Brian LePort's ten most difficult doctrinal/theological issues

Mon, 23/04/2012 - 08:40

Brian LePort, who regularly takes the trouble to highlight posts on this blog, for which I am very grateful, has posted a great list of the “ten most difficult doctrinal/theological subjects that contemporary Christians must address”. I don’t agree with everything on the list, probably because I am not American. The question of whether Adam and Eve were historical figures is topical but seems a non-issue to me, unless perhaps it is reckoned to stand for a much broader debate about the relation between scripture and science; and the two items addressing political allegiance and ethnicity in relation to ecclesiastical unity clearly reflect an American perspective. I’m also a bit surprised that “gospel” and “kingdom” don’t get a mention until a long way into the comments. Have a look. See what you think.

The first two items, however, certainly chime with my own stubborn, narrow-minded agenda, and I think that the prominence Brian gives to Christian-Muslim relations at number three is far-sighted.

(1) The “ontology” of Scripture:

It seems that many of the subsequent controversies are influenced by how one addresses this one. There has been intensified debate in evangelical circles over the meaning of Scripture. I think it has impacted even broader circles though. Words like “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” and “authority” are enough to divide churches and academic institutions.

I think evangelicalism should take the bull by the horns and reclassify its scriptures from the genre of sacred text to the genre of historical text. This is the only way to resolve not only the hermeneutical tension but also quite possibly the whole stand-off between Reformed and narrative-historical theologies, which is another major difficulty that didn’t quite make it on Brian’s list.

The dogmatic defence of the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture is required only because we believe that we are theologically obligated to preserve its status as sacred text. We are not. Our God is a God of history. He acts in history and he speaks in history. All attempts to elevate scripture above the contingencies and messiness of history are ultimately idolatrous. Scripture derives its authority for the people of God from its engagement with history.

There is, admittedly, a problem with historical-critical reductionism, but the solution to the problem is not to stick our heads in the sands of dogmatism. (See Kenton Sparks on why evangelicals should appropriate critical biblical scholarship.) The solution, I would suggest, is to bring into the foreground scripture as the narrated history of a people.

Scripture is historical in two directions: in its relation to what actually happened or what actually is (the historical-critical question); and in its relation to the community that told its story by means of these texts (the narrative-historical question). Both aspects are important, but for the ongoing community scripture is authoritative primarily in the latter sense. We are the descendants of a people—family to Abraham—which during a long formative phase of its existence, culminating in the victory of the followers of Jesus over Greek-Roman paganism, told this story about itself. This whole story is authoritative for our continuing life and witness.

(2) The historical Jesus in relation to creedal Christology:

While historical Jesus research seems to be waning in some circles there remains a tension between talking about Jesus of Nazareth who walked this earth in the first century and Jesus the Second Person of the Trinity who is worshiped every Sunday and exalted in the language of the creeds. One area that will continue to be hotly debated is whether or not Jesus talked about himself in ways that indicated he thought of himself as one with God in a meaningful way.

This is currently the big one for me, though I would frame it a little differently. The main tension, as I see it, is not between the earthly Jesus and Jesus as Second Person of the Trinity but between the apocalyptic narrative of Jesus as the one who becomes exalted Son of God, Israel’s king, judge of the nations, as a consequence of his obedience, and the intricate ontologies of Trinitarianism, according to which Jesus is eternally God the Son. It seems to me that the New Testament as a whole does a very good job of resolving the tension between the earthly Jesus and the exalted Lord who is worshipped in the churches. But whether statements pointing to pre-existence provide a sufficient bridge to the later philosophical formulations is not so clear.

(3) Christian/Muslim relations:

Since both Christianity and Islam are monotheistic religions there has been intensified discussion over whether or not the Allah of Islam is the same the God of Christianity. Of course, there are important differences, especially Christianity’s language regarding God as Trinity and Jesus’ relation to the one God. As the two largest religions in the world the relationship between Christians and Muslims has serious geopolitical implications.

I have occasionally been accused of trying to minimize the offence of the doctrine of Christ’s divinity because I have spent a lot of time in the Muslim world. I honestly don’t think that’s the case. But there is a fascinating, and probably enlightening, dialogue to be had about Jesus if only both sides could get themselves out of the deep theological trenches from which they have long fought each other. I don’t expect Muslims and Christians to agree over who Jesus was, but I wonder whether a properly New Testament Trinitarianism—that is, one that prioritizes the apocalyptic narrative—might not in the long run prove something of a game-changer.

Comments

Andrew,

How do you square your view of Scripture with that of Jesus, who seemed to regard it as more than “the narrated history of a people”?

More specifically, didn’t he seem to regard the Scriptures as the word of God and not merely the word of his people about God?

I don’t think I see a contradiction here. God certainly speaks in the narrated history of his people—they record what they believe he is saying to them through various spokespersons, including Jesus himself. And there is also a sense—though a different sense—in which God speaks through the narrated history of his people, including through the whole story that we tell for ourselves the world today.

Does Jesus say anything that really can’t be read in either of these ways?

I’m not insisting that there is a contradiction. It’s just unclear to me how to square your view with that of Jesus, even with your further explanation.

Jesus took certain words from Scripture as if they were from God’s mouth and used them to resist temptation. He called the Scriptures the word of God and said they could not be broken. He offered them to both his supporters and critics as the source of his worldview. All these actions indicate that he considered the Scriptures as carrying the authority of God Himself, that we may regard them as the written documentation of His will. As a result, we should obey them. If your view coincides with this, then, no, there is probably no contradiction between your view and that of Jesus.

It is one thing to say that Jesus regarded the scriptures as authoritative and the word of God for “both his supporters and critics”. It is another thing to say, without qualification, that we should regard them as the “written documentation of His will” and that we should obey them. We are not Jesus’ supporters and critics. Jesus only by exception addressed non-Jews. He regarded the Jewish scriptures as authoritative for Israel. He knew nothing of the circumstances of the church in the post-Christendom West.

He retold aspects of Israel’s story—the journey through the wilderness, the return of YHWH to the temple, the coming of one like a son of man on the clouds of heaven—in order to explain to Israel what was happening and about to happen. A narrative approach to the New Testament suggests that this whole story is determinative for the existence of the people of God today, but it does not require to simply, thoughtlessly and uncritically to obey his teaching, whatever its indirect relevance to our own situation may be.

Andrew,

I’m not sure what I wrote to give you the impression that I thought we should obey the Scriptures “thoughtlessly and uncritically.” Even Jesus himself saw their lessons as needing to be applied in his own life thoughtfully and with regard to the spiritual realities of his own situation. In fact, this difference in application accounts for many of his disputes with the Pharisees and many of the misunderstandings by his disciples.

What really puzzles me though is the ease with which you seem to accept the mantle “the people of God” for us today without a corresponding acceptance of responsibilities that would come with such a title. Of course, we shouldn’t obey the Scriptures “thoughtlessly and uncritically,” but please describe to us the way in which the people of God are to obey them. Otherwise, Jesus becomes to us as the royals are to the British - authoritative in name only.

What really puzzles me though is the ease with which you seem to accept the mantle “the people of God” for us today without a corresponding acceptance of responsibilities that would come with such a title.

Whatever gave you that idea? It’s not what the post was about. I said in the previous comment that the whole story is “determinative for the existence of the people of God today”. That’s the essence of it, and “determinative” is a fairly strong word. I wouldn’t say that the British royal family is “determinative” for the existence of the British people today. It just needs unpacking. Jesus is Lord over a new creation people. What does new creation look like? Radically different from what is going on around us.

Andrew,

Glad to hear we are not as far apart as it first appeared to me. (It was your comment that concerned me on this point, not the original post.)

On your view, how does what’s “determinative” become practical? That is, how does one respond to Jesus in such as way as to actualize his lordship? And to what degree do the Scriptures bear on this?

“Radically different from what is going on around us” is probably right, but it’s not very descriptive…or prescriptive.

Mike -

In a kind-of-cheesy way, some evangelicals have explained it this way: Scripture was not written to us, but for our benefit.

Maybe that’s a place to start. I suppose I might argue that Christians are not always called to be ‘biblical’, since the Bible is not a how-to book on every topic nor does it fully address the topics it does address. You see this being abused in many instances, with many trying to formulate biblical this and that - biblical counselling, biblical sex, biblical politics, biblical economics, and so on. This can be just as dangerous as one who says the Scripture is pretty irrelevant today. Here is another example at InternetMonk.

I’d propose prima scriptura is a much better starting point than sola scriptura. We start there, but we might not end there. And with fishing or genetics, we don’t really even go there.

Just some musings.

Scott,

I appreciate the spirit of your comment. And I read the Internet Monk post to which you linked.

My concern about Andrew’s approach, which I take you to be reinforcing and also trying to explain, is that it says too much about what you don’t want to see and too little about what you do want to see.

I’m all for abandoning what’s wrong with Evangelicalism (e.g. its politicization), but in abandoning the old vision don’t you need to describe a new one?

If you don’t want to “obey” (substitute “heed,” “respect,” “venerate,” “honor,” “regard as relevant,” or whatever else you’re comfortable with) the Bible in the old way, what is the new way in which you want to “obey” (again, substitute as you wish) it?

I get that you are distinguishing yourself from other evangelicals; I’m trying to understand what the difference is. The “Uncola” was still soda pop, after all. Is that what I’m seeing here?

Let me ask you what I asked Andrew: “On your view, how do you actualize the lordship of Christ in your life, and what role, if any, does the Bible play in this?”

I’m not antagonistic to you or Andrew. Rather, I’m wanting to understand you. And I want to find out if there is a there there.

Mike -

I think what one has to be careful with is trying to nail down every little minute detail with a doctrine of Scripture - If we believe this, what about that? If I hold to this, what about that? If Scripture isn’t authoritative on every issue, then what can we trust? And so on. I think it can be quite taxing and suck the life of Christ right out of us.

Having said that, I do believe in the authority, first, of Christ and the gospel. But I also hold to the authority and God-breathed nature of Scripture. But I hold more, as I said, to prima scriptura, wanting to start there as an expression of Christ’s authority, but not seeing Scripture as the only authority. Matter of fact, it’s Scripture that refers to the church, the living body of Christ, as the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). You don’t hear too many evangelicals talk about that. But truth is first embodied in a person, Jesus, and the living gospel message. And then it moves to the body of Christ, which is shaped by the living Spirit and the Scripture.

So do know I highly value Scripture. I believe in developing healthy hermeneutics. But those hermeneutics show that we cannot run to Scripture to tell us at all pionts about our day, our lives, the church in the 21st century western world. We need wisdom, and that might mean the wisdom of recognsing there are no 5 points to easily nail it down.

Scott,

I’m not asking you how to nail everything down. I’m asking how you nail anything down.

I’m asking how you flesh out Jesus as Lord. Recall that He said, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things that I say?” Therefore, on your view, how do you live this exhortation day by day, and what relationship, if any, does Scripture have to how you live it?

More specifically, given what you’ve just expressed, what do you do when you sense that Christ is telling you to do something different from what your church is telling you?

I like a lot of what you and Andrew are saying, but I’m trying to understand what it means in terms of living obediently for Christ. If you’re just speaking in generalities then I’m not sure you’ve materially improved on the evangelicalism from which you are trying to distance yourself. You may just be doing to evangelicalism what it did with fundamentalism: that is, gotten rid of out-of-style clothing for something a little more fashionable.

I would certainly agree about the potentially game changing force of the apocalyptic Jesus vis a vis Church and Mosque relations. We’ll see. Perhaps getting to the core of what Jesus was actually talking about in his gospel/kingdom message would be a good start. But alas, I hear the wary Left-Behind addled evangelical recoil at the prospect of heading down the road to flower-power era “liberalism” with an exotic interfaith vibe thrown in for good measure….

One comment on Brian’s post certainly raised a key pet-peeve of mine: Christianity’s seeming truimphalism over Judiasm ( to be honest, this truimphalist tendency is very real in a sense– my goodness, many evangelicals regard “that book” as literally an “Old” testament, the moldy, alien prelude to our dear NT– its more comfy note by note”fullfillment”. )

Perhaps because of my Nigerian charismatic roots, the charismata/mystical dimension is one ( confounding) topic that I feel is crying out for a sober and exhaustive treatment. One of Brians’ commenters alluded to the issue. I used to attended a flagship neo-reformed church in the States ( thank God for his deliverance !). One of our expository excursions brought us to the Mark’s account of the Gerasene domoniac. I was amused when, in commenting on the passage, the pastor noted how many in America were simply on “holiday” from such “stuff” and that we shouldn’t “dismiss” the relevance of such stories, because our “brothers and sisters” in the Global South did not. Of course, majoring on God’s soveriegnty helps too ! Yes, I know not everbody takes these passages literally today, but I was surprised that even an overeducated reformed pastor would pay some attention to this. I know I do.

I’ll quote the big blocks to set the stage; first Brian LePort:

(2) The historical Jesus in relation to creedal Christology:

While historical Jesus research seems to be waning in some circles there remains a tension between talking about Jesus of Nazareth who walked this earth in the first century and Jesus the Second Person of the Trinity who is worshiped every Sunday and exalted in the language of the creeds. One area that will continue to be hotly debated is whether or not Jesus talked about himself in ways that indicated he thought of himself as one with God in a meaningful way.

RWW: Jesus certainly talked about himself as being one with God in a meaningful way, but he also talked about all of his followers being one with God in the SAME way; the oneness agument of Jesus is substantially different from that conceived by those who crafted the credal statments and persecuted those who disagreed with them. (cf.: Jn 17:21-23: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may may be in us.” The oneness language, the Greek words, are exactly the same for both his oneness with the Father and the believers’ oneness with them; no ontological distinction here. There is, of course, also the sharing of God’s own glory with Jesus’ followers that should likewise undo many of the common arguments about God not sharing his glory with another as an argument for Jesus’ unique divinity and identity with God. OK, enough on that.

Now Andrew Perriman:

“This is currently the big one for me, though I would frame it a little differently. The main tension, as I see it, is not between the earthly Jesus and Jesus as Second Person of the Trinity but between the apocalyptic narrative of Jesus as the one who becomes exalted Son of God, Israel’s king, judge of the nations, as a consequence of his obedience, and the intricate ontologies of Trinitarianism, according to which Jesus is eternally God the Son. It seems to me that the New Testament as a whole does a very good job of resolving the tension between the earthly Jesus and the exalted Lord who is worshipped in the churches. But whether statements pointing to pre-existence provide a sufficient bridge to the later philosophical formulations is not so clear.”

RWW:

Andrew, as is often the case with those arguing for the humanity of Jesus who then becomes exalted as “god,” you seem not to address his “pre-existence” as creative agent of God the Father. If one takes the New Testament witness about Christ as the one who upholds creation by his word (a la Hebrews 1), and the one through whom all things that came to be came to be (a la Colossians 1), and perhaps (?) even as “the Word” who is also God (Jn 1), or even the “spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4), then it seems inappropriate to cling to the mere adoptionism you appear to prefer. I am no fan of credal christianity, and can not find any scriptural assignation of a pre-creation, “before time” existence for the Logos, the Son of God, much less a “second person of the trinity,” so don’t imagine that I’m just and orthodoxer. I am too iconoclastically inclined to settle into any camp perhaps. I am, however, rather firmly convinced that scripture doesn’t answer the question of whether Christ, the Son of God, or even the Word (Logos) pre-existed creation. I know, how dis-satisfying it would be if God didn’t answer the question tradition has answered for us; how annoying it would be even for those who oppose the creedal conclusions if that essential question has not be answered by God for us (yet?).

Grace and peace to all who seek to know God through Jesus Christ his Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit (uh, as the active power and presence of God the Father rather than as yet another “person” in the godhead (whatever that means)?) My gosh, why can’t even a prayer be simple?

Richard Worden Wilson

OH, in case there might be any doubt, I don’t think Jesus “claimed to be God,” though his disciples made those claims about him (a la Thomas; “my Lord and my God.” There were those, as recorded in the Gospel of John, that charged him with saying he was “equal” to God, but Jesus himself said the Father is greater than all (eternal economic relationships don’t come over the horizon of any scriptural text). If Jesus had actually ever claimed to be “equal to God the Father” it would surely have been a charge brought before the Sanhedrin at his trial. Since that charge, not to mention the charge that he “claimed to be God” as is commonly asserted, were not brought forth at his trial it seems that no one worthy of bringing charges against him believed he had made that claim, and it was only false witnesses and other servants of the father of lies that made those claims.

Andrew, as is often the case with those arguing for the humanity of Jesus who then becomes exalted as “god,” you seem not to address his “pre-existence” as creative agent of God the Father.

I entirely agree that the “creative agent” aspect needs to be taken into account and have said so in the discussions that we have had recently. What I don’t in my own mind understand is how or why the early followers of Jesus made the jump from exalted Son of God to the one through whom and for whom all things were made.

Both are very understandable ideas in biblical terms—it’s the link between them that’s the problem. I suspect it has something to do with Jesus as the agent or locus of new creation, and I think there is something to the argument that Jesus is the image of the invisible God in the new world that has been inaugurated by his resurrection from the dead.

I don’t like the word “adoptionism”. I don’t think the New Testament speaks of Jesus being adopted. He is “begotten” as a “son”, appointed as a king, given authority to rule, etc. Believers are then adopted as sons.

Andrew: “What I don’t in my own mind understand is how or why the early followers of Jesus made the jump from exalted Son of God to the one through whom and for whom all things were made.”

RWW: Yeah, I don’t understand it either, all the more so since it doesn’t seem to be presaged or “predicted” in the OT, but there it is, and to my mind must be affirmed, upheld, and proclaimed in some definite way in our witness regarding the Messiah, our Lord and Savior. I should have said you don’t seem to ‘affirm’ rather than ‘address’ the divine implications of the Son’s creative agency.

I probably shouldn’t have used the term ‘adoption’ either because you don’t seem to quite go there. Right, Jesus is the “only/uniquely begotten Son of God.” Still, if you emphasize the post- birth/resurrection exaltation of the Son and downplay or discount the pre-existence as divine creative agent, the adoptinist characterization just about sticks, no?

I appreciate just about everywhere you go with your thoughtful conversations on these things, so keep it up!

Creative agent of: what ? The cosmos or the New Creation order of things instituted by his resurrection ? ( I have Colossians hymn in mind here). Andrews’ hunch sorta dovetails with the way strict monotheists ( Biblical Unitarians ) address these ‘co-creator’ passages. One other commenter alluded to these folks in a recent post.

Creative agent of “all things,” of which “he is before,” according to Colossians (and others). Of course; herein lies the rub, so to speak, regarding the pre-existence and pre-exalted “nature” of the Son.

Are there any strict “bi-nitarians” out there? 8>) Non-eternal subordination is OK with me (and scripture?). Eternal begetting and eternal subordination just doesn’t appear to me to be in scripture itself; temporal begetting and subordination are at least. If you catch me arguing “beyond” rather than “alongside” what scripture itself affirms please let me know immediately.

Isn’t the trinity a complicated and incoherent explanation that uses philosophical language to say, in effect, “We have studied the Scriptures on this subject and cannot figure them out.”

Mr.Gantt, you bet ! Its absurd , really, the smug certitude prevailing in this area…

To see good Jewish monotheists like the Apostles worship Jesus as god (albeit after his resurrection) but reject the idea that he is fully God (however you describe that) also seems incoherent.

Smug certitude can also come in the form of condescending critiques.

Ouch, Richard ? Um, I doubt I had you in mind when i made that statement. Your position ( If you believe what I think you believe) has been dominant for over a millenia. Surely some thick-er skin is in order. Condescension was not my intention.

I would agree however : ALL our positions are incoherent….but David was “worshipped” too :)




Oh, didn’t mean to cause hurt; “faithful are the wounds of a friend.”

Yeah, I’m not into that kind of certitude. The most common kind of certitude on these matters is often of a very insecure rather than the smug type; I try, as often as I can, to maintain a sympathetic sensitivity to those whose “faith” seems dependent on pre-conceived certainties.

Personally, I don’t think the Apostles’ view(s?) was (were?) incoherent, however hard to reconstruct or comprehend in our very different conceptual environment. I do tend to think that pushing biblical perspectives into procrustean, philosophically termed, and pseudo-logically constructed conclusions does end up in incoherence. What is not so clear to me is whether a humanly conceived coherence regarding God and his manifestation in human form or His self-revelation to humans is actually possible.

I have come to the conclusion that many if not most of the main answers presented throughout the history of creedal orthodoxy are not answers given by God in his canonical revelation; they are rather most likely conclusions devised by men to satisfy their own insecurities and justify their own unfaithful behaviors. On the other hand I do respect and honor the balance struck in affirming Christ’s humanity along with his divinity. JMO. As you may surmise from this: I am not a creedal trinitarian in any classical sense; it is easier to say what I am not than what I am. I am a follower of Jesus my Savior and worship him as “my Lord and my God,” but tend to think of Christ as god in God (please don’t push me, let alone torture me, into defining just what I mean by that).

Excellent points there, Richard.

No, I would’nt dare ask ( or torture you ) to define your experience of the ineffable. Neo-reformed blogs exist for that purpose :)

I have come to the conclusion that many if not most of the main answers presented throughout the history of creedal orthodoxy are not answers given by God in his canonical revelation; they are rather most likely conclusions devised by men to satisfy their own insecurities and justify their own unfaithful behaviors

You think ? It was ( is ) all about satisfying “divine daddy” issues ! Yes, it is possible to ( gasp !) glean some helpful stuff from an Irenaeus or Augustine, but the rest–i chuck into the cesspool of human ego.

I’m simply tired of those games. If ones’s “faith” is based pre-conceived certainties, then God bless ‘em. I just want the text to breathe…..

Oh, backing up a bit from my other comments, I have ask: what specifically is your conception of an “apocalyptic” Trinitarianism? Where might I find your concise explication of that?

I’m working on it. ;)

Andrew,

Thank you for sharing and for the constructive comments. Sorry it took so long to comment. My browser wouldn’t let me access your blog (Google Chrome). I am using Internet Explorer and it works fine now.

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