It is true that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit receives less attention than other doctrines. Historically, the institutional church looked (and still looks) upon the appeal by the masses to the Spirit as potentially subversive and in need of control. Maybe that’s partly why pneumatology is the “odd-ology” (Fabricius).
The funny guys at Babyon Bee have hit on a Forsythian nerve of mine. The headline ‘Half Of Congregation Dies Of Starvation As Sermon Goes 15 Minutes Over Time‘ is brilliant satire, as are almost all of their other articles; a much welcome relief to the tedium of seriousness we Protestants can so easily find ourselves embroiled in; relieved only by the annual church Barn Dance (this comment is also satire….or is it)?
My first thought upon reading the title was remembering two theological giants famous for, among many other things, their preaching. The first, John Stott, metaphorically places the nail underneath the fast approaching hammer:
“Basically it is not the length of a sermon which makes the congregation impatient for it to stop, but the tedium of a sermon in which even the preacher himself appears to be taking very little interest.”
Christians hold a very high regard for the notion of ‘The Word of God’ and rightly so. But it does seem to me at least, that we confuse categories and blur boundaries.
There are three Words:
- The Word that is Scripture
- The Word that is Christ
- The Word that is Preaching
Evangelicals (and I count myself among them – the UK ones at least) in particular are especially bound to such a high view of Scripture that they call it ‘inerrant’ and a ‘final authority.’ I think this often leads to a classic confusion of the written Word usurping the enfleshed Word, Christ. It calls for great hermeneutical care to allow the three Words to be what they are in themselves, independent yet inter-related in very complex and subtle ways.
Waiting is a dominant theme of Paul and the New Testament. According to Anthony Thiselton, “In everyday life, waiting can suggest dull and static situations like sitting in a railway waiting room, or standing at a bus stop.”
But Paul uses several verbs to express the range of waiting. We wait for the sons of God to be revealed; creation waits with eager longing; Paul has an “eager expectation” as he hopes for “deliverance” from captivity. The LXX usage implies that this waiting is a kind of “stretching of the neck, craning forward” as in eager anticipation with intense longing, craning one’s neck to see. Or, if you are Zacchaeus, you climb a tree (Luke 19:4)! This is far removed from idly waiting for a bus or train!
It is of a different quality. Look at the craning of necks as a bride turns up at the church, or a person trying to glimpse the Queen as she goes by. Sadly, some Christians have assumed an inhumane quality to this waiting, as though they need to be in a permanent state of joyous, frenzied expectation, “To keep up emotional fervour for an interminable period is impossible and unhealthy, and, in the event of flagging zeal, even causes guilt” (Thiselton).
For the New Testament, expectation “constitutes a disposition, not an emotion” a state of readiness, not emotional fervour. But what constitutes “being ready” depends on readiness for what, and how we prepare. Both Augustine and Luther regarded readiness for the coming of Christ as continuing in everyday Christian trust, work, and obedience in everyday tasks.
To the question, What is it to expect? Thiselton draws an example given by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who asks, “What should I do if I “expect” my friend for tea? “I put out cups, saucers, plates, jam, bread, cake, and so forth. I make sure that my room is tidy. “To expect” certainly does not refer to one process or state of mind . . . I prepare the tea for two, and so on.”
Thus the coming of Christ, and our waiting is ethical in nature; it is our discipleship, a life lived before God that pleases God (1 Thess. 4:1). Thiselton develops Wittgenstein’s thought, “The notion that expectation constitutes a mental act, he said, is a “curious superstition.” He concluded, “An expectation is embedded in a situation from which it arises.” In the Zettel, he substitutes for “expect” the phrase “Be prepared for this to happen.” This is why it is a disposition. It is a disposition to respond in an appropriate way when given circumstances bring it into play.”
This is all part of a wider discussion on The Return of Christ, the Resurrection and Related Issues. In order for a Christian response to be thoughtful, mature, and appropriate, Thiselton discusses five categories that help us think better about the return of Christ. They are:
- The terms used to denote it
- The validity of the belief in the future and the public coming of Christ
- The significance of its apocalyptic context
- Claims about its prediction and possible dating
- The language in which the event is described
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
“The notion of “prophecy,” as this is understood by various generations of readers (1 Thess 5:19) does not accord with a widespread and popular view today. Many today regard this in either of two ways which partly diverge from mainline tradition. Some regard prophecy primarily as predictions of the future; others adopt the classical Pentecostal sense of viewing prophecy as a spontaneous, staccato-like, pronouncement made from within a congregation. Thomas Gillespie, and others argue that, by contrast, it often constitutes pastoral, applied preaching which conveys the gospel.
This view can be found “throughout the centuries” as the normal interpretation among the church fathers, Aquinas, Calvin, John Wesley, James Denney and many others. Ambrosiaster and Augustine see “prophecy” as explanatory exposition of scripture (Augustine, On the Psalms 76.4; NPNF1 8.361). Thomas Aquinas asserts that “prophesying” (1 Thess 5:19) “may be understood as divine doctrine . . . Those who explain doctrine are called prophets . . . ‘Do not despise preachers'” (Commentary, 52).
Calvin declares, “Prophecy means the art of interpreting scripture” (60). Estius insists that it does not mean “private interpretation” (Commentarius, 2.592). Matthew Henry remarks, “By prophecyings here we understand the preaching of the word, the interpreting and applying of the scriptures” (Concise Commentary on 1 Thess 5:19-20). John Wesley writes, “Prophecyings, that is preaching (Notes, 694). James Denney says of the prophet, “He was a Christian preacher” (Thessalonians, 239). Such an army of witnesses might suggest that further thought is needed, before we readily endorse either of these two more popular views of what 1 Thess. 5:19 and similar passages mean about “prophecy.”
Introduction, pg. 5-6
The following article is a guest post by Rev’d Dr Helen Paynter, a Research Fellow and Coordinator of Community Learning at Bristol Baptist College, as well as part-time minister at Victoria Park Baptist Church in Bristol, and it is published here with my thanks to her friendship and ministry.
The paper was originally published in the Baptist Ministers’ Journal in January 2017. Dr Paynter has also published a book called ‘Reduced Laughter – Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kings‘ reviewed on this blog, and –ahem- reputable offerings elsewhere, drawing on the work of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.
It is of no small significance that the great Anthony Thiselton, writing the preface to his 20th Anniversary Edition of New Horizons in Hermeneutics writes, “The two thinkers to whom I would now give serious space if I were writing the book today are probably Hans Robert Jauss and Mikhail Bakhtin” (p.xxi) – emphasis totally mine!
To the truth…..
The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church.
Bristol Baptist College May 2017
The post-truth phenomenon and why it matters
Truth is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us – Hannah Arendt
The art of political ‘spin’ is millennia-old. But in recent years, the will to deceive for political purposes has intensified to a new level – or so it seems. In the light of the now-notorious ‘£350m/week for the NHS’ claim, and the election of US President Trump, we in the UK and liberal West are now, apparently, in the age of ‘post-truth’ politics.
The phrase ‘post-truth’ was designated ‘Word of the Year 2016’ by the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. In bald terms, it means that the factuality (I hesitate to use the word ‘truth’ here, for reasons which will become clear later) of claimed facts is becoming an irrelevant commodity in public, or at least political, discourse. As The Economist put it recently, ‘Truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance’.
An important – and disturbing – cultural phenomenon is arising, and the church needs to understand and address it. This paper will briefly consider some of the causes of our current predicament, and suggest some ways that the church might respond. First, I suggest five reasons why it matters.
- As shown by a Mori poll published in December 2016, lack of public confidence in the political process is at an all-time low. Ironically, this begets a vicious cycle: ‘When lies make the political system dysfunctional, its poor results can feed the alienation and lack of trust in institutions that make the post-truth play possible in the first place.’
- History has repeatedly shown that lies are the tools of political oppression. As Hannah Arendt put it, ‘[Truth] is hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot control.’
- Psychological studies have proven that false memories persist, even when they are publically retracted. In light of the commandment not to bear false witness (Exodus 20:16), this should disturb all who take biblical ethics seriously.
- A recent Demos report showed that on-line disinformation, a major source of untruth, is disproportionately seen and believed by children and young people.
- Contrary to the logic of ‘post-truth’, facts matter – in politics as elsewhere. How I ‘feel’ about Europe or the NHS may or may not be important; whether one of these institutions is receiving £350 million a week certainly is.
How have we arrived at the stage where untruth is regarded as acceptable – or at least, unsurprising – within the common consciousness?
This post is not a cheap shot at the “please read your Bible more” brigade, but an exploration into the truly transformative effects the Bible brings to bear on an individual or community. Furthermore, this is not about bibliolatry either! When Thiselton, from whom much of what follows is derived, talks of Transformative Bible Reading, he is referring to the work of God in Christ by the Spirit at work via a proper hermeneutical use of the Bible.
P. T. Forsyth lamented, 110 years ago, about the “…the decay among our churches of the personal use of the Bible.”
And there is good reason for this.
Anthony Thiselton rightly talks of the “transforming effects of the Bible”:
“The Bible does not spoon feed us as if we were babies, but provokes us to do some adult thinking of our own.” And this is why the Scriptures lead to transformation after God’s purposes.
And this is precisely why I think the Bible is a mere dusty heirloom in many homes, including some Christian homes. I think we kind of intuitively know why, Martin Luther certainly did, “The Bible confronts us as our adversary, demanding response and transformation.”
So we know it is generationally neglected. We know it is powerful and transformative. We know it is God’s written Word-in-the-words-of-men to us. Yet we are beguiled into taming it so that it accords with our own prior wishes, concerns and expectations. And I am not alone in thinking a tamed Bible makes tame Christians.
A reason why the Bible is marginalized and attacked is suggested by Professor Anthony Thiselton, “The Bible can transform and enlarge our vision, so that we are no longer trapped within our own narcissistic selfhood or within our own limited tradition or limited community.” In other words, God uses the Bible to shatter our illusions about pretty much everything, which explains in part why it is attacked, marginalised and mocked. We human beings simply don’t like having our illusion bubble burst, but the Bible is the pin that pops it. In Flowers that Never Bend, Paul Simon sings,
“Through the corridors of sleep past the shadows dark and deep
my mind dances and leaps in confusion.
I don’t know what is real, I can’t touch what I feel
and hide behind the shield of my illusion;
So I continue to continue to pretend
that my life will never end
and the flowers never bend with the rainfall.
In other words: God will not allow us to “continue to pretend” forever! The Bible forces us beyond ourselves/communities into a truer vision of reality: GOD. Thiselton again, “The social reality of our everyday life is structured in terms of relevancies. Yet the truth of Romans 5:5 and God’s love being poured into our hearts “will constitute a new set of motives that redefine criteria of relevance for the believer.”
In other words: God’s loves changes us by changing what we think is relevant in our everyday life. Thiselton continues: “The goal of transformation into the image of Christ is to see the world through the eyes and interests of God’s purposes for the world.”
God’s love poured out does not give us personal fuzzy feelings of religious vagueness, but rather it turns kittens into lions, and babies into adults, and people, like David, after God’s own heart – a dangerous thing indeed!
So no wonder we struggle with it. We’re fallen, fallible and finite. And within church should be the exact place where we hear this challenge.
We need to man-up and woman-up so that our kids grow-up truly transformatively Bible-savvy.
Lest we join those in Mark 7:13 who “…nullify the word of God…”
We nullify the Bible in so many ways. Ludwig Wittgenstein says this is why struggle and judgment include “a battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
And it is this “language” of the text that, according to Thiselton, “delivers us from self-preoccupation or self-centeredness, as we open ourselves to what is “Other”, “beyond”, or to the voice of God.” For when we are not “open” we prove our own “bewitchment of intelligence.” Another way to say we actually allow the bliss of ignorance to facilitate the theological-cognitive dissonance that maintains the social relevancy of our oh-so-busy everyday lives.
Yet the Bible is not an encyclopedia of information on all subjects, but “a source of transformation that then shapes readers in accord with God’s purposes for them”, for if it was merely an encyclopedia of information, devoid of a relational “I-Thou” reading, then the text becomes “merely a mirror of the self, which bounces back what the reader desires or expects to hear, [thus] it will hardly transform the reader” (Thiselton). For me, this chimes with Forsyth who wrote in his outstanding 1907 book Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, the Bible is “…so much more than literature, because it is not merely powerful, it is power. It is action, history; it is not mere narrative, comment, embellishment or dilution. It makes history more than it is made by history….It is news to the world from foreign parts.”
Bonhoeffer offers a superb analysis of how our nature interacts with relating with God through the Bible, “Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where he will be found. If it is I who says where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature. But if it is God who says where he will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable to me at all, which does not fit so well with me. That place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever will find God there must draw near to the Cross in the manner which the Sermon on the Mount requires. This does not correspond to our nature at all.”
We are constantly in danger of reading the Bible as though prescribing medicines “in accordance with the patients whims” and this is to be first noticed or observed; then named and finally and decisively tackled in a deliberate intention towards what Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship” which includes transformative Bible reading as a central aspect. Forsyth again, “The theology of the Bible is but the moral adequacy and virility of the word of the Cross, and the thews of a powerful Gospel.”
It is the Divine promise that shapes both the nature of reality and how the present is to be understood. T. S. Elliot may be right that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”, and this may explain the reason behind Forsyth’s lament that opened this post, and it also explains why the Bible is often maginalised within and attacked without the Church. But if Thiselton, Bonhoeffer, Wittgenstein and Forsyth are right (and they are), God somehow uses faithful interpretive reading-in-relationship of Scripture so as to transform, save and renew. It is dangerous; it is necessary and it is so very vital.