Monday, April 28, 2008


I try to read relatively widely in the context of theology, from biblical studies to the interface of faith with various facets of living in this world. I’m not scientifically oriented, so a few of the most general articles on life origins and evolution go a long way with me. I am always intrigued by philosophical implications of world-views. I enjoy history and biography. Some personal memoirs I find fascinating. I like a bit of fiction, especially with well-researched historical settings or exceptional character development. I’m mesmerized by someone who can blend biblical exegesis with responsible application since this has been my goal through my more than thirty years of biblical proclamation.

I subscribe to a number of email links to current publications. I regularly read some blogs (among those listed in the side bar) that show incredible breadth and depth of theological reflection. I am in awe of the quality output these are able to maintain. There are also a couple of periodicals that I read mostly cover-to-cover (Touchstone and First Things).

I must say that I am overwhelmingly impressed with Pope Benedict XVI’s books, the earlier ones written as Joseph Ratzinger as well as the more recent under his pontifical title. His biblical scholarship is stellar yet does not obliterate a keen awareness of personal application. Jesus of Nazareth is exceptional. It is a juxtaposition of, on the one hand, a broad awareness of scholarly issues in general New Testament studies and particularly the multi-faceted approaches to Jesus, and on the other hand, a clarity of orthodox Christian faith that not only cuts through all the crust of “scholarly” myopia but also evokes in the reader — at least those whose hearts are open — a desire to know and love Jesus more and more.

I look at the stack of new books I have acquired so far just this year and it is overwhelming to think of all I “need” to read. Switching ecclesiastical identities has opened new dimensions of faith that require substantive “catch-up.” It reminds me of the title from A. B. Macallum’s famous editorial in The Canadian Medical Association Journal, “Of the making of books there is no end.” He laments, in 1928, that the “world of today” is being inundated with far too many publications and then he notes that this idea of “too much” goes back to the time “when all the written word was in the form of manuscript.” What would he think today?!

As I keep plugging away at my reading I try to keep in perspective something I had to learn long ago in the process of my theological education: it can be very difficult for the “heart” to keep up with the “head.” Even a semester in seminary requires more cognitive input than one’s soul can assimilate in the same period of time, especially when one’s time is being consumed with study and not an equal amount of prayer. St. Paul warned of what is falsely called knowledge (1Tim 6:20) early in the life of the Church, also recognizing that it is possible to be ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2Tim 3:7)

There is a difference between these warnings and increasing in the knowledge of God (Col 1:10). The Christian’s calling is to be grounded in Truth (orthodoxy) and at the same time to be growing into what Paul calls in his Romans letter the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God (11:33). One of the affirmations of the uniqueness of scripture is that the basic message can be comprehended by a simple mind, and yet the best intellects cannot exhaust the depth of the scriptures.

So some of us keep reading and reading (and, I hope, praying and praying). That is one way Jesus’ garden prayer — that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent — is fulfilled in us.

Monday, April 7, 2008

OT — NT and Presuppositions

I long ago came into the general realization that each of us interacts with the multitude of data that enters our lives each day within the framework of our respective presuppositions. Some of those presuppositions are conscious and embraced by personal choice; others are so deeply imbedded and assumed at such a basic level that it takes something significant ever to bring them into a recognizable focus (and for many people this seldom or never happens).

There were occasional serendipitous moments during my pastoral years when I would have stark reminders of this. Some presupposition so deeply assumed that I was not thinking of it would affect some particular opinion or action I took in congregational leadership, and the reaction of others in the church — good, committed Christians — would remind me that commitment of heart does not always translate into development of thought. Things that my theological education had enabled me to process into deep conviction (and thus presuppositional thinking) were not settled “givens” (or even cognizant issues) in some of my parishoners.

This general dynamic can, of course, occur in almost any particular context. I’ve been thinking about how it affects the levels of openness and respect — or total lack thereof — between differing religious identities, especially Catholicism and Protestant Fundamentalism. That will need to be a focus for another time (although my closing thought here brings the theme back). The impetus for thinking about this has been the recurring question, within just a few recent weeks, from a number of people who express distress between “the angry God of the Old Testament and the loving Jesus of the New Testament.” What a loaded phrase of presupposition that is! Yet that is obviously where many people are in their understanding.

I cannot do a whole development on this issue here, but I thought it might be worthwhile to share a few general parameters to shape one’s thinking. First, start with the big picture....
— the fact that God is unknowable unless He reveals himself
— that God is still unknowable in a comprehensive way; we can only work with what He gives, and the finite cannot encompass the Infinite (or we'd be God)
— that the Bible gives us progressive revelation; what comes later builds on what is earlier
— that no single picture of God is complete; the Bible gives a composite, "layered" picture of God (that is, again, "true" but not "total")
— that some parts of the Bible give a fuller portrayal of God's holiness and judgment; others put a focus on love and mercy.
— that holiness and love, judgment and mercy both need to be held in a constant tension. Either without the other is distorted and false.
— that the love of Jesus (biblically understood, not "sentimental pop") only makes sense in the context of God's holiness.

This means, again, looking at the Bible as whole and not just the parts of the whole (much less looking only at some of the parts, which a sentimental approach would do with Jesus). In the OT we get extended "pictures" of what holiness and judgment mean in a sinful world. Pointedly, the "love" of Jesus in the NT is in a context (the OT background) — the love of the Triune God in making a way to save sinful people who, without Divine Mercy, are facing the judgment of a holy God. God cannot be "holy" and merely dismiss sin; righteousness calls for justice to be done. Justice for sin was met when Jesus, without sin, took upon Himself the repercussion for human sin. This is clearly the essential message of the NT and the focus of Apostolic preaching (e.g., 2Cor 5:21, among many other "proof texts"). Yet this is not merely a “proof text” issue, but rather one example of what happens to biblical understanding when people get further and further removed from the Great Tradition (the Apostolic Rule of Faith) that provides an authoritative standard for biblical interpretation.

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