Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Pivot Point in the Biblical Drama: A Question for Ron Allen

On Saturday, at our 1st annual Perry Gresham Bible Lecture, Ron Allen, Professor of  Preaching and New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary (author of Life of Jesus for Today, WJK, 2008), laid out a scenario of a biblical drama that begins in Eden, moves to the Fall and then envisions a New Kingdom Age.  As Ron laid out this view of the biblical drama he noted that the biblical writers envisioned Jesus being the pivot point where the New Age intersects with the Old Age -- which leads to an age in between where both old and new exist together -- an age of conflict of values.

John, who is a member of the church and a frequent commenter here, raised a question with Ron concerning the point at which Jesus fits in as pivot point.  His question was:  

"What moment is the pivot point in history in this four-epoch scenario. Ron posited four points in Jesus life, and then declined to choose: birth, baptism, death, resurrection."

Ron has offered his response here:

We should take two matters into account in responding to the excellent issues John raises.

First, as John notes, the writers in the Gospels and Letters envision different moments in connection with the life of Jesus as the pivot moments in the transition from the Old Age to the New. For Paul, the transition occurs at the cross and the resurrection. For Mark, the baptism of Jesus is the hinge of history. For Matthew and Luke, the pivot is the birth of Jesus. The Fourth Gospel does not operate with the old age/new age view of history but sees the incarnation (when the Word, Jesus, becomes flesh) as the decisive moment that begins the revelation of God in Jesus for the sake of those who live in “the world.”

From the point of view of contemporary scholarship, these  viewpoints are different. Nevertheless, the church has effectively agreed with John (your learned parishioner, not the gospel writer) that Matthew and Luke take priority. We can see this with particular clarity in the creeds which begin their affirmations about Jesus by speaking about his birth.

Second, and I did not get into this at CWCC because of a shortage of time, there is a bigger theological question raised both by the presence of the Fourth Gospel and by occasional theological reflections over the history of the church. This question is whether we should view the world and God’s relationship to it from the perspective of the old age/new age scenario. To get immediately to the heart of the matter, the question is whether that scenario is completely true to real life experience. If the old age/new age typology is completely true, then we would expect the experience of life to be qualitatively different in the two ages. However, many Christians today think that the actual phenomena in the world are much the same both before and after Jesus. The good things are still good in about the same amount and degree and the bad things are still bad. In the language of philosophy, there is no phenomenological difference between the time before and after Christ.

The presence of the Fourth Gospel indicates that some in the early church did not find the old age/new age way of thinking to be satisfactory. To be honest, I do not find either the old age/new age or the heaven/world ways of understanding existence to be true to my experience of the world today. As I said several times in the seminar, I am not an end-time thinker myself as I think the end-time viewpoint is a surface way of thinking. The deeper point of the end-time theology, I believe, is to indicate that God is dissatisfied with the way things are and is at work to help the world better embody God’s loving purposes. I side with the process theologians in believing that life is an ongoing process and that God is ever loving presence to offer us the highest possibilities that are available within each circumstance. For Christians, Jesus is God’s agent and lure towards those possibilities.

16 comments:

John said...

I am not an end time thinker either, but all this talk of the Kingdom by Jesus leads me to conclude that with is coming something has changed - either something new has come among us or what existed before is about to be transformed. And it has to be conceded that no other person has had so radical an effect on the world as Jesus - even Mohammed can be understood as derivative from the tradition and teachings of Jesus.

The world was transformed, and the process continues - is this the new age? I wonder if it was suppose to be just that, but that human things don't always work out as God plans, so that the new age has become a work in progress - as it always has been. I highly doubt that God is surprised by a of this - God is surely too sophisticated to imagine an easy and mechanical resolution to th human drama - though the human Jesus may have been so limited as to think this way.

I think that the true "pivot point" was the investiture of reason (however expansive one chooses to define that term) into the human creature - call it the climax of creation if you will. From there everything that happens between God and humanity (whether through the actions of some inspired humans or through the miraculous intrusion of God into natural history) is a series of mid-course corrections, some small and some great.

John

Brian said...

I look forward to re-reading this closer, but I have a service to attend to in a bit.

I was fortunate to sit in Ron's classes. (CTS profs mostly asked to go by first names.)

I recall this New Age/Old Age being crucial to Ron's theology. After sitting in his classes, I have come to see it the same way.

Basically, I recall Ron's approach was that this is the way to understand the biblical writers' understanding of what the Christ event means for creation. It is not to say "This is what really is true".

The 1st century folks had to make peace with the notion that they honestly believed the Christ event had ushered in a new age. They also had the empirical evidence that there was just as much violence and hate (sin) as before.

Therefore they came to understand that we are in an in-between time. Elements of both ages are present and very active! The faith for followers of The Way was to trust that the old age is passing and the new age will be established soon.

While I'm not a first century person, this approach helps me to wrap my mind around the New Testament writers.

(FYI - Ron discouraged the use of "kingdom" language because it is sexist. Frankly, I use it, but I appreciate where he is coming from.)

John said...

If our contemporary perspectives do not agree with the First Century perspectives of the Gospel writers, what then is the consequence for us in how we interpret and apply the Scriptures for our times? Can we safely reject their perspectives and still draw full value from Scripture?

Just as an aside, is it fair to say that the "end time" perspective is for the most part inferred from Scripture and not dictated by Scripture? And if it were commanded by Scripture could we choose to disagree with it at all?

Another aside, I could be wrong but I think Ron's use of the term "realm" in place of "kingdom" may be just as tainted by gender. Doesn't it derive from a masculine root word?

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

I can't speak for Ron, but he made a clear distinction between surface and deeper meanings. Thus, while he believes that as a first century Jewish teacher/preacher, Jesus was an end times preacher. That is, as portrayed in the Gospels, he believed that the end was coming soon. In that sense, Jesus was wrong. But, can we not, however, take from Jesus a vision of God that is revelatory of the truths of God? Can we not affirm that in Jesus there is a change in the way we live in the world.

Brian said...

James Russell Lowell's ONCE TO EVERY MAN & NATION

http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/o/n/oncetoev.htm

The above link will take the reader to a hymn that was sung by North American liberal protestant congos in the first half of the 20th Century.

I mention it because something John wrote sent my mind to this beautiful old hymn.

In this hymn (originally poem) Russell wrote, "New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient truth uncouth".

John brings up an excellent question: "If our contemporary perspectives do not agree with the First Century perspectives of the Gospel writers, what then is the consequence for us in how we interpret and apply the Scriptures for our times? Can we safely reject their perspectives and still draw full value from Scripture?"

I believe there is no 'if' in the equation. We are incapable of understanding the scriptures and the faith in the same ways that our 1st century fore-parents did. Further, says I, even if we could, choosing to do so would be irresponsible and unfaithful.

This is not because we disagree with the first century folks. They had the best info available to them. We have 2000 years of experience. I feel we'd be mocking them if we did not take our experience/knowledge and put it into play.

Jesus himself made big distinctions between reading scriptures with fresh light (new wine) rather than pretending to read them from the iron age perspective in which they were written.

It is not about rejecting anything, in my opinion. It is about reading it through our 21st century eyes.

As far as drawing from the full value of scriptures, that would depend on how one understands what that means. As Dick Hamm taught, every Christian conflict comes down to diversity in understanding of what "scriptural authority" means.

So, I feel close to the 1st century folks because we have the same task. How do we make sense of our ancient mythology within the reality of the world we experience with our senses? It is a timeless quest for those of us unfortunate enough to feel powerlessly drawn to such ponderings.

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Ronald said...

The questions that John raises are huge. Clark Williamson, who taught theology at Christian Theological Seminary for many years and is now Professor Emeritus, has been my best guide in these things (not that Clark and I always agree). His book, Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology (Chalice Press) is the best single work that I have read, and many of its themes touch on the foundational questions that John raises.

By the way, it is clear that John is on his way to becoming a process theologian. For a handy guide to contemporary theological families, you might see my Thinking Theologically: The Preacher as Theologian (Fortress). It's a short book and lays out the main lines of the main theological families today.

I comment briefly on one of the issues that John raises, recognizing that these remarks are inevitably too little. His immediate question opens the window to a larger set of issues that are important in thinking about the other issues that he brings up (such as: has something changed with the coming of Jesus, is THIS the new age? Is the true pivot point of history the investiture of reason?

If we do not agree with Scripture, what is the value of studying it? From a historical point of view, biblical faith and practice, in Israel and in Judaism as well as in Christianity are not fixed deposits but evolve over time in response to fresh issues, insights and contexts. This is true within the Bible itself. It is also even more obviously true in Christian community after the Bible was given its present form.

A quick example. A traditional proverb in Israel had it that "The parents have eat sour grapes afnd the children's teeth are set on edge." That is, the parents sinned and the next generations pay for the parents' sin. But Ezekiel says explicitly that this proverb is no more to be spoken in Israel because each generation will pay for its own sin. Another example: Isaiah says to beat your swords into ploughshares whereas Joel adominishes the community to beat their ploughshares into swords.

A principle call of the church is to come to an adequate interpretation of God's presence and purposes and an adequate response.

In conventional church practice, we read the Bible, assume that is each text points to a trustworthy understanding of God's presence and purposes, and that we need to figure out how to apply its truth to today. Many Christians today view the Bible less as such a depository and more as a conversation partner. A biblical text invites us to believe and do certain things, which we then bring into dialogue with tradition, our real-life experience, and reason.

Based on using this process over time, we come to fundamental convictions concerning the nature, purposes, and power of God. In my case, these convictions include many biblical motifs but finally transcend any one biblical text. My deepest conviction is that God is pure, unbounded love, unconditional love for each and every created entity (human beings, rabbits, frogs, the earth, etc.), and that God's purpose is for us all to live together in love.

A related concern is one that Bob mentions in one of his posts: when looking at a biblical text, it is often helpful to distinguish between surface elements. The surface element is simply accepting the text at face value. For example, the end-time texts simply assume that we are living at the end of history and that an apocalypse is coming. The deeper elements are those aspects of a text that are not tied to the surface elements. The deeper witness is one that underlies the surface element. For example, one deeper element of the end-time texts is to remind us that the world as we know it is not the world that God would have it be. The end-time prophets believed that God was about to end this world and create a new one. I do not share that conviction. But I do believe with them that God is at work to help this world become more like the one God desires and that we have the opportunity to join God in this process.

(more coming)

Ronald said...

The questions that John raises are huge. Clark Williamson, who taught theology at Christian Theological Seminary for many years and is now Professor Emeritus, has been my best guide in these things (not that Clark and I always agree). His book, Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology (Chalice Press) is the best single work that I have read, and many of its themes touch on the foundational questions that John raises.

By the way, it is clear that John is on his way to becoming a process theologian. For a handy guide to contemporary theological families, you might see my Thinking Theologically: The Preacher as Theologian (Fortress). It's a short book and lays out the main lines of the main theological families today.

I comment briefly on one of the issues that John raises, recognizing that these remarks are inevitably too little. His immediate question opens the window to a larger set of issues that are important in thinking about the other issues that he brings up (such as: has something changed with the coming of Jesus, is THIS the new age? Is the true pivot point of history the investiture of reason?

If we do not agree with Scripture, what is the value of studying it? From a historical point of view, biblical faith and practice, in Israel and in Judaism as well as in Christianity are not fixed deposits but evolve over time in response to fresh issues, insights and contexts. This is true within the Bible itself. It is also even more obviously true in Christian community after the Bible was given its present form.

A quick example. A traditional proverb in Israel had it that "The parents have eat sour grapes afnd the children's teeth are set on edge." That is, the parents sinned and the next generations pay for the parents' sin. But Ezekiel says explicitly that this proverb is no more to be spoken in Israel because each generation will pay for its own sin. Another example: Isaiah says to beat your swords into ploughshares whereas Joel adominishes the community to beat their ploughshares into swords.

A principle call of the church is to come to an adequate interpretation of God's presence and purposes and an adequate response.

In conventional church practice, we read the Bible, assume that is each text points to a trustworthy understanding of God's presence and purposes, and that we need to figure out how to apply its truth to today. Many Christians today view the Bible less as such a depository and more as a conversation partner. A biblical text invites us to believe and do certain things, which we then bring into dialogue with tradition, our real-life experience, and reason.

Based on using this process over time, we come to fundamental convictions concerning the nature, purposes, and power of God. In my case, these convictions include many biblical motifs but finally transcend any one biblical text. My deepest conviction is that God is pure, unbounded love, unconditional love for each and every created entity (human beings, rabbits, frogs, the earth, etc.), and that God's purpose is for us all to live together in love.

(more coming)

Ronald said...

A related concern is one that Bob mentions in one of his posts: when looking at a biblical text, it is often helpful to distinguish between surface elements. The surface element is simply accepting the text at face value. For example, the end-time texts simply assume that we are living at the end of history and that an apocalypse is coming. The deeper elements are those aspects of a text that are not tied to the surface elements. The deeper witness is one that underlies the surface element. For example, one deeper element of the end-time texts is to remind us that the world as we know it is not the world that God would have it be. The end-time prophets believed that God was about to end this world and create a new one. I do not share that conviction. But I do believe with them that God is at work to help this world become more like the one God desires and that we have the opportunity to join God in this process.

Sometimes this difference between surface and deeper elements in texts can help the church find dimensions of positive meaning in texts whose surface elements do not seem reasonable, believable, to us (especially from the perspective of the scientific world view). But, occasionally even the deeper elements are theologically and/or morally objectionable.

When I encounter a single biblical text, then, I bring that text into dialogue with these deep convictions, and also with voices from history, my experience and that of others in the contemporary world. What can I say that maintains the deeper intention of the tradition and that makes sense in view of the world in which we live?

Along the way, biblical texts can prompt to re-think my convictions. The value of the text is not simply in putting forward a view of God that I need to endorse but in prompting me to take into account valuable perspectives that can help the church refine its understanding of God's purposes and our response.

Thus, I do disagree with some biblical texts. For example, Psalm 137 urges its readers to be happy when the babies of their enemies are dashed against the rocks. Good grief. What could be further from God's purposes.

BUT, considering that text has the value of pushing me to ask, "What do I really believe about God? Do I really believe God wants to be happy when people are abusing children, even the children of our enemies?"

The Bible also can push me to enlarge my understanding of God and my practice. To take the simplest possible example, the Bible repeatedly calls me to love my neighbor when there are some neighbors (taking into account multiple definitions of "neighbor") that I wish were not in my world at all.

John said...

Ron,

Thanks for your kind reply. I am a little rushed but I wanted to respond to some of your points.

You said: "If we do not agree with Scripture, what is the value of studying it?"

Here I think you may misunderstand me. I was not suggesting a basis for abandoning Scripture, but raising the issue which is often the asserted as a truth by conservatives, i.e., if we are going to faithfully embrace Scripture we cannot disregard the 'truths' accepted by its writers. To be sure, I don't agree with this assertion. I think we often exceed our limits of understanding and utter genuine truths which only others can tease and flesh out for us. Such is the work of the Spirit. But I wanted to include this conservative perspective into the discussion.

You said: "In conventional church practice, we read the Bible, assume that is each text points to a trustworthy understanding of God's presence and purposes, and that we need to figure out how to apply its truth to today."

Consistent with the point I just raised, I think Scripture often points to truths (trustworthy understandings) in a very ironic way, however, it is only through the continuing work of the Spirit that we can discern the irony.

For example consider Scriptural claims of divinely decreed acts of genocide. The God spoken of by Jesus would never condone genocide, yet the Scriptural writers clearly and unambiguously assert that God not only condoned it but mandated it. Just to further mix up the issue, there is the claim in the Flood Narrative that God determined to put an end to humanity due to its propensity for violence.

Something is askew here - either Jesus' teaching, the assertions of the Hebrew writer as to God's mandate, or how we interpret and resolve the conflicting teachings about God and how God apprehends genocidal violence.

I don't think we can simply reject the Hebrew Scriptures, because they too share the note of conflict. Perhaps the "trustworthy understanding" is that even Scriptural writers are prone to claim God as a champion of their personal causes. But there is much in Scripture, especially in the major prophets to show that God is a God of all people, and that God's ultimate desire is for humans to reflect God's own passion for loving kindness. The "trustworthy understanding" for me then is that we must be on guard for politicians and preachers who seek to use God as a champion of anything but shalom.

And I agree that understanding of Scripture evolves. Hopefully, someday the Spirit will disclose a new meaning for me in this conflict.

John

John said...
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John said...
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John said...
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John said...

Ron,


You said: "But, occasionally even the deeper elements are theologically and/or morally objectionable."

You specifically reject the brutal emotional reality of Psalm 137. I read Psalm 137 very favorably, and have used its brutality far more often than the other more poetic language.

For me the Psalm is an invitation to be honest with God. We want our enemies to suffer as we have suffered, if not more. And we want God to intervene on our behalf and and showing his solidarity with our pain and suffering, to actively inflict the suffering we can only imagine. The very rawness of the prayer cries out to our hearts. God does not want us to compose ourselves and only make polite requests. God wants us to share our woundedness, honestly. By retaining this chilling language I believe that Scripture is teaching us just how deeply God sees into our hearts, and how open God asks us to be with God. God is not going to carry out our vengeful desires, that would indeed be terrifying. But we cannot seek compassion and/or forgiveness if we are not honest with God and if we continue to think that we can hide our true selves from God. Ultimately, the Psalm is an invitation to be brutally honest with God and that invitation is far more meaningful to me than the poetry of the rest of the Psalm.

John