Friday, September 12, 2008
EPILOGUE TO A FRANK DISCUSSION
N.B. STAY TUNED FOR FRANK'S FINAL REJOINDER EARLY NEXT WEEK.
Well it’s been interesting and fun, and I guess that the main thing that WORRIED me from reading Frank’s responses is that we seem at points to not be hearing each other, and what we are actually saying. One illustration must suffice. I certainly do think that the people of God are a living entity, call it a body if you like, and so an organism, but I also believe that any organism inevitably has organization (the question is what kind), and God in his graciousness has given us the task to help in that process. Not all ‘organization’ is organic, but some of it of course is in Christ’s body. So, Frank you have misread me on this point.
What I do insist on is that Paul is indeed using a body metaphor to try and describe the spiritual reality that exists in the church and the spiritual union that exists between Christ and his people. It is simply an analogy, and far from a perfect one (let’s please not call anyone the toenail of the body of Christ :).
The other thing that I found odd in this whole response is that Frank seemed to think I was accusing him of advocating leaderless Christianity. Nope, I was suggesting he was advocating inadequate leadership, and inadequately Biblically modeled leadership for the church, especially as it now exists. We just have to agree to disagree on this. And why exactly should we be following an example of ecclesiology and leadership that only a minority of even house churches follow, which is a tiny, tiny minority of the church universal? That should give pause NOT to the vast majority of the church but rather to that tiny tiny minority and cause them to think—are we missing something here?
What also becomes clear is that Frank and I disagree on the degree to which the Trinity is a model for church life. Again Frank misses my point that I DO think that being partakers of the divine nature means we model on a lesser scale the character God, and have everlasting life, which on a lesser scale is not merely like but derived from the eternal life of God.
What I found quite shocking is that Frank seems to think we can know far more than what Scripture says about the inner life of the Trinity before the universe was created. Where in the world do we get the idea that the Trinity was involved in a mutually submissive dance of giving and taking before all time? The only thing the Bible says about what the Father and the Son and the Spirit were doing back then was creating the universe, or God was planning to redeem it. That’s all folks. We know next to nothing about how the Trinity interacted back then. I guess Frank has been reading too many theologians who don’t feel compelled to ground their theologizing in a close reading of what Scripture actually says. Otherwise, I can’t figure out where this is coming from-- Grenz, Giles, Volf, and Bilizekian I guess? And not an exegete amongst them.
I also find Frank’s whole understanding of the interpretation of the Greek Fathers on the Trinity more than a little wrong. They insisted equally on the oneness and on the threeness of the Trinity, and they were not for blending together the three as if whatever the Father said the Son also said and the Spirit. For example talking about the Son-Father or about the Father dying on the cross or the like was condemned as a heresy. Their words, deeds, and personhood can all be distinguished without turning this into tri-theism.
The Trinity is three distinguishable persons and yes the three can have a conversation, and each could play their part. The fact that they agree doesn’t mean that only one person spoke! That would be like arguing when the three Musketeers said in unison “all for one and one for all” they never said anything individually. The fact that the three agree doesn’t mean they are all speaking in every instance.
But when the Holy Spirit inspires a Christian to speak, it is of course she/he who is speaking, inspired by the Spirit. If you have listened intently enough and spoken faithfully enough, what you say can be called broadly the Word of God. You are speaking for God in such cases, not speaking as God-- either Father, Son or Spirit. The last thing we need in the church is people going around claiming that they speak AS Jesus. That way lies madness, and if it were true, then such a person would become uncorrectable, indeed how dare we correct them? No, we need to take the warnings in 1 Cor. about sifting the words of Christian prophets absolutely seriously. Paul’s warning make evident that we are not, in this life, just extensions of God or Christ. God in any case does not need human beings to express himself on earth. He can do it directly of course, coming down in a theophany. He has however graciously chosen to use us.
As for hermeneutics, Frank seems to me, unless I am missing something, to be adopting what I can only call a spiritualist hermeneutic which privileges theology over history, and ignores the progressive nature of revelation in the canon. I quite agree with Frank that we need to read the earlier part of the canon in light of the later part. That does not mean that we then have permission to read the later part of the canon back into the earlier part when it is not there, and more to the point the NT writers were not suggesting it was! The author of Hebrews put it well when he said the previous revelation was partial and piecemeal and the fullness of revelation came in Christ. That’s a historical perspective on things, and the right one. More on this in my forthcoming two volume work on NT theology and ethics entitled The Indelible Image.
The danger in canonical criticism, which most NT scholars find seriously flawed (see the criticisms now in J.K. Mead's Biblical Theology), is that it denies the historical meaning of the text over and over again, which is why it is called a theological or even Gnostic hermeneutic by some. We are not the inspired writers of the canon, and we do not have the right to read into the text things God didn’t inspire those writers to say. Our job is to interpret the text, not remake it in terms of our modern meaning-making exercises.
One of the ways to advocate a position is by what I would call the divide and conquer method. We see this in Frank’s work where he tries to make neat distinctions between church meetings, evangelistic meetings etc. But does the NT encourage us to make these sort of hard and fast distinctions—well no, not really. Church meetings could be evangelistic meetings, they could be council meetings, they could be fellowship or worship meetings, they could include all of these on one occasion.
Another good example of a distinction that is not based in the NT is Frank’s distinction between Paul’s moral authority and his official authority. Paul most certainly did believe he had apostolic authority over his converts, which is why he was perfectly happy to command them when they needed it, to insist on various things, even placing his own imperatives next to Jesus’ in 1 Cor. 7. Notice how he distinguishes his own words from the words of Jesus “I say, not the Lord” says Paul in 1 Cor. 7. This should make ever so clear that: 1) Paul did not believe in the concept of Christians speaking AS Jesus (not even in his own case!). Jesus had already spoken for himself; and 2) he believed his own inspired words had the same authority over his converts as Jesus’. This is more than moral human authority, this is apostolic authority derived from Christ himself—i.e. top down authority. So Frank and I will have to continue to disagree on this, without being disagreeable.
One of the things I find ironic, is that the precious few NT scholars Frank finds that agree, in part, with some of his notions, would vehemently deny many of the building blocks of his major theses. For example, I studied with Gordon Fee, and I knew Fred Bruce, who was a Plymouth Brethren. Neither of them would agree with most of the ecclesiology enunciated by Frank. And neither does Jimmy Dunn who, like myself, is involved in the Methodist Church. Criticisms of the institutional church do not connote endorsement of Frank’s alternative model. Nor would theologians like Bonhoeffer agree either. In other words, Frank cites them when they agree with him. They have been sound-byted to support views they would not be entirely happy with, and exegetical interpretations they would often repudiate.
Robert Banks is another story. He is the one NT scholar of international reputation who has stepped out on the limb Frank is also sitting on. It’s an interesting limb of the tree called the church, but it won’t bear the weight of the whole church, indeed time will tell whether it bears the weight of the few who are out there on that limb now. I’ve tried to coax Frank in from the limb. Looks like I failed.
Frank I'm all for consenual decision making where possible. It is the consensus of the vast majority of the church now and historically that you are wrong. I will stand with them.