dianoigo blog

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Theology vs. Bible Reading

One of the starkest differences between the Christadelphian community and many older Christian denominations is the attitude within the groups toward theology and Bible reading.

Christadelphians have historically placed a lot of value on personal Bible reading, but no value (or even a negative value) on a formal theological education. Many follow a daily reading plan that takes them through the entire Bible each year. However, the group's founder, Dr. John Thomas, had a very cynical view of theological studies, as seen in the following quotation:

"The same thing is styled in our day 'theological science,' 'divinity,' 'ethics,' 'hermeneutics,' and so forth; terms invented to amaze the ignorant, and to impress them with the necessity of schools and colleges for the indoctrination of pious youth in the mysteries they learnedly conceal." (Eureka, Vol. 1, 6th ed., p. 198)

This negative view of theology as a discipline of study persists among some Christadelphians today; and while no longer unheard of, it is still very rare for a Christadelphian to study theology at an institution of higher learning.

Contrast this with the attitude prevalent in some mainline church denominations. There, it is accepted that it is the priest or pastor's job to understand the Word and teach it to the congregation. That is why he (or she) goes to seminary and gets a degree in theology. Regular Bible reading by the lay members of the congregation may not be discouraged, but neither is it expected.

In my opinion, both of these opposite attitudes are flawed and a balance needs to be struck between theology and Bible reading. In the case of mainline churches, a biblically illiterate congregation will stagnate spiritually, and be vulnerable to deception by false teaching, whether inside or outside the church. Even among those with a theological education, regular reading of the Bible helps one to be grounded and see the "big picture" of God's revealed purpose rather than getting "tunnel vision" for one's area of specialization.

On the other hand, regular Bible reading with a complete absence of theological knowledge in the church is also a recipe for error. For instance, as Grant R. Osborne explains:

"The Bible was not revealed via ‘the tongues of angels.’ Though inspired of God...the absolute truths of Scripture were encased in the human languages and cultures of the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, and we must understand those cultures in order to interpret the biblical texts properly. Therefore Scripture does not automatically cross cultural barriers to impart its meaning." (The Hermeneutical Spiral, pp. 23-24)

One who follows a daily Bible reading schedule may easily forget that the Bible is not one book, but many books written over a long period of time in diverse historical, socio-cultural and linguistic settings. Without some understanding of this background we simply view the Scriptures through the lens of our modern Western mindset, which inevitably leads to misinterpretation and misapplication of the Word. 

There are limits in how rightly one can divide the Word of truth armed only with a Bible, a concordance and one or two other study aids. At some point, one needs a greater knowledge of biblical languages, cultures, history, etc. And while one must think for oneself, one should also become familiar with the volumes upon volumes of previous Bible scholarship rather than pretend one is wiser than all who have gone before.

As someone who has some experience on both sides of the "Theology vs. Bible Reading" fence, I encourage Christadelphians and mainline churches to learn this from each other: theology and Bible reading are not enemies. They are both vital for God's people.

Monday 18 March 2013

My Lord and my God (John 20:28)

One biblical text that has long fascinated me is John 20:28. Perhaps this is because it was spoken by my namesake, the apostle Thomas.

Over a decade ago, when I maintained a (now defunct) website entitled 'In Defence of Christadelphian Doctrine,' I wrote an article explaining what I thought this verse means. Some time after that, I developed a more elaborate explanation of the verse, which had Thomas acknowledging the truth of Jesus' claim in John 14:9 (a dialogue in which Thomas actively participated - see John 14:5). One can find another Christadelphian explanation of this text on the Wrested Scripture website.

All of these explanations propose that Thomas was not actually addressing Jesus as his God, but rather as a representative of his God; someone who manifests God's attributes but is not himself God.

Upon further reflection, I now find the above explanations completely unsatisfactory. I believe that in John 20:28, Thomas was actually addressing Jesus as his Lord and God. There are three reasons for this:

1) This interpretation follows a straightforward reading of the text; no verbal gymnastics required!

2) Thomas' emphatic confession functions as the climax of the Fourth Gospel, placed as it is just prior to the summary statement in John 20:30-31. It is the crowning moment in the writer's effort to prove the theological statement made in the Prologue (John 1:1-18). The Word made flesh, who was God, was finally received as God by men. To give the statement an elaborate, cryptic interpretation is to rob the Gospel of its climax.

3) It is absolutely unthinkable that a monotheistic Jew such as Thomas was, cautious as they were about misusing divine names, would address a fellow human being as "my God." It is true that there was some flexibility in the use of the word 'god' (theos in Greek; elohim in Hebrew) so that it could be applied to humans in certain rare circumstances (Ex. 7:1; Ps. 82:6 cf. John 10:34). However, we must not gloss over the vast difference between quoting scriptures in which God refers to humans as gods, and a man addressing another man as "My God!" Thomas would by no means have uttered such rash words, which could easily be mistaken for blasphemy, if he only meant that Jesus represented God. Nor would John have written them down without qualification.

Taking Thomas' words at face value, and interpreting them in light of their historical and literary context, we come inevitably to the conclusion that Thomas confessed Jesus to be his Lord and God because that is who he believed him to be.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

A Warning on Spiritual Entitlement

I have recently been studying the Book of Jeremiah. I have gained a new appreciation for the relevance of God's pleas and warnings to Judah in this book for our generation. I think the attitude of the Judeans at this time could be described as "spiritual entitlement." One Old Testament scholar summarized their attitude thus:
The Jerusalem establishment believed God had committed himself through a series of irrevocable promises to the temple and the monarchy. Thus the city and temple were inviolable and Judah’s future was secure, no matter how she sinned and no matter how threatening the international scene appeared. This misguided and unfounded confidence created in Judah a false sense of immunity from judgement and subtly became the official religion of Jerusalem. (Arnold, Bill T. Recent Trends in the Study of Jeremiah, Ashland Theological Journal 25:0, 1993, p. 91).
The Judeans thought that since God had promised David that his dynasty would continue forever (1 Kings 2:4), and that he would dwell in Solomon's temple forever (1 Kings 9:3). Although continued obedience was made a condition of both promises, the Judeans of Jeremiah's day believed God would not let his name to be dishonoured among the nations by allowing Jerusalem to be destroyed.

Jeremiah was a lonely voice speaking against the complacent attitudes of his day: "Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD'" (Jeremiah 7:4). If they did not heed the call to repentance, Yahweh would destroy the house called by his name (v. 14) and uproot the kingdom of Judah. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened.

In Jesus' day, a similar attitude prevailed among the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Indeed, Jesus' accusation that they had turned God's house into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:13) is borrowed from Jeremiah 7. The temple and the people of that generation suffered a similar fate.

Today, Christians follow Paul's teaching that the church itself is God's temple (2 Corinthians 6:16) and (provisionally at least) his kingdom (Colossians 1:13). We feel our future is secure because of the abundance of God's grace. This is all true, but must be held in tension with the truth that God will bring terrible judgment on the world, beginning with his household (Hebrews 12:26; 1 Peter 4:17).

Messages of judgment are rare and unpopular in the 21st century church, being seen as out of touch with God's love and grace. God has given us great and precious promises (2 Peter 1:4) and made us his dwelling place (Ephesians 2:22) but let us be wary lest we too fall into disobedience due to a sense of entitlement. We need to hear afresh the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
"Have you not just now called to me, 'My father, you are the friend of my youth-- will he be angry forever, will he be indignant to the end?' Behold, you have spoken, but you have done all the evil that you could." (Jeremiah 3:4-5) 
"Will you...come and stand before me...and say, 'We are delivered!'--only to go on doing all these abominations?" (Jeremiah 7:9-10)
And finally, a rhetorical question posed thrice by God in the book: "Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the LORD; and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?" (Jeremiah 5:9; cp. 5:29, 9:9).