Fundamental Heretics

It’s time for a church history lesson.

In the first few hundred years of the church, the leaders were constantly figuring out what it believed. All of these doctrines and teachings that we take for granted had to be hammered out in the context of real disagreements between real people. (BTW, some of these arguments are hilarious: people who have been canonized as saints writing back and forth with arguments that are the ancient equivalent of “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny,” and “I know you are but what am I.”)

There were a few different strands that diverged off of the “normal” beliefs of the church: gnosticism, docetism, monarchianism, etc.

Fascinating, I know …

One interesting heresy (?) is “arianism”, founded by Arius in the 4th century. Arius essentially denied the true divinity of Jesus, instead holding that Jesus was a “created being” (Orthodox belief would hold that Jesus existed eternally with God before entering our world, as per John 1:1-10). Arianism was declared a heresy, and Arius was excommunicated in the late 300s.

All that is fine and dandy, but what is truly interesting about this story is the actual substance of the debates. You see, when the Arians were defending their position, they submitted to the church authorities a very long list of scriptures (that is, from the Bible) that more than adequately (at least in their eyes) defended their position.

However, they’d missed the forest for the trees. They did a great job at using the Bible—at face value—to defend their position. Interestingly, the Orthodox priests and scholars couldn’t supply nearly as long a list of scriptures supporting their position (this exercise is still repeated in seminaries today, by the way).

But what the Orthodox did have on their side was common sense. To the list of scriptures, they basically replied, “Sure, you have all these scripture references, but you’ve neglected to use your brain to think through the nature of Jesus from an intellectual and theological point of view.

The heretics had all their Bible verses in line, but they were still missing the point. Badly.

They had landed on the “truth” (as they perceived it), but they had missed the essence.

My personal takeaway from this is twofold:

(a) It’s not enough to simply line up proof-texts and say, “See, X is right/Godly/holy/etc.” Often (maybe not always), we need to take a step back and go, “Okay, I know that these scriptures indicate X, but maybe God is asking us also to examine whether or not these square with what we know about His character (especially as revealed by the Gospels).” If you neglect to think theologically (and intellectually), you can easily be a fundamentalist, and still be heretic.

(b) I think it’s a wonderful thing that God asks us to use our brain. Read the Bible. No, seriously, read it. It’s a complicated book (but a very simple story, ironically). There are awkward (and even very uncomfortable) texts (slavery, prostitution, incest, genocide anybody?), and even some apparent contradictions and “tensions” that we need to manage. Origen, one of the church Fathers who was alive during many of these heresies, maintained that God allowed the tensions that we find in the Bible to remain there so that… get ready for it… we could exercise our intellect. 

The solution to a complex world is to not adopt a simplified, fundamentalist reading of our Bible. solution (for there has to be many) is to balance our sacred text(s) with an understanding of the traditions of the family of faith, our God-given intellect, and our experience of God in this world.

If only there was a name for this… #wesleyan_quadrilaterial #can’tbelieveIjustdidthat

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A Few Words About Perspective and the Bible

Perspective

Perspective

How you see something—what experiences and expectations you bring—really matters. Take a look at this image. I first saw this in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (an oldey-but-goody). What do you see?

Do you see a young woman?

How about an old woman?

Both?

This may be a high-school level example, but it still holds true: our perspective governs what we see and experience.

This is no different with the Bible.

Like it or not, we all bring “ourselves” to the Bible, in the form of expectations, baggage, hopes, and various experiences. All of these frame the questions we ask of Scripture. Sometimes these questions are obvious, and we’re aware of them, while other times we aren’t quite clued into what we are asking the Bible “to do” for us as we read it. For instance, it’s easy to approach the Scriptures with the desire to have them

+ make us feel good about ourselves…
+ justify our beliefs…
+ tell us how to get to heaven…
+ tell us about Jesus…

… and on and on. Over time these can change, but we almost always bring SOMETHING to the Scriptures as individuals, and furthermore the church collectively brings questions as well as it goes through time.

I wanted to lay out four broad perspectives that we can bring to the Bible, and make a couple comments and suggestions about them. There are certainly more perspectives (and questions) than this, but somehow I feel like these are the big ones that are shaping our faith today (and starting to shape it for tomorrow).

Reading the Bible with a Soteriological filter means that we are asking, “How can I get saved?” (soter is Greek for “save”). This paradigm maintains that the point of Scripture is to (in older parlance) “tell us how to get to heaven.” Obviously Scripture has a lot to say about the state of our souls, and about God’s desire to save us, but a lot of explicit “saving” language is actually absent from the even the Gospels, and though Paul, for instance, writes a lot about it, he seems to talk about community just as much (if not more).

When we read the Bible with a Christological filter we are reading it through a lense that asks, “What does this tell me about Jesus?” In so many ways, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God’s work on earth: He is Messiah, Son of God, Emmanuel. The Bible is obviously concerned with Jesus’ identity and vocation on earth. The challenge of this paradigm is that frankly it can be difficult to find Jesus in some of the pages of the Old Testament in particular, and when it’s difficult to find “answers” to the question we are asking (“Tell me about Jesus”), it can be easy to simply put down the book and decide that it’s irrelevant.

In my opinion, these two paradigms and filters have dominated the church’s approach to Scripture in our recent age. However, two other paradigms are now entering the discussion that I believe have the potential to really expand our understanding of Scripture.

Reading Scripture with an Ecclesiological filter means we are asking, “What does this tell me about the Church?” In contrast to the both the soteriological and Christological filters, this paradigm starts with community. It assumes that the Church—the People of God—is central to God’s work in the world, and that Moses, Isaiah, Jesus and Paul (along with everyone else who wrote and assembled the canon of Scripture) want to convey that importance. In our individualistic society, coming at the book of Romans, for instance, from the perspective of learning about community can radically change our understanding of Paul’s point. (I believe we actually find that Paul is JUST as concerned with unity and helping us all to get along” as he is in telling us how to be saved, largely because he knows that the unity of the Church between Jews and Gentiles is actually one of the signs that PROVE Jesus was who he said he was. But I digress.)

Lastly, and similarly, we can read Scripture Missionally. This means we are asking the Bible to tell us about the mission and work of God in the world. This paradigm is grand and epic; it does a great job of tying everything together, and runs from Genesis 1 (well, 3 at least) to Revelation. Stated simply, this paradigm maintains that Scripture is telling us how God plans to redeem all of creation and restore it to its original status of being reflection of His character. A missional reading of Scripture unifies the story of Israel, Jesus, Paul and the church along one strong “spine”, and actually thrusts the story forward into our age.

These paradigms are not simply big words to throw around. They really do impact the way in which we read the Bible. We miss so much of the story when we engage in only one way to read it. If you’ve never thought about the Church when you read the Gospels, simply write the question, “What does this tell me about living together as the Church?” on an index card and keep it in your Bible as you read.

The point of all of this is, quite frankly, is to expand the way in which we read and interact with the Bible. It’s too grand a story to be contained by the narrow perspectives that have contained it.

Sermon Notes/Sources

As mentioned, here are some resources on scripture from my message on June 24.

Sermon Notes

On Galatians:

Galatians. This a great series of short commentaries. (This is also a medium-length commentary series that’s pretty well done.)

On The Bible in General:

Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today by NT Wright. A great book about how to thoughtfully and faithfully read scripture.

The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God—Getting Beyond the Bible Wars by NT Wright. A short(er) version of the above book.

Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns. A stretching but powerful book on the Old Testament.

On Story:

Story Juicing. a free download on the power of story.