, and I'm sorry if the tone of my comment is at all abrasive---I don't want this to be a tense or unpleasant conversation in any way for you!

My main points were just that: (1) sometimes both sides of a dispute claim to be getting their teaching from Scripture, (2) even if the word "Trinity" does not appear in the Bible, there is still a lot of "theology of the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit" in the Bible, (3) Arianism was a crisis in Christendom that needed to be addressed in some way, & (4) I'm not sure from your comment how you would have wanted to handle it differently?

It would probably be helpful if you explained what you meant by "the doctrine of the Trinity" and which aspects specifically you think are unhelpful. If you just say "Trinity", some people will be afraid that you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and I'm sure that wasn't your intention.


PS The intention of this comment is to clarify what I was already saying, not to increase the number of things you have to respond to!

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Aron

I appreciate your offer to think awhile. You clarified what you were saying; maybe I should do the same. Here's a cut-n-paste of my original comment to save the trouble of scrolling around to find it:

So the specific points were:
1. The doctrine of the Trinity is meant to clarify things -- but the number of things that become less clear may rival the number of things that were addressed. ("Three persons? Hypostases? What's the origin of the Holy Spirit? How convincing are the arguments for unity against the charge of tritheism? If nobody in the early church taught it, are we warranted in requiring uniform answers to those questions?)
2. The doctrine of the Trinity is meant to create unity -- but has divided a number of groups who cannot in good faith embrace the majority positions from the questions mentioned above.
3. The doctrine of the Trinity is meant to reduce confusion. I think it has introduced confusion about specific things. For example, I read a theologian who had a good reputation (Moltmann) explaining how the "second person of the Trinity" became the Word of God -- and it sounded as if he meant that the Word of God was not the inherent nature. It would seem more Scriptural to say that the Word of God is regarded as the second person of the Trinity (or second hypostasis of the One God, or some other construction like that).

I'm still a student of the nature of God, of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and I'll gladly acknowledge I have more to learn. That much said, I lean towards the view that the Word of God is recognized as the second hypostasis of the One God, who takes on fuller distinction in relation to the world as incarnate, and that Spirit of God is recognized as the third hypostasis of One God, who takes on fuller distinction in relation to the world as the Spirit who is kindled in humans.

I think I'll make that the post of the day, to make it easier to find and respond and (likely) draw Martin into the conversation as well.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF