Undermining biblical wisdom

Abstract Rhetoric: Schism between Academic Theology & Biblical Wisdom

Third, there is even a sense in which abstract pious rhetoric that suppresses relational wisdom has come to pervade academic theology. In particular, as Thiselton reminds us, the influence of Kant and neo-Kantianism has reduced the status of biblical language to mere ‘human projection’ for some. Since the status of biblical language is undermined, it is sidelined as a source of wisdom that can shape our discourse and lives.

In fact, however, philosophical tools can be used to highlight dimensions to biblical wisdom that have often been marginalised in this way. For example, the philosopher Gadamer used Hegel’s insight into something called ‘historical dialectic’ to ground his investigation into the process of relational understanding. When this was developed, it began to look like the biblical doctrine of love. This meant that ‘love’ could be unpacked as including ‘respect for the particular horizons of the given and giving ‘other’’.

This meant that proper ‘affection’ included releasing the other from one’s own need-generated strategizing, and promoting them as who they were created to be, within the boundaries that they determine, to the extent that one is able, given the priorities and responsibilities pertaining to one’s own call. This is the opposite of labelling, stigmatisation, and ‘politeness’ disguising structures of exclusion. Relational wisdom is being suppressed beneath the Kantian call to develop the Christian tradition away from Scripture rather than towards it.

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Theology Questions: #4 Why are real relationship in the church so hard?

First, regarding the description of your stance within the church, then it is clear that you rightly wish to avoid the problem of polarized debates and “positions” whereby partisan factions develop that a priori reject one another’s points of view out of hand in the name of often unexamined interests and agendas that are often more political than doctrinal; in such scenarios, “right relating” typically degenerates into “clique relating” whereby opposing cliques “speak past” one another without listening to each other and where, in any case, a sophist rhetoric of false labelling of the other has replaced any “Roman rhetoric” that seeks a true appreciation of what the other is saying so that debate can be genuinely advanced. We could tabulate some contrasts here, as follows:

 

Right Relating (“Trinitarian” Relating) Distorted Relating (“Clique” Relating)
Authentic Intimacy of Shared Positives that Seeks to Include Outsiders in Community Counterfeit Intimacy of Shared Negatives that

Seeks to Exclude Outsiders from Community

Preserves Unity of the Spirit Degenerates Into Factions
Roman Rhetoric that Seeks Truth through Interrogation of Self and Others Sophist Rhetoric that Falsely But Cleverly Attacks Opposing Factions
True Redemptive Understanding of Others Inauthentic Defamatory Labelling of Others
Dissolves Acids of Suspicion/Hostility Creates Ever-Increasing Suspicion/Hostility
Genuine Expanding Dialogue Between Multiple Traditions with Genuine Listening Inauthentic Polarized “Debates” in Which

Opponents Shout-Over/Speak-Past Each Other

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Theology Questions: #3 What does it mean to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’?

Keeping in Step with the Spirit

In Galatians 5:13-26, Paul writes the following:

13 “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

According to Gordon D. Fee, a Pentecostal theologian, the command, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (v. 25), has to do with crucifying the “flesh” not by the law, but by the Holy Spirit. The particular indulgence of the flesh that Paul has in mind here is “becoming conceited, provoking and envying each other” (v. 26) or “biting and devouring each other” (v. 15), but Paul is clearly speaking against all “the acts of the flesh” (v. 19-21 cf. v. 24).

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Theology Questions: #2 What is Prophecy?

  1. I have spent many years in the thinking of Anthony Thiselton, and so am very interested by his views, not least on prophecy (note the spelling here!). 
  2. The best place to look for Thiselton’s views on this subject, which I regard as authoritative, is in his large commentary on 1 Corinthians: see, Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to The Corinthians (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000). A good place to start is p. 829, which I quote in my book, Relating Faith (a free copy of which is yours on request).

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Apologetic Resources

Here are just some of the great resources I’ve found over the years, and here they are in no particular order (compiling this short list here does not necessarily mean I wholly subscribe to all the associated groups or persons’ theology, just that they have some very important things to say that are nevertheless, worthwhile and valuable):

mdaxresdefault (1)John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, is an internationally renowned speaker on the interface of science, philosophy and religion. He regularly teaches at many academic institutions including the Said Business School, Wycliffe Hall and the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, as well as also being a Senior Fellow with the Trinity Forum. He has written a series of books exploring the relationship between science and Christianity and he has also participated in a number of televised debates with some of the world?s leading atheist thinkers.

 

resources-hero

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Chicken Preaching, Flat Mountains and Glorious Contradictions

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:John_stott

“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.”

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The Three Words

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:

  1. The Word that is Scripture
  2. The Word that is Christ
  3. 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.

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The Ancients on, and in defence of, Preaching

Martin Luther (1520):  “The soul can do without anything except the Word of God. . . . The Word is the gospel of God concerning his Son . . . To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it….The Word of God cannot be received . . . by any works whatever, but only by faith.”

John Wycliffe (14th c.):  “A Christian should speak Scripture’s words on Scripture’s authority in the form that Scripture displays. . . .The pastor has a three-fold office: first, to feed his sheep spiritually on the Word of God . . . ; second . . . to purge wisely the sheep of disease . . . ; third . . . to defend his sheep from ravening wolves . . . . Sowing the Word of God among his sheep. . . All the duties of the pastor, after justice of life, holy preaching is most to be praised . . . Preaching the gospel exceeds prayer and administration of the sacraments to an infinite degree.”

Alain of Lille (12th c.):  “Preaching should not contain jesting words, or childish remarks, or . . . that which results from . . . rhythms . . . These are better fitted to delight the ear than to edify the soul.  Such preaching is theatrical and full of buffoonery, and in every way to be condemned.”

Hugh Latimer (16th c.):  “Though a preacher be well learned, yet if he lacks that boldness and is faith-hearted, truly he will do but little good . . . When he fears men more than God, he is nothing to be regarded. . . . A preacher is like a ploughman who must first break up the soil; then he plants and waters the seed, to produce a right faith, sometimes weeding them by telling them their faults . . . breaking their stony hearts [so as to] tell them God’s promises to soft hearts. . . .Some are negligent in discharging their office or have done it fraudulently, [making] people ill. . . Many are involved in devilish ploughing, saying, “down with Christ’s cross” and “up with purgatory.  Only Christ made purgation and satisfaction.”

John Newton (19th c. – on prayer but works equally for preaching):  “Even in the exercise of prayer we profess to draw near to the Lord, the consideration that his eye has little power to . . . prevent our thoughts from wandering . . . to the ends of the earth.  What should we think of a person who, being admitted into the king’s presence, upon business of the greatest importance, should break off in the midst of his address, to pursue a butterfly?”

P. T. Forsyth (19th-20th c.):  “The orator, at most, may urge men to love their brother, the preacher beseeches them first to be reconciled to their Father.  With preaching, Christianity stands or falls because it is the declaration of a gospel.  Nay, more – far more; it is the gospel prolonging and declaring itself. . . I note that the Catholic revival of last century (19th), is coincident with complaints elsewhere of the decay of preaching.  And if this decay is not preaching itself, there is no doubt of the fact in regard to the pulpit’s estimate and influence with the public.  Even if the churches are no less full than before, the people who are there are much less amenable to the preached Word, and more fatally urgent for its brevity. . . . But the great reason why the preacher must return continually to the Bible is that the Bible is the greatest sermon in the world. . . . The Bible, therefore, is there as the medium of the gospel. . . . If we ask what is a modern Christian theology, it is the gospel taking the age seriously, with a real, sympathetic and informed effort to understand it. . . . It takes its stand neither on the spirit of the age, nor on the Christian consciousness, nor on the Christian principle, but on the historic and whole New Testament Christ. . . . . This is actually Luther’s test – does this or that passage ply Christ, preach Christ.”

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

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 Kingsreviewed 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.

Helen Paynter

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.

  1. 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.’[1]
  2. 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.’[2]
  3. Psychological studies have proven that false memories persist, even when they are publically retracted.[3] In light of the commandment not to bear false witness (Exodus 20:16), this should disturb all who take biblical ethics seriously.
  4. A recent Demos report showed that on-line disinformation, a major source of untruth, is disproportionately seen and believed by children and young people.[4]
  5. 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?

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