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“it shall not be so among you”: authority and the bible

And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

– Mark 10:32-45

In the above passage, and its parallel in Matthew 20, we are told that James and John want to be placed in positions of high rank when Jesus conquers Jerusalem. Their fellow disciples are incited to anger. Jesus, however, in his usual style, redefines the nature of the topic at hand. Authority is used by the Gentile imperialists for violence and control, but disciples of Jesus are to enact something different, a servant authority, even to the point of death.

Such a vision of authority stands in stark contrast to the authority of the world. Read the rest of this entry

bible infallibility & the act of reading

Someone on my Facebook News Feed wrote the other day something along the lines that God used fallible people to write his infallible Word (the Bible) and so people should stop thinking they are smarter than God (I assume by questioning this apparent fact).

I don’t mean to disrespect this person (if they are reading this, hello!) …

… but I do wish to ask questions about this way of thinking.

To me the idea of an infallible Bible is riddled with problems. This is not because I doubt the power of God in any way, but rather because I doubt the ability of humans to write anything that is infallible, even under divine inspiration.

(Yes that’s right, I am differentiating infallibility and inspiration – they are not the same thing.)

Some may argue that God can overcome the shortcomings of humans to achieve his will, including the composition of the biblical text. This is however a problematic claim – does God override the will of the person to do so? Why use a person at all?

We could explore this for ages, so I’ll move on to my main question Read the rest of this entry

what is “justice”? a christian(‘s) perspective

Justice is a slippery term.

It can be used, from one point of view or another, to describe almost any conclusion regarding moral rightness. How the scales of justice are balanced often depends on the weights placed upon them, and this is in most ways a subjective affair. These weights may come in the form of such concepts as fairness, retribution, restoration and redistribution, or more cynically in realities such as greed and self-interest.

I cannot hope to outline a comprehensive or even convincing treatise of justice in this post, though sharing a few thoughts may be in order.

From a Christian perspective justice finds its definitive bearing in God. How to understand God is, however, not an easy task given both his transcendence and our interpretative horizons and limits.

Which commands of God are just? All of them? If so is a directive to genocide, such as those in the Old Testament, to be considered just? Does our ability as humans to obey such commands affect what is commanded of us by God? Read the rest of this entry

even the bible is a vulnerable text

After watching an online video posted on my Facebook feed of a well-known pastor preaching about Heaven and Hell, I thought it appropriate to post a thought or two.

This particular pastor preached from Luke 16:19-31. During the sermon they made numerous references to the fact that they are “telling the truth” and that they are simply repeating the words of Jesus (which are apparently not in need of any form of interpretation, but rather are self-evidently comprehendible, even over the temporal distance of 2000 years).

The issue here of course is that no text, regardless of where or whom they are from (even God) can simply be considered self-evidently comprehendible.

I look to Paul Ricoeur for wisdom at this point. Read the rest of this entry

scripture: principles or narrative?

Does anyone think there is an problem when we treat the Bible as a set of principles?

After all, the Bible as a whole forms not a constitution but a narrative.

Stories are beautiful things. They draw us into their world and have  the potential to convey experiences. This transmission leads us in turn to partake of these experiences.

Stories thus preclude abstraction. It is somewhat unnatural to spin a story into an abstract esotericism.

None of this is to say that drawing principles from the Bible is necessarily bad. However maybe we need more care and humility; care that we do not profane the beauty of the narrative with constitutional exegesis, and humility so that we do not think our principles to be as inspired as the narrative (we can always be wrong).

Of course there are parts of the Bible that are more given to the derivation of principles – proverbs, the epistles – though is it not also true that such texts find their place in the larger narrative of God’s action in history, much like a monologue in a movie.

Perhaps we should worry less about drawing principles from the Bible, which are almost always altered by our worldview as they pass from the text to current reality. Perhaps we should worry more about letting the narrative of the Bible draw us into its world, so they we might partake of its reality and bring this experience to bear on our world.


the WORD as a light for “the word”

Interpreting Scripture can be a joyous experience, but also one that can bring with it much impassioned and naive debate. This was illustrated by a friend of mine recently who shared an experience he had while teaching a college subject. The subject of discussion was interpretation of  the Bible, and one of his students said something along the lines of;

“I feel like the Bible is pretty clear to me; when I read it I just understand it.”

