Monday, February 11, 2008

They will know we are Christians by our doctrine?

I have to credit my friend Jonathan for the title of this one.

"To love is to know God precisely because God is love. The emerging community, at its best, can teach us again that love must be the first word on our lips and also the last, and that we must seek to incarnate that sacred word in the world. I recently heard a well-known speaker say that if faith does not cost us something, than it is nothing. Only much later could I respond: if faith does not cost us everything, it is nothing. Orthodoxy as right belief will cost us little: indeed, it will allow us to sit back with our Pharisaic doctrine, guarding the 'truth' with the purity of our interpretation. But orthodoxy, as believing in the right way, as bringing love to the world around us and within us... that will cost us everything. For to live by that sword, as we all know, is to die by it."

(pg. 3)

How (Not) to Speak of God
by Peter Rollins

I'm starting the above book, and just ten pages into it its helping crystallize and articulate things that have been rolling around in my head for years. Its good stuff.

I remember when I was in college taking History of the Ancient World. We began to discuss the Torah (first five books of the Tanakh, or Old Testament) from an historical stand point. The professor pointed out that the language used at times (e.g. "no other gods before me" in the Ten Commandments), seemed to indicate that the author may have believed in the existence of many deities, but chose to worship only YHWH. In short, Moses, or whoever wrote the books in question, was not a monotheist, that individual was what is termed a henotheist. Well, this thought bounced around for a few minutes in my little modernist "the Bible is inerrant" brain, knocked some stuff over, and was promptly expelled. (I will not presume that any inerrantist cannot deal with this issue. It is to say that I could not deal with the issue at the time).

It brought to mind whether Abraham was monotheist, not to mention a host of other characters. Could these great men of faith, my spiritual fore bearers, have walked in such great error? What about David's Mighty Men, who supported him in administering his kingdom? Was it time and effort spent in vain on their part? Did they just die and go to hell? (I know, no concept of Heaven or Hell yet.)

As I've grown older and learned more the issues only become more muddied and the previously sharp lines between categories of "Christian" and "Nonchristian" have become like pencil marks rubbed with a wet thumb.

The early Christians did not have a cohesive New Testament that we so readily refer to now. They had a multiplicity of books that circulated, some of which we now recognize as part of the Canon, and others we do not, like the Gospel of Peter with its giant angels and talking cross and the Gospel of Thomas with naked sayings of Jesus with no framing narrative. For the sake of discussion let us put these aside and deal only with the canonical gospels.

Mark has a very spare christology. It would be difficult to derive the Deity of Christ if all you had was Mark's account. Additionally the oldest manuscripts of Mark hint at the resurrection but leave out some of the meatier stuff.

What if you were stuck with Mark, like some communities probably were? What if you believed in Jesus' teaching and his sacrificial death, but weren't quite sure about the resurrection and had no concept of him being the Incarnation of God? Would that be enough?

Was the possibly henotheist faith of Moses enough? The even more probably henotheistic (?polytheistic?) faith of Abraham enough? What of the loving service of David's Mighty Men as they served him, as he served his God?

Now, some of my conservative evangelical brethren (and sistren?) would readily say that the Christians that had no faith beyond the words of Mark sadly went to Hell. They would probably do the same thing with David's fellows. Moses and Abraham would be a bit stickier, in that they are affirmed as men of faith in the Bible. This might be dealt with by an adamant insistence that they were monotheists, otherwise they wouldn't be described the way they were. Who knows, maybe that's all right. They might make a loophole declaring a different "dispensation" for that period of history. It was ok back then, but we can't get away with it now.

Let me suggest another possibility. Maybe we always have and always will struggle to know God for who He is. Maybe we still see through a glass darkly and only know in part (1 Cor. 13:12). Maybe its more about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God (Mic. 6:8) rather than being absolutely certain about all the details.

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