Monday, April 30, 2007

What Church of Christ Scholarship Should Be, 2

This is a second post about the article by James Thompson, "What Is Church of Christ Scholarship?" Restoration Quarterly 49 (First Quarter 2007), pp. 33-38.

As I noted in the previous post, Thompson begins his article with some general, introductory observations about religious scholarship done by religiously-engaged people. It brings some dilemmas. He also refers, more specifically, to religious scholarship done by members of Churches of Christ.

Next, Thompson offers what he calls "A Proposal for Church of Christ Scholarship" (pp. 36-37). To give you the gist, I'll sometimes quote and at other times summarize. He writes:

"1. I suggest that the dominant feature of the tradition is a high eccelsiology that has framed our understanding of the Christian faith and separated this tradition from evangelicalism." That is to say, Church of Christ scholarship should highlight biblical forms, ideals, and practices of the church.

2. Church of Christ scholarship can best contribute to the wider world of scholarship and sound a harmonizing note by extending the traditional emphasis placed on the NT books of Acts, the Pastoral Epistles, and Hebrews.

3. Church of Christ scholarship ought to extend the tradition's emphasis on what the New Testament vouches for as legitimate forms of church life -- "believer's baptism, congregational polity, the authority of elders." Moreover, the ideal of restoration should be extended to include the goal of recapturing "the love, vitality, compassion, and mission of the early church."

4. While recognizing the limits of human reason, Church of Christ scholarship should appreciate that rational inquiry, as opposed to illumination by the Spirit, "has been a distinguishing feature the movement."

These commitments, says Thompson, can give us "a sense of continuity with our past." That, in a nutshell, is the middle section of his article.

So far, so good? What do you think?

Friday, April 20, 2007

What Church of Christ Scholarship Should Be

The most recent issue of Restoration Quarterly (Vol. 49, No. 1) arrived several weeks ago. For nearly 50 years now, RQ has been the scholarly publication on Bible, theology, church history, etc. that's produced by folks from the Churches of Christ. This latest issue contains several fine pieces, including a short article by James W. Thompson entitled, "What Is Church of Christ Scholarship?"

Thompson begins by noting that within the last 50 years scholarship within Churches of Christ has come into its own. He doesn't name names. But if he did, he could mention several fine scholars from Churches of Christ who have made their mark in their chosen fields of study. Thompson himself has made significant contributions in the area of New Testament. But that's not what he wants to focus on.

Although he doesn't say it in these words, the question behind his article is, "Now what?" Our people have earned the doctorate at schools like Harvard and Yale, Oxford and Cambridge. And they've gone on to teach and to write well. But one of the unintended consequences has been that such achievement has driven these scholars into a sort of no-man's land. Why? Thompson gives four reasons.

For one thing, such work takes place in the shadow of the Enlightenment, whose claim to objectivity, says Thompson, "provided the basis for all confessional traditions to find a shared lingua franca for scholarship" and "placed all traditional interpretations under examination" (p. 34).

In keeping with the rules of the game, the more scholarly one became, the less one could detect the Church-of-Christ-ness of the scholar. And of course, not just our people, but all scholars in the broad academic tradition have played by the same rules. This is how and why a graduate school sponsored by Churches of Christ might require students to read Brevard Childs (even though he's Presbyterian), Luke Johnson (even though he's Roman Catholic) or Gordon Fee (even though he's Pentecostal). It's also why seminary students might read and be taught by Abraham Malherbe (even though he's from the Churches of Christ).

A second problem for churchly scholars, says Thompson, is that they begin to see the doctrinal inconsistencies in their group of origin.

Third, they see the truth in those other religious traditions that have emphasized ideas that, for us, have been neglected if they were noticed at all. The Holy Spirit has a wide and wonderful history.

Fourth, if scholars from the Churches of Christ decided that their work was to be boldly confessional (that is, emphasizing our traditional strengths) what would they confess? The doctrinal consensus that used to characterize the Churches of Christ is eroding. As Thompson puts it, scholars in the Church of Christ "face the challenge of knowing what the tradition is" (p. 35).

One of my teachers at Freed-Hardeman used to say, "I've been asked a few times what the Church of Christ teaches about divorce and re-marriage. My answer is, 'Everything!' " This reflects, of course, the practice of congregational autonomy. But if the Churches of Christ represent a coherent tradition, the question is, What are its hallmarks, the positives that should be accentuated?

I'd like to unpack and comment on Thompson's article some more. He's just getting started. But I'll stop here and ask you:

1. Is his diagnosis, as I've described it here, on target?

2. Most of the people reading this blog are not Ph.D. scholars among the Churches of Christ. However, in what ways does academic engagement by people in Churches of Christ create tension at the congregational level? For example, if the preacher is feeding on first-class scholarship written by whosoever will, does that tend to create wider distances between the pulpit and the pew? If so, is that a necessary consequence?

3. Going back to Thompson's fourth idea--that Church of Christ scholars would have a hard time knowing what their tradition was--What would you place on a list of doctrines and themes that scholars from Churches of Christ might explore and present to the larger Christian world?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Lamentations and Hermeneutics

It's a melancholy day for me. The unspeakable terror and tragedy on the campus of Virginia Tech has combined with a couple of lesser-known stories that are sad news in my small world. "Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble." My only-but-great consolation, and joy even, is that God in Christ gets the last word.

On a slightly-related note, and at the risk of oversimplification . . .

It seems to me that over the last few decades, people in the Churches of Christ have increasingly rejected the "constitution view" of the Bible. These Christians no longer construe the Scriptures as a set of divine laws and gospel facts to be discerned, understood, and applied to exterior forms of the church (like terms of membership, items of worship, qualifications of officers, etc.). This approach, by the way, always favored the New Testament to the virtual exclusion of the Old.

Instead, it seems to me that people in Churches of Christ have moved in the direction of seeing the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) as a collection of writings which are, at the same time, (1) unified in their intent to reveal but (2) diverse in their forms and in their ways of revealing the heart and the mind of God. This view naturally requires a reader of a particular book in Scripture to be aware of and sensitive to the type of literature he's reading, to the specific intentions of the author, etc.

Not so long ago, any number of spokesmen in the Churches of Christ were railing against what they called "the new hermeneutics" among us. That is, they were speaking against what they perceived to be a new way of understanding what the Scriptures are and how they should be interpreted. What they were talking about then is what I'm talking about here. And regardless of where a person comes out on that traditional-versus-the-new debate, those who said the objections were much ado about nothing were wrong. Our hermeneutic (the singular here refers to the basic approach) was and is shifting. And it makes a huge difference.

One of those differences (and here's the tie-in to my present affect) is that the more-recent approach to Scripture among us has opened up many new possibilities; the possibility, for example, of actually using a book like Lamentations as a model and as a source for appropriate lament in the lives of individual Christians and even whole congregations (say, in the aftermath of 9/11). Compare that to the older approach in which the Book of Lamentations wasn't much more than a historical footnote.

Anyway, my questions to insiders, and to outsiders who know something about my group, are these:

1. From what you can tell, is my description of hermeneutical shift in the Churches of Christ accurate?

2. If so, what were/are the sources of such change?

3. Again if "yes" to number 1, then how is such change currently playing out? And what, according to your forecast, might be the long-term ramifications?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Be Back Soon(ish)

I'll be traveling for the next few days and won't have much time for blogging on the road. I had planned to do at least one more post (or even two) before taking off. But the best laid plans of mice and men . . .

Anyway, last Tuesday night's Old Testament class got into quite an interesting discussion about Ruth chapter 3. What exactly went on down at the threshing floor that night? The narrator of the story is clearly interested in characterizing both Ruth and Boaz as some of the finest people you'd ever meet. So it seems awfully strained to me that the same story-teller would depict them involved in something illicit.

Someone asked, But what would have been considered illicit in their situation? Good question. If there's some kind of intentional ambiguity in the way that the story is being told, I have to wonder why.

Got any thoughts about this? I'll try to check and publish responses as soon as I can.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

What Does "the Resurrection of Jesus" Mean?

It's a strange irony. One of the great doctrinal misunderstandings--one that goes unrecognized and, therefore, uncorrected in some Christian circles--is connected to something that the church has always claimed is at the very center of its faith: the resurrection of Jesus.

Reading the religion section of a newspaper last week, I was reminded that even Christian preachers are unaware of a distinction that is essential to a genuine understanding of what believers call "the greatest miracle ever."

I'm talking about the difference between mere resuscitation (something that occasionally happens in the biblical story) and resurrection, which, so far, has happened only once, namely in the case of Jesus of Nazareth. Take two examples of what I'm calling "mere resuscitation."

First, in Luke 7, Jesus raises the dead son of a widow. Second, in John 11, Jesus calls Lazarus out of his tomb four days after he died. These events are almost entirely different from from what happened to Jesus on the third day following his crucifixion. What they all have in common is that they all start with a dead person. But most everything else is different.

That's because people like the widow's son and Lazarus were brought back to the life that they had before. Eventually, they did their dying all over again. But in the unique case of Jesus' resurrection, coming to life meant quite another thing.

Christianity says that on that first "Easter Sunday" Jesus was not resuscitated. He was not restored to ordinary human existence. He did not come back to the life that you and I now know. What did happen was this: God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit transformed Jesus' body into a never-decaying (incorruptible) never-dying (imperishable) body, the sort of body that makes eternal life with God a possibility for someone who was once like we are now.

Think of it this way. In John 11, Jesus finally comes to Bethany where Lazarus has recently died. Before he performs the miracle, Jesus has an interesting discussion with Martha, one of Lazarus' sisters: "Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.' Martha answered, 'I know he will rise again, in the resurrection at the last day' " (verses 24-25).

In her response, Martha refers to an expectation about the end of the world, one that was commonly accepted by many Jews of the day. (According to Mark 12:18, a group called the Sadducees did not accept this teaching). As Martha understood it, when God brought down the curtain of history, all the dead would be raised. Jesus expresses the same conviction in John 5. He said that a time is coming "when all who are in their graves . . . will come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (verses 28-29).

What Christianity asserts is that in the unique case of Christ, that future resurrection of which Jesus and Martha spoke has already happened. "The resurrection of Jesus," therefore, does not refer to his resuscitation. Again, Jesus did not merely "come back to life." Instead, he was resurrected. It's a vast difference. Christianity also asserts that what has already happened to Jesus at his resurrection back then will also happen to all of God's faithful people in the future:

"I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory." --1 Corinthians 15:50-54

Paul clearly believed that what he was describing had already happened with Jesus. And, what he was describing was still future for everyone who belonged to Jesus. This probably created some confusion. Why? Because it seems that the Jewish expectation was that the resurrection of the dead would happen to all people all at once. Going back to the words of Martha, her hope was that Lazarus would rise again "in the resurrection at the last day" (John 11:25).

The fact that, in the case of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead has already occurred, but that it is yet to happen for everyone else, is precisely why Paul goes out of his way to explain this in 1 Corinthians 15:22-23. In Christ, he says, "all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him" (emphasis added).

What is to happen at the last day has already begun. Jesus, the great pioneer of the Christian faith, has already been raised to new and unending life. Just as the firstfruits, that first installment of a harvest, guarantees a complete harvest in the future, so the resurrection of Jesus guarantees that we too will be raised at some point in the future. When that happens, everyone will realize that the only thing that matters now is our attitude and response to the work of God through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Monday, April 02, 2007

B-2 and Migraines

For folks who couldn't care less, I promise, this is the last migraine post. I know there's a lot of information out there about migraines. But I wanted to pass along this bit of advice that recently turned up in the syndicated column by "Dr. Gott."

"Dear Dr. Gott: I have suffered for more than 60 years with headaches, and nothing I have tried, until now, has helped me. Years ago, I was told by a doctor that my headaches were true migraines. Later, a neurologist told me after more tests were done (which included a brain scan and more), that my headaches were vascular.

While visiting a doctor in West Virginia, he told me about a conference held on migraines at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville, Va. When the group was asked the best treatment for migraines, the answer was vitamin B-2 (riboflavin). I decided to try it, and I can honestly say that something as simple as a vitamin, with no other treatment added, has almost completely stopped my headaches. I take one 100-milligram tablet each day with a meal, and while I occasionally have very small headaches, they're nothing like I experienced before. For people like me who have suffered most of their lives with bad headaches, I hope they will try this. They've nothing to lose but their headaches.

Dear Reader: Thanks for the tip, which is safe and inexpensive."

I started the B-2 regimen a few days back. We'll see how it goes. Regarding my last post, which was about beef triggering migraines, "Anonymous" reminded me of the whole Oprah episode. Will I be the next one dragged into court by the cattlemen? Maybe so. With the help of Oprah's lawyers, I really think I could handle that. But, if that creepy Tom Cruise ever jumps up and stands on my couch, that's gonna send me over the edge.