No doubt postmodern commentators would absolutely tear such a comment to shreds – and rightly so. While such a comment may indeed reveal a deep faith and trust in the Scriptures and the God who inspired them, it is also severely naive.

It can be a frustrating experience for a Bible teacher to meet someone who insists no background knowledge of the biblical text is needed to understand it because God wrote it so therefore he must have made it speak to all generations equally. While the Bible does indeed speak to all generations, we should not confuse this as being synonymous with the Bible being equally understandable to all generations. The Bible is, of course, an ancient text, and so we must understand that the cultural and linguistic differences between us and its authors are significant. Thus, to really understand what was written requires some insight into the world in which the Bible was authored.

No doubt some people will refute this perspective by saying something like “God is bigger than history, so he can author a book that just makes sense to all humans at any time in any place.”

What I am about to say in response may be uncomfortable for some, but here it goes; Writing a text that is equally understandable for all humans at all times in history in any place is impossible – even for God…

It might be that you now think I’m a heretical nominee-for-a-stake-burning; after all, the Bible itself says “what is impossible for men is possible with God.” I urge you to read on and at least see my point and then judge me. I am offering the starting place for a possible model of interpreting the Bible, and that model is what I will call an Incarnational model. The central concept of this model is Jesus himself.

Reconstruction of a first century male Jewish head. Jesus likely would have looked something like this.

Jesus was born around 4BCE in Palestine. He was a Galilean Jew, from a poor peasant family living in a rural agrarian society.

He was male.

He was, by all estimates, a carpenter for some of his life. He then began his ministry at around the age of thirty as a single man who would never marry and who would remain poor. He never travelled more than a few days walk from his place of birth.

Jesus was eventually killed by crucifixion as a political enemy of the Roman state. This was at least partly because of his protest against the Jewish religious/political system which exploited the poor and oppressed.

Now, let me just make a few more points about Jesus before I move on.

Jesus was not born in 3000BCE. Or 500CE. Or 1517CE. Or 2009CE.

He was not an Ephesian, or a Western European, or an African, or an American. He certainly wasn’t a Gentile.

Jesus wasn’t rich and didn’t live in an urban middle-class society.

Jesus wasn’t female.

He wasn’t a blacksmith, or a doctor, or a school teacher, or an electrician.

Jesus wasn’t married, and he never went to the UK on a work Visa.

Jesus didn’t die from a heart attack, or cancer, or old age. He certainly didn’t align himself with injustice and exploitation.

See, it’s one thing to say Jesus’ incarnation meant he became human and that he represented all humanity. It is another thing to say he became every type of human – this second statement would be incorrect. By being born just prior to the first century CE, Jesus necessarily wasn’t born in some other time period. By being born Jewish, Jesus wasn’t born Gentile etc. etc. etc. The point is that though Jesus is God, even God himself when incarnated could not possibly become every kind and type of human there is in the world – it would be impossible even for him. The Incarnation necessarily implies the narrowing down of God into a society, culture, time, place, race, gender, family, job, social status, personality type, hair colour, eye colour, accent, means of death etc. When God became human it meant that he took on the limits of humanity, even the limits of identity.

If we look at the Bible in light of Jesus, then, perhaps we start to see some truths emerge. If Jesus was both God and man, and the Bible is meant to be authored the same way, are we able to see the analogies that arise?

Jesus lived in a certain time > the Bible was written in a certain time frame
Jesus lived in a certain place > the Bible was written in a certain set of places
Jesus lived in a certain culture > the Bible was written in a certain culture(s)

The Scriptures, being written by humans inspired by God, necessarily implies all the temporal, material and spacial limitations of this world, just as Jesus did when he became human. Such a way of looking at Scripture could have consequences for two opposing ways of interpretation that have gone before.

1) For the view that we can just read the Bible as is because God wrote it. It is unrealistic to think that God could somehow make any human language speak the same way to humans at all times in all places (by the way, keep in mind that the Bible translation you use is not the original text – it has been translated for you from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek. Can you read those languages? If not, are you really reading “what God wrote” per se?). I won’t say more because I feel like I have gone on about my point already in regards to this view.

2) For extreme postmodern views. Now don’t get me wrong, I think postmodernism (when looked at honestly) has much to say to us, particularly in its critique of the Enlightenment (and its dehumanising myths) and its attack on absolute objectivity (an impossibility). However extreme postmodern views, whereby texts simