Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Living the victorious Christian life?

May 24, 2017 by Michael F. Bird 0 Comments

A central tenet in New Testament proclamation is that Jesus Christ has won a victory for his people, the famous Christus Victor theme of the atonement, where sin, death, and the devil have been defeated. You find this view beautifully enunciated by Paul in Col 2:13-14:

13 When you were dead because of the things you had done wrong and because your body wasn’t circumcised, God made you alive with Christ and forgave all the things you had done wrong. 14 He destroyed the record of the debt we owed, with its requirements that worked against us. He canceled it by nailing it to the cross.
However, I’ve been wondering of late, how does this express itself in practice? What does it mean to live a victorious Christian life? Does it mean having sin conquered, success in your ministries, a fruitful spiritual life, healthy relationships, onward and upward all the time?

What is it? What does victory look like when worked out in the daily exercise of ministry or even in the ordinary plane of human existence? In my mind, it is none of those.

If we think the cross is the means and model of victory, then, victory looks like defeat, it feels like despair, and it smells like death. I think this is precisely what Paul meant when he recounted the various trials he had faced in his apostolic career:

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Is Christ the Center of Scripture?

Herma and Herman Neutics: Is Christ the Center of Scripture?

Most Christians I suspect would answer “yes” in some sense to my title question. But that “in some sense” contains a diversity of meanings. Some of the key questions that move us toward an answer to what sense is Christ the center of scripture include:

-Does every passage somehow speak of Christ?
-Is he the “hermeneutical key” that unlocks the mystery and meaning of scripture?
-What about passages that seem to contradict what we know of God through Christ?

According to Luke, Jesus explains to the disciples after Easter, the two on the Emmaus road and those gathered in Jerusalem, everything in scripture that relates to him and what has happened to him (24:25-27, 44-49). In John Jesus asserts that the scriptures point to him (5:39-40). This does not mean, however, that every passage somehow speaks of Christ or to the circumstances of his life even if they point to him in more general ways.

If he is the “hermeneutical key” to the Bible it must be in some other sense than every Old Testament passage speaking about him. When we call him “Christ” we get the clue we need, I think. Christ, of course, is the Greek term for Messiah. Messiah is the figure many Jews expected God to send to redeem all his promises to Israel and rule the world. Messiah is, in short, the lynchpin to God’s plan for creation.

The Old Testament tells the story of the unfolding of this divine plan from creation to Jesus Christ (Messiah). The New Testament, from Jesus to Consummation. If Christ/Messiah is the center of scripture he is so as the center of the story of God achieving his eternal purpose. As the climax and culmination of this story/plan the OT does indeed speak of Jesus and the NT reflect on what Jesus accomplished.

To refine this analysis moves us to theological reflection on God’s plan and on the chief dynamic(s) that drive that plan and God’s action in the Bible. I can’t undertake that here, however. The main point of this piece is to make a brief case for Christ as the center of scripture as the center of the story of God’s achieving his eternal purpose through and in him. I offered a response to the first two questions but not the third about passages which seem to contradict what we know of God through Christ. That awaits a fuller development in a future post.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (30)

the fall of babylon (Revelation (18)

Rev.17 details the “mystery” of the harlot, the beast, Rome. Only to eyes of faith does the true reality of this figure disclose itself. If you take the blue pill the glitz and glamor, power and prosperity will be what you see. If you take the red pill, however, you will see what John shows you, for Revelation is the red pill par excellence. This illustration from the movie “The Matrix” is a perfect example of how this book works. It unveils, or x-rays, the surface of things so the community of faith can carry on with a sure sense of the deep truth of God and the world it has been called to bear witness in.

Rev.18 details in horrible detail the demise of this figure. A great angel announces Rom’s fall, declaring it a wilderness, a haunt of every foul thing, who has polluted and deceived the earth with it oppression, injustice, and cruelty (18:2-3.

Another heavenly voice calls God’s people out of Rome. This is not a physical retreat or withdrawal. That would not have been possible for the many slaves who were Christians. And it was really possible to escape Rome even if one physically withdrew because Rome is a spirit, a power, embodied in but not exhausted in the institutions and culture of the city set on seven hills. Rome is a spirit and must be combatted spiritually. Rome is the spirit of America. And it must be combatted spiritually. It is that spiritual struggle to which the heavenly voice calls us.

If you take the red pill Jesus offers you in this sermon  it becomes possible to develop a profile of the spirit of Rome/America as the spirit to be resisted.[1]

“Since the ideology and religion of empire almost invariably includes nationalism, militarism, and consumerism (that is, aggrandizing the merchants and reinforcing the dominating power of the nations), the call to “come out” is a call to resist, to create alternative, to practice refusal in the midst of Babylon.”[2]

1.       Most obviously, the spirit of Rome/America tries to live without God.[3]

This leaves a hole, a vacancy, at the heart of the culture that tries to live without God. Hence the vision’s description of Rome as a haunted wilderness (v.2).

2.       Sensuality (18:3,9).

Sexuality is inextricably tied to commerce. It is thus engaged in a reciprocal perversion of each other.

3.       Injustice (18:13).

The most horrible example is that Rome engaged in promoting slavery, human chattel. And what chills the heart even more is that this human “merchandise” is placed at the very end of the list – the least of what Rome is buying and selling!

4.       Commodification (18:13-19)

Everything is a thing that can be quantified and assigned a cost. After all, that hole in the culture’s soul must be filled by something and nothing can be off limits to buy or sell in that effort.

5.       Violence (18:21)

Violence was endemic to the spirit of Rome/America. It is endemic to the human project of trying to live without God (Gen.6:11). So endemic that her judgment entails the violence that has marked her life.

6.      Deception and Counterfeit (18:7)

This “Queen” feigns to rule over and determine the lives of all under her sway.  The Pax Romana (“Peace of Rome”) was anything but if you resisted its rule. The Vietnam maxim of “destroying a village to pacify it” comes out of Rome’s playbook.

7.       Idolatry (18:7)

Self-glorification, or I-dolatry (the rule of the imperial “I”), is the primal human sin. The animating center of peoples and cultures trying to live without God.

That’s what God’s people are to steer clear of, even while living in the heart of the beast. This is the spirit of Rome/America that creates much of the injustice, oppression, and hardship that most of the world lives with. Wherever this spirit takes root, Rev.17-18 come into play.

The true and living God never allows self-proclaimed surrogates to prevail for long. Even if they claim to rule in his name. Rome’s judgment falls in a single day (18:8), indeed, a single hour (18:8, 17)! Obviously, this means a short time not a literal day or hour.

The lone note of hope in this bleak scene comes in the last sentence: “in you was found the blood of prophets and of saints” (v.24). At first glance this seems an indictment of the hardness of heart that refused to hear and heed the message and life of God’s people. And it is that. But as we have seen in this book, the “blood” of the Lamb and his people has redemptive power. It just may be that Jesus offers a hint here that if his people live his way, sacrificial, loving, servanthood, the kings and inhabitants of the earth’s enmity might be graciously overcome in divine goodness and mercy. It is intriguing that when we see all these enemies of God defeated and destroyed in the next chapter, we find them coming in and out of the holy city, the New Jerusalem, in Rev.21!

[1] Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, 302-303.
[2] Grimsrud,
[3] This is the powerful argument of Adam B. Seligman’s Modernity’s Wager.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Huxley or Orwell in 21st c. America?

"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us."
― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Everythng You Need to KNow About the Bible is in Revelation 21-22!

Herma and Herman Neutics on Reading from the End

Perhaps you've been told not to jump ahead and read the end of a story, particularly a whodunit because it spoils the reading experience. And that mostly true, I suppose. But I heard Herma say one day, "You know, everything I need to know about the Bible is in Revelation 21-22."

"Surely you jest," I replied.

"No," she said, "not really. Maybe a little exaggeration but I think its true."

"Okay, I'll bite," replied Herman. "What do you mean?"

'It's pretty simple, really. We don't read the Bible primarily for aesthetic enjoyment (though we should probably do more of that than we do). We read it to gain some kind of direction or insight into faithfully for God, right? Well, then, our reading will be rather aimless until we know what God is doing and where God is taking us and history. Only if we know what God's up to can we live with direction, intention, and attention. Three things many of us lack or find difficult to sustain because we lack this knowledge."

"So, you're saying that we should start be reading Revelation 21-22?" asked Herman.

"That's right, Herman. Exactly!"

"Wish I didn't have to run off right now to work. Will you tell me more about this when I return?

"Of course, of course. Till then."

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Reading the Old Testament as a Christian Book

The Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible. At least taken by itself it is. But when the church added the New Testament to it, it became a Christian book. But what does that mean?  How does it effect the way we read it?

Herman likes to make a point of how much of it there is - way more than the New Testament. It must have some vital role to play in shaping Christian understanding if the church chose to put it together with the NT. That means we cannot ignore or neglect it as Christians started doing in the second century and in too many circles continue to do to this day. One has only to remember that this is what the Nazis did in Germany as part of their program of rebuilding the German nation of pure Aryan blood. We forget or neglect the Old Testament to our hurt!

So, how do we (Christians) read the Old Testament?

1. as part of the one story of God with his creation and creatures. It is chapter 1 of a 2 chapter story. The latter chapter is unintelligible without the first.

2. as Jesus put it, "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22). To experience salvation, then, means understanding it in light of what God did with the Jews and how all that is reconfigured (but not rejected!) in the light of Jesus.

3. the Old Testament is not Law to be contrasted and dismissed by the New Testament which is grace. The biblical pattern is not Law (OT) - Grace (NT) but rather Grace - Law - Grace with Law being a gift of grace to direct and illumine the people.

4. we read the OT forward to get its historical development as a Jewish text. We then read it backwards through the lens of the life/death/resurrection of Jesus to catch meanings and dimensions of the OT that could not be seen by its authors or heard apart from faith in Jesus.

5. to paraphrase St. Augustine, the NT is in the OT prefigured; the OT is in the NT transfigured.
Again, it is the eyes of faith that see the NT prefigure in the OT and the OT transfigured in the New in the light of Christ.

In sum, we value the OT as much as the New, find God's grace in it as well as in the NT, discover the foundation of the NT in the Old, and the ultimate meaning of the Old in the New.

Resisting Trump with Revelation (29)

The Great Harlot (Revelation 17)

As the bowls of wrath cycle brings home to us the finality, universality, and horror of divine judgment it concludes: “God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath.” Here the vision brings this symbol in greater focus.

The historical Babylon is long gone at this point but its symbolic value as “the” Empire continued on and is here applied to Rome. For us today the Roman Empire is long gone but “Empire: has not vanished. We live in one today in America (which is our focus of concern). Babylon = Rome = America = future empires. That’s how we have to read this symbolism today.

We met the Beast in Rev.13 (actually the two Beast; one from the sea, another from the earth). They are the Dragon’s minions. “In the Spirit” the Seer is taken to the “wilderness”  and enabled to perceive the true nature of this Beast. “Harlot,” “prostitute,” and “whore” are what John sees. Ugly words; ugly reality. These terms are not directed to women or sex. They are intrinsic to the symbol of harlotry elsewhere in the Bible. That term can mean idolatry, and social, political, economic, military oppression. Probably all are involved here, though the emphasis is on the latter four realities.

This harlot sits on a scarlet beast creating an imposing though repugnant image. Blasphemous names pervade her. The worship of Rome and the occasional claims of some emperors to be divine ae chief among such monikers. Its seven heads and ten horns mean what we have seen them mean elsewhere in Revelation. The seven heads = the fullness of authority. The ten horns = fullness of strength and power. Adorned with all sorts of precious jewels, this harlot carries a cup, “a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication.”

But more than that, there is a double drunkenness at work here. The kings and inhabitants of the earth are drunk with Babylon’s wine (V.2) and Babylon herself is drunk with “the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (v.6). And drunk, each is liable to deception. Babylon deceives the kings and people to follow her. But the harlot herself is drunk and deceived by her own lies and illusions about who she is and what she can do. And both make themselves liable to judgment by these deceptions. And the outcomes of these drunken delusions are a big part of the judgment they receive.

The Demise of the Beast (17:7-14)

Another “mystery” is revealed here: this impressive and overwhelming entity, this beast, will be destroyed! I agree with Grimsrud that we probably cannot sort out the imagery here. Nor do we have to. The mystery is that this seemingly invincible reality will bite the dust! Certainty about God’s power and victory will always be in question. In our hearts and in the world at large. That’s why the so-called problem of evil has such bite. It directly contests this basic Christian truth. So the vision reinforces that here but in a way that reinforces God’s own peculiar way of dealing with evil.

Wisdom is needed here. To ally with the Beast will seem the most normal, natural, and desirable thing in the world. The “seven mountains” identify this beast as Rome, “the city set on seven hills.” While the imagery here is difficult and there is no consensus on it, the punch line is in v.13: “These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast.” All earthly power and authority is rooted in the beast and his dragon patron.

Further, this beastly power will contest the reality, presence, and power of God and the Lamb. Earthly Empires and the divine Empire do not mix, oil and water-like. Yet astonishingly, the Lamb will conquer them! Here John harks back to one of favorite themes – conquering. And we are reminded that in Revelation, as well as the rest of the New Testament, conquering means living in the self-sacrificial loving way of Jesus. And that’s the way his people conquer too. “And they conquered him by the blood of the Lamb (Rev.12:11). God’s promised and certain triumph comes not through a mighty display of “shock and awe.” Rather it comes in the most unlikely and implausible way – through a people living by the power of One who gave his life for others and thus set God’s redeeming and reconciling love free in the world. And that’s a force none can finally withstand!

Revelation 17:15-18

But there is more here. The Beast rules over “many peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (v.15). Now hears the stinger in the tail. These “authorities” who have given themselves to the Beast (Rome) will ultimately turn on it and do it in. Evil cannibalizes itself – that seems a law of history. “For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled.” There is a moral order to God’s world that will not allow evil to triumph forever. Evil will turn on itself and destroy itself. Rome’s come-uppance will come several centuries hence – but it will come through powers that take advantage of the unraveling of Rome’s internal life. I encourage you to pray and seek wisdom concerning where our own country may be in this ineluctable process.

More on this beast/Rome/Empire in the next chapter!

How did political progressives think they were Anabaptists?

May 15, 2017 by 
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Let me tell you the story about how many politically progressive Christians came to think they were Anabaptists. (I’m mainly talking about post-evangelical progressives rather than traditional mainline progressives.)
To recap, I’ve made the argument that many progressive Christians believe they are Anabaptists when, in fact, they are Niebuhrians. This truth was exposed with the election of Donald Trump. The rise of Trump has politically energized progressive Christians in ways that are hard to reconcile with Anabaptist theology and practice. Again, this is no judgment of Anabaptist theology or of all the political activism of progressive Christians. Not at all. This is just a description of the disjoint between political theology and political praxis.
Most progressive Christians want to be politically engaged. Very much so. Especially with Donald Trump in office. But Anabaptist theology doesn’t provide great theological scaffolding for much of that political activism. Thus my advice: Seek out and embrace a political theology that provides better theological support. To my eye, I think that theology is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism.
But that raises a different question. Why did so many progressive Christians come to embrace Anabaptist theology in the first place?
That’s the story I want to tell you.

Art, Passion, and Breaking the Rules

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist. – Pablo Picasso

Vincent Van Gogh is widely known today as a typically eccentric artist. He might not have invented Impressionism, but he was the first to paint stars swirling uncontrollably in the night sky, or to depict sunflowers as golden explosions, or the sky on fire above a wheatfield. His pictures were vivid, wild, daring, chaotic, full of bright yellows and deep blues.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and be surrounded by a room full of his work – SunflowersIrisesAlmond BlossomThe Bedroom and Potato Eaters – you’ll know the powerful visceral effect it can have.
And yet, if you go to the 2nd floor to the “Van Gogh Close Up” exhibit you’ll find scores of meticulous drawings of hands and feet made by Vincent when he was beginning to learn art. And then it dawns on you – Vincent didn’t simply pick up a brush and start painting A Starry Night. He took boring art classes. He submitted himself to the slow discipline of learning his craft.

I remember my father moaning about modern art and saying anyone could paint like Picasso (“It’s just cubes”) or Pollock (“You just splash paint on a canvas”). But you try. Your colorful splashes on canvas won’t be anywhere bear as sublime as Jackson Pollock’s.

It’s because the grand masters all submitted themselves to their craft. They learned the rules before they dared break them. Artist, Alexander McQueen once said, “You’ve got to break the rules, but keep the tradition.”


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Herma and Herman Neutics on the Gospels

Why do we have four gospels rather than one? Apparently one gospel was not enough! You see, the gospels are more like portraits than photographs. When we treated them like photographs it made sense to try and blend them all together into in one mega-photo. Tatian, a second-century church leader, tried to do just that with his Diatessaron. We call it a harmony of the gospels. Problem is, you can't make everything in the gospels fit into one! Not without twisting some of the details and data out of shape.

After many efforts at making this one mega-photo, we finally realized there are four gospels for a reason. And we started to read them more like portraits. Portraits attempt the capture the artist's view of the subject. His or her choices of background, use of color, attention to some details rather than others all matter to a portrait. Different artists will do all this differently and will produce an interpretation of the subject that will differ from any other portrait. Attention to the details and themes that each gospel writer give us what we have in the Bible - four different portraits of Jesus. And apparently that what God wants us to have and what we need to follow Jesus faithfully.

So, resist the urge to harmonize the gospels. The differences between them are important. They are not each telling the same story. Same subject, of course. But four different ways of assessing the meaning and significance of Jesus. Value them for the portraits they give us. Don't worry about the differences. Chronological accuracy was not as important to ancient writers as it is to us. Telling the story of  an important person's life was to teach the readers lessons from that life were their chief purpose.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A New Writing Project Begins!

(Here's the first paragraph)

It All Began With a Typo!

A few days ago I was trying to type "Bonhoeffer" but ended up with "Bonoheffer." I laughed, corrected it, and went on. The misspelling stayed with me, however. A few hours later I was musing about what a conversation between Bonhoeffer and U2 might yield. Now, a few days later, I am beginning to undertake that project. I am a retired Presbyterian (USA) pastor, formed theologically and pastorally by Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and John Howard Yoder, musically by U2. I'm a generalist, not an expert in these matters; a pastor who has always felt called to stand with one foot in the academy and one in the church and one in the culture (yes, I know that's three feet, but bear with me!).[1] I’m not trying to create a work of scholarship nor break any new ground. Just host a conversation these two formative influences not only in my life but in the lives of many in our culture and world.

[1] If this sounds similar to Lesslie Newbigin’s “Gospel – Church – Culture” triangle that’s because it is. Newbigin has been a formative on me.

It's the Neutics (Herma and Herman) Again!

We promised some further thoughts on the Bible as a love letter to us. Here they are.

James McGrath, biblical scholar and popular blogger, says not. Recently he posted this on his blog.
Few assumptions prevent people from understanding the Bible as much as the idea that it is a love letter from God to them. Every part of that – that God wrote it, that it is a love letter, and that it is written with you in mind – is badly mistaken, and so the combination thereof creates a lens that radically distorts and obscures the Bible.” (
          On the other hand, no less a theologian than Dietrich Bonhoeffer apparently did so describe the Bible. One of his students remembers this from him:
"There, before the church struggle, he said to us at the new Alexanderplatz, with a simplicity like old Tholuck might have once used, that we should not forget that every word of Holy Scripture was a love letter from God directed very personally to us, and he asked us whether we loved Jesus.” (
So what do we say? Yea or Nay?
          McGrath dislikes all three parts of it: divine authorship, it being a love letter, and that it was written with the contemporary reader in mind. I suspect he has in mind a kind of “Jesus is my boyfriend” sentiment that some praise songs and worship practices invoke. I too would reject that sentiment.
          Bonhoeffer is a rather different matter, I think. He certainly thinks God is speaking to us through the Bible. In a letter to his brother-in-law in 1936 DB writes:
That is because in the Bible God speaks to us. And one cannot simply think about God in one’s own strength, one has to enquire of him. Only if we seek him, will he answer us. Of course it is also possible to read the Bible like any other book, that is to say from the point of view of textual criticism, etc.; there is nothing to be said against that. Only that that is not the method which will reveal to us the heart of the Bible, but only the surface, just as we do not grasp the words of someone we love by taking them to bits, but by simply receiving them, so that for days they go on lingering in our minds, simply because they are the words of a person we love; and just as these words reveal more and more of the person who said them as we go on, like Mary, “pondering them in our heart,” so it will be with the words of the Bible. Only if we will venture to enter into the words of the Bible, as though in them this God were speaking to us who loves us and does not will to leave us alone with our questions, only so shall we learn to rejoice in the Bible . . . . (
          But for DB this divine speaking takes place in context of a living relationship between God and his human creatures. Just prior to the quote above he stresses that we must listen to God speaking in the Bible with an insistent humility actively seeking and even questioning what we hear. (Testament of Devotion, ed. By Geoffrey B. Kelly and E. Burton Nelson, 425) This is very different from kind of sentiment I suspected above lay behind McGrath’s quote.
          This kind of approach to hearing God speak in the Bible is the only way we will receive an answer to our questions. DB acknowledges this approach is different from academic reading (which has nothing wrong with it per se). It just does not get to the kind of relational listening Bonhoeffer thinks vital and necessary. Here we come to the love language. DB believes that God loves human beings. And that in that love God takes the first step toward us. And he engages us in the reality of our lives whatever that might be at any given time. This is the kind concreteness Bonhoeffer is famous for pursuing. Again, very different from a sentimental approach.
          So, at least for DB, we can say that God does speak to us in the Bible and that it is appropriate, even necessary, to call this relationship to the speaking God a relationship of love. But he adds following the quote above that God speaks where God chooses, a place, he writes, “that will probably be a place which does not at all correspond to my nature, which is not at all pleasing to me.” Bonhoeffer identifies this place where God speaks as “the cross of Christ.” And here is the death of that sentimental approach. What we hear from God will not always be warm, fuzzy, and comforting. It may be a word of devastating judgment. And yet still a word of love. “This is no place which is pleasing or a priori sensible to us. But this is the very place God has chosen to encounter us.” (Testament of Freedom, 426)
            DB even claims we should practice a “sacrifice of our intellect” in matters that remain opaque, perplexing, questionable. “And who would not in fact bring his or her own sacrifice of intellect into such a situation, that is, with the acknowledgment one does not yet understand this or that place of the Scripture, in the awareness that even this will one day be revealed as God’s own Word? I would rather do this than only to say, following some suitable opinion: ‘This is divine, that is human.’” (Testament, 426) Many would disagree with Bonhoeffer, not willing to sacrifice their intellect for anyone, even God. And many seem willing today to divide up what “following some suitable opinion” they deem the human (dispensable) element in the Bible from the divine.
          I believe here we have a watershed moment in our time. Can we allow God, as a loving parent, to have secrets beyond what we can fathom or accept and still embrace his Word as a whole as a word of love to us? Can we allow ourselves to say “I do not understand how God could do this and am sorely tempted to disregard it for my moral and intellectual well-being, but I will not. I will hold open my questions and trust that someday, someway, God will answer them.”
          Only such a relationship to God through Scripture as DB describes, or something very like it, can sustain the stresses of such a practice. But in that it is of a piece with our whole journey with God (as Bonhoeffer was already learning and would keep on learning in excruciating ways). Only the parental love of God can sustain us. Even if that love outstrips our knowledge or stretches our morality, or is the tough love of judgment and wrath. This is the genius of DB’s approach. And it is this we need to recover in our time. An insistent, humble confidence that God speaks to us and bids us follow him into the darkness of a cruciform existence that paradoxically turns out to be the light of the world (however dark it may be for us at this or that time).
          I don’t know whether McGrath would agree to any of this or not. But with Bonhoeffer I continue to believe that in love God speaks to our darkness and distrust in the Bible calling us to deeper communion and commitment as befits a genuine family.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Two new Q & A's for my catechism

Q & A's 5 and 6 are new

1.    Who is the Christian God?

“I am/will be who I am/will be” (Ex.3:14).

God is and will be utterly faithful to himself and to the world he created.

2.    Why did this God create our world?

To live with us here in shalom (a world rightly ordered in every way), lavishing love and expending power to bring this state of affairs to be.

3.    Why did God create us?

To be divine image-bearers, royal representatives who reflect God's character and will throughout the world and care for and nurture the creation to its full flourishing.                                                                  

4.    What has gone wrong with our world?

For no reason (for sin is a surd, irrational, not capable of rational explanation) we broke faith with God, rejected the identity he gave us, and defaulted on the vocation God gave us. Our relationship with God broken, we became alienated from ourselves, each other, and the creation.

5.    What has God done about this?

God never acquiesced in this human folly. God judged it yet at the same time trumped it in grace that kept a future open for us. God launched a subversive counter-revolutionary movement to reclaim and restore all things to his design.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Karl Barth prepares us for worship in inimitable fashion

Spend a few minutes pondering this magnificent statement:

“We will now try to give the briefest possible outline of what the love of God is which is the real basis of our love to God, determining its character. One thing is certain, that according to Holy Scripture it has nothing to do with mere sentiment, opinion or feeling. On the contrary, it consists in a definite being, relationship and action. God is love in Himself. Being loved by Him we can, as it were, look into His ‘heart.’ The fact that He loves us means that we can know Him as He is. This is all true. But if this picture-language of ‘the heart of God’ is to have any validity, it can refer only to the being of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It reminds us that God’s love for us is an overwhelming, overflowing, free love. It speaks to us of the miracle of this love. We cannot say anything higher or better of the ‘inwardness of God’ than that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and therefore that He is love in Himself without and before loving us, and without being forced to love us. And we can say this only in the light of the ‘outwardness’ of God to us, the occurrence of His revelation. It is from this that we have to learn what is the real nature of the love of God for us.”

Karl Barth (CD I/2, 377)

Herma and Herman Neutics Again!

The Bible must be read like every other book.

Every kind of analysis we can apply to other ancient texts we should apply to the Bible.

The Bible must be read like no other book.

Only in this book do we have a "love letter" from God.

(Don't gag out on the last phrase, friends. No less than Dietrich Bonhoeffer uses it and Herman will share more about that next time.) 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Herma and Herman Neutics

Maybe the most important advice for Bible Reading we can give you.

Never assume you know what a passage means. Even if you understand every word in English translation don't assume that what it means to you as a 21st century American is what it meant to its ancient readers. Investigate everything. Always ask yourself "What would this word, concept, image, or phrase mean to an ancient Israelite?

Here's the deal. The Bible is written for us but not to us. The only way to get the message for us is to do our best to understand what the message was to its original hearers. If we don't get that we won't get what God intends for us to hear,

So, doubt (what you think a passage means) and verify (work to discover what it meant to its original hearers in order to hear and obey.

I'm playing around with developing a contemporary catechism (not so much for memorizing as for instruction). love to know what you think, pro and con. First three Q and A's below.


1.    Who is the Christian God? 

“I am/will be who I am/will be” (Ex.3:14).
God is and will be utterly faithful to himself and to the world he created. 

2.    Why did this God create our world? 

To live with us here in shalom (a world rightly ordered in every way), lavishing his love and expending his power to bring this state of affairs to be. 

3.    Why did God create us? 

To be his image-bearers. That is, his royal representatives who reflect his character and will throughout the world and care for and nurture the creation to its full flourishing.       

Resisting Trump with Revelation  (28)

Revelation 16: the bowls of God’s wrath

Rev.16 with its bowls of God’s wrath is the third (fourth really but the seven thunders is not rolled out for us (Rev.10) series of seven reflecting the reality and intensity of God’s judgment on the world from Jesus’ resurrection to his return (the 42 weeks, 31/2 years, 1,260 days).

Each of the sevens (seals, trumpets, bowls) lead us to judgment and the kingdom of God but in degrees of intensification. The seals affected ¼ of the earth, the trumpets 1/3, and the bowls 100% (perhaps the thunders would have been ½). This is likely a rhetorical device to reflect the inevitability and comprehensiveness of judgment. It’s not going to get better and no one gets out of it!
Here the Empire meet its match. It is not the ultimate dispenser of justice or arbiter of punishment. Instead, it is like all else subject to the dictates of divine justice and the reality of divine judgment. The church lives in a world under such judgment, struggles with everyone else under the effects of not only humanity’s sin but God’s judgment. This is what makes life and history so complex, ambiguous, and frustrating. And why claiming to be on the “right side of history” so perilous!
Once again, it is useful to remind ourselves that God’s wrath is not a reactive flare up of temper on God’s part nor a character flaw in the divine being. It is rather God’s “strong and settled opposition to all that is evil . . . arising out of God’s very nature.”[1] Grimsrud adds:

"We should read this description in light of what we have already discerned about God, the plagues, and wrath. The basic idea may be we are again going to have described for us the dynamics on earth during the “three and a half years” where the Dragon and his minions are wreaking havoc—but not in a way that will actually defeat God. “God’s wrath,” thus is not God direct anger being visited upon the earth in order to punish wrongdoing. Rather, it is what results when people turn against God and order their lives on the values of domination and exploitation—gaining their marching orders from the Beast and not from the Lamb. On a certain level, we may say that God allows the spiral of destruction loosed by the Dragon, but also that this spiral of destruction actually leads to the destruction of the Dragon himself along with the Beast and the False Prophet.”
The first five bowls pour out wrath that reflect impersonal processes similar to the plagues in Egypt. In the mist of these bowls, the angel of the waters says,
“You are just, O Holy One, who are and were,     for you have judged these things; because they shed the blood of saints and prophets,
    you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!”
And I heard the altar respond,
“Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty,
                your judgments are true and just!”
Notice here that God is the one who is and was but not the one who is to come. This stresses that the judgment poured out is judgment in the midst of history not that awaiting us at the end. The past tense “judged” points in this direction as well. “It is what they deserve”: only those who insist on going their own way apart from and against God get what they deserve. Those who turn to God and Christ in repentance and faith receive what they don’t deserve, grace and mercy! However, as we saw earlier, judgment does not seem to effect repentance and turning to God. It’s the church’s role to declare and demonstrate that grace and mercy.
Darrell Johnson[2] explains five truths about judgment here we must keep in mind. Judgment is terrible, justified, comes only after time for repentance, “fits the crime,” and is just.
The sixth bowl announces foul spirits from the dragon and the two beast inciting the “kings of the world” (16:12-16) to gather at (H)Armageddon for a great final battle against God. I quote Grimsrud at length to clarify the thought of this controversial section of Revelation:
“The sixth bowl plague underscores the dynamics of the Dragon’s process of corrupting the kings of the earth. John sees ‘three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the Dragon, from the mouth of the Beast, and from the mouth of the False Prophet’ (16:13). ‘These are demonic spirits, … who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty’ (16:14). This is a statement both of the actual nature of the ideologies that shape the politics of the kings of the earth—‘demonic spirits’—and of the main focus of that politics—‘assembling for war.’ Read carefully, though, this vision gives a glimmer of hope for the kings of the earth and the nations. Their corrupt politics is fueled by the message they are getting from the Dragon and his cohorts. The source of militarism, of economic exploitation, of imperialism is not the inherent character of human political life, nor the sinful nature of the kings of the earth. These dynamics of domination (and self-destruction) come from outside. The hope is that as those spiritual forces are ‘destroyed’ (as they will be) their effect will end and kings and nations may be set right and healed and operate in harmony with God’s will for humanity (as they will). It will be crucial as the story reaches its denouement that we notice what becomes of this assemblage gathered for battle. We get a hint already. The battle will happen on ‘the great day of God the Almighty’ (16:14). Surely the Dragon and the others do not have in mind this kind of “great day” as they join their forces. As it turns out, the great day when it comes will not involve an actual ‘battle’ but only the capture and destruction of the ‘destroyers of the earth.’ The forces that gather to do battle, with all their dynamics of power-over, death-dealing force, and fearfulness, will not set the terms of the actual battle. God does not gather a similar battle force in order to overpower the forces opposed to God. This should not surprise us based on what we have read in Revelation up to now. Several times we have been told of God’s victory, the way God ‘conquers’ (and how God’s people are to conquer), and the weapons that provide the means to conquer. It has been persevering love and the willingness to witness to the way of the Lamb even to the death. We will see in chapter nineteen that ‘the great day of God the Almighty’ reinforces that message. In the midst of the picture of the forces of the Dragon gathering for ‘battle,’ we get an interruption, presumably from the ‘loud voice’ of 16:1—a call to ‘stay awake and remain clothed’ (16:15). This is best understood as a reminder not to let the methods of the Dragon determine how God’s people respond. Don’t be shaped by the Dragon’s seeming power and let that determine how you understand power. Do not respond to the sword with the sword. Remember the message throughout of the Lamb’s victory through persevering love—that will be all we need. ‘Harmagedon’ (NRSV) or ‘Armageddon’ (KJV, NIV) is not an actual place. Nor is there ever going to be a ‘Battle of Armageddon.’ The reference alludes to ancient battles (see Judges 5:19; 2 Kings 23:29-30). Probably John’s point here is to underscore the self-deception of the Dragon and his minions to think there actually will be a battle. They gather at Armageddon simply to be captured and destroyed—not to fight.”
Let’s recap:
-demonic forces gather the world for war based on their ideology of corruption, injustice, oppression, and violence.
-hope for their defeat keeps open a trust in God’s good reign to prevail and rule the world.
-God sets the terms of this conflict - ‘the great day of God the Almighty’ – indicating he is on control.
-this is further heightened by the fact that no battle occurs here or ever will, for (H)armaggedon is not a place but rather an allusion to ancient Israelite battles.
-The dragon and his minions are captured and destroyed.
-God “conquers” the way he always does in Revelation – “persevering love and the willingness to witness to the way of the Lamb even to the death.”
-this sixth bowl points to the self-deception of the dragon et al in fomenting the kings of the earth to this futile exercise.
This paragraph points to what is laid out more fully in coming chapters so we will pick it up in the comments there.

[1] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1955), 180.
[2]Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, 290-291.