The Myth of ‘God-Given Rights’

“We were endowed by our creator with our rights. Not the king, not the state, but our creator.” – Mitt Romney

I heard this quote on the radio last week, and it’s been gnawing at me ever since.

The conservative/libertarian reliance on the Declaration of Independence as all but coequal with the Constitution is annoying from a historical perspective – the two documents have different aims, different authors and a different set of signers. The Declaration was written to abolish the current government, while the Constitution was written to set up a government. As a result, many of the Declaration’s signers, including its author, Thomas Jefferson, and “give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry refused to endorse the Constitution. They thought the government it created was too big.

So citing the Declaration of Independence as a relevant document for the current American government is annoying. Citing the deistic Creator formulation Jefferson included as a synonym for “nature” as if he really meant the all-powerful, directly involved God of the universe who is intimately involved in the lives of his children is frustrating.

But what really gets me about that line from Romney is that it’s entirely wrong.

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The James Vs. Paul Cage Fight

We all know what Paul thinks about salvation, summed up succinctly in verses like Ephesians 2:8-9:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.

James, however, tells a different story in 2:24:

You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

So I look down to the commentary in my NIV Life Application Bible, and it says, “James and Paul are not contradicting but complementing each other.”

Oh really?

Now I grew up hearing the arguments that Paul and James both agreed in the need for deeds to be the evidence for faith. But those are pretty weak. Because the whole argument for those who believe we are saved only by grace through faith is that none of us is able to perform enough good works to meet God’s standard. Is that any less true after salvation? And if you read James, he isn’t saying, “You’re saved by faith but you need to have good works, too.” He’s saying, “A person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”

Paul and James both use Abraham as an example – Paul says Abraham was justified by faith alone because he believed in God before the Law existed, and James said Abraham was justified by works because he was willing to sacrifice Isaac. They both even cite the same Old Testament scripture (Gen. 15:6)!

Now James does believe faith is necessary for salvation, which is what Paul would say, but he also believes works are equally necessary, something I don’t think you can find in Paul’s writing.

So we bend over backward, twisting ourselves into knots trying to reconcile these two early apostles who simply disagreed with each other about how God works his salvation. It’s certainly understandable why: Salvation is a big deal! It’s an even bigger deal when you believe God is going to condemn every last unsaved person to eternal torment in hell. With stakes that high, it’s pretty important to figure out who is saved and who isn’t, and it behooves us to have a Bible that clearly, easily and understandably points the way to salvation.

Except the Bible does not do this.

Continue reading The James Vs. Paul Cage Fight

Can Paul Be Trusted on Sexuality? Part 5

Let’s review where we are in this series on Paul’s trustworthiness on the topic of sexuality.

First, we discussed the fact that Paul includes something not many of us would consider a sin – effeminacy – in one of his vice lists, which should raise some red flags that we’re dealing with a culture that deals with these topics differently than we do.

Second, we looked at the importance of self-mastery in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day.

Third, we noticed chapters 1 and 2 of Romans seem to contradict each other, and looked at the fact that both Greco-Roman and Jewish philosophy of the first century prized masculinity over femininiy, and that this influenced the culture’s view of sexual relations.

Fourth, we looked at the Jewish apologetics’ use of Greco-Roman concepts like self-mastery as a way to argue for the superiority of Jewish law in the Roman system.

Here’s the conclusion to that piece:

When Paul writes Romans 1, he and his audience both understand that he is tapping into intersecting strains of first-century thought – the Greco-Roman priority on self-mastery and the Jewish apologetic – in order to propagandize the superiority of Jewish law over the untrammeled passions and desires of those living without it.

So why do this? Why tap into these two rhetorical veins?

On one level, the answer is obvious: He does this because his readers are used to this language. We are not, and so we take away things from it Paul and his audience would never have expected. But first-century Roman gentiles, whether or not they are used to hearing Jewish apologetic, are certainly aware of the notions of self-mastery and the consequences of failing to acquire it.

For that, we need to look past Romans 1.

Continue reading Can Paul Be Trusted on Sexuality? Part 5

Faith in Uncertainty

I’ve really been enjoying J.R. Daniel Kirk’s Storied Theology blog. Kirk is that rare biblical scholar who writes in a clear, concise manner usually missing from academic writing. His book, Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? is on my to-read list. In the meantime, I enjoy his reflections on theology – especially narrative theology, which he contrasts with systematic theology.

The latter, he argues, looks at theology as a system by which we derive the answers we are seeking. It’s very modern, in other words. Narrative theology, on the other hand, taps into a vein of thought we’re seeing come to the fore with the likes of Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel and others: that the Bible isn’t set up so much to give answers as to engage us in dialogue and tell a very important story that can and should change our lives.

Perhaps the place where narrative and systematic theology differ is in the latter’s need to stand at the end of the story throughout, and articulate what is true on its basis. What is true about God, now that this story has happened (and is happening)? What do we know to be true about people?

Narrative theology is more content to leave stories as stories. Perhaps more, narrative theology is content to talk about God as God interacts with Abraham, and Moses, and David, and Jesus, and Paul, and the Lamb. To what degree can we speak of God truly when we have not located God as the actor in a story that unfolds in and among the people?

Is abstracting that character going to be able to produce a true portrait? Is the fear of an abstracted God, abstracted humanity, or abstracted church legitimate?

Narrative approaches also tend to have more patience with leaving contrasting voices on the table to continue their conversation. The Bible is a narrative, not a philosophical system, so univocal theological points are not expected.

I like this very much. It’s very postmodern. (Those two sentences may or may not be related on a deeper level.) So when we talk, as we’ve been doing, about Paul’s views on sexuality, we are free to interact with them, see the context from which Paul’s writing, understand that our knowledge of gender roles and sex are much different than his, and perhaps adjust our viewpoints accordingly.

“But,” I can hear slippery slopers arguing (and there’s a little slippery sloper in each of us, I think), “once you start arguing the Bible doesn’t provide answers, there’s no end to the heresies! What about the cross? What about the resurrection? What about heaven and hell?”

Yeah, about that.

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Class, Week 3: Deharmonizing the Gospels

If your go-to Bible is anything like mine, it has a section either just after the Gospel of John or at the end of the New Testament devoted to harmonizing the gospels. Since Matthew, Mark, Luke and John chose different ways of presenting Jesus’ story, the idea is that if we combine them into one text – or at least one series of headings with references – then we can get a fuller picture of Jesus’ life.

Unfortunately, that leads to some problems.

My Bible – a run-of-the-mill Life Application Study Bible – does its harmonizing at the end of the gospels, listing 250 subject headings and where they appear in each of the gospels, starting with “Luke’s purpose for writing” and ending with “Jesus ascends into heaven.”

But ultimately anything that attempts to harmonize such disparate works as the gospels runs into complications because the gospels are not as uniform as perhaps some of us have been led to believe.

For example, everyone knows the story of Jesus clearing the temple. It’s after he rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, according to Matthew 21, Mark 11 and Luke 19. Or is it? John has a temple-clearing story in chapter 2. How likely is it that Jesus cleared the temple twice? Sure, it could have happened. But it seems more likely that John simply placed the story where he wanted to put it. Nevertheless, an attempt to harmonize the gospels means the heading in Matthew, Mark and Luke must read, “Jesus clears the temple again.”

There are several of these odd scenarios: “Jesus grieves over Jerusalem again,” apparently using the exact same words both times, before he enters Jerusalem in Luke, afterward in Matthew. “Jesus again predicts Peter’s denial,” slightly earlier in Luke and John, later in Matthew and Mark, both times with the familiar wording about the rooster’s crow.

If there is a better example of anachronistic cultural arrogance, I’d like to hear it.

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‘Neither Male nor Female, Slave nor Free, Gay nor Straight’?

I like to rile people up sometimes, so a few months ago, I posted the following to my Facebook feed:

If Paul had been living in the 21st century, would he have added ‘neither gay nor straight’ to Galatians 3:28?

As you might know, Galatians 3:28 reads:

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Most people who responded did so with a Christian version of, “Hell, no!” But I think we do ourselves and the Bible a disservice by pretending it universally contains specific, timeless admonitions and prohibitions. Don’t get me wrong: Sometimes it does. But usually those are pretty clear. Stuff like, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind and with all your strength.” The Old Testament mentions them, Jesus mentions them, Paul refers implicitly or explicitly to them.

You know, kind of like divorce.

Wait, what?

The Bible mentions divorce 34 times. It features prominently in the levitical law. In Malachi God is described as hating divorce, and in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus equates divorce with adultery and even gives specific reasons in which divorce is acceptable. Paul argues Christians shouldn’t even divorce their non-Christian spouses and reiterates Jesus’ command against remarrying after a divorce.

So how many people actually follow that? Nearly 40 percent of regular churchgoing Christians are divorced. And I would guess a good percentage have remarried or plan to be. They have already made the decision that the Bible’s clear, multitestamental admonitions are confined to a specific culture.

Perhaps you would disagree.

Would you also disagree about women covering their heads? Women wearing jewelry? Men wearing long hair?

Continue reading ‘Neither Male nor Female, Slave nor Free, Gay nor Straight’?

Class, Week 5: Loving the Law?

If there is any part of the Old Testament less liked than the uncomfortable stories about God-ordained genocide and child sacrifice, it’s the law. It has all the theologically squirm-inducing components (stone your rebellious children; if your wife has a daughter, she is unclean for twice as long as if she has a son) minus the easy-to-read plot.

While I’m still kicking around the idea that perhaps the stories about God are simply not accurate representations – historiography, not history – the law is harder because these are supposed to be the words of God himself, not just words about God. And there’s some stuff in there that is difficult to understand, uncomfortable to read or, perhaps worse, been used to spread hatred and violence against women, gays and minorities in the name of God.

But perhaps the law is something else. Perhaps it’s a code of ethics calling us to social justice, morality and deeper relationship with God and others. After all, Jesus himself summed up the entirety of the law in just two commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength,” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

My professor opened his discussion of the law yesterday with the above clip from Episode 7 of Firefly, in which Shepherd Book tells River, “You don’t fix faith. Faith fixes you.”

The implication: We can’t fix the Bible; we can only let it fix us.

Continue reading Class, Week 5: Loving the Law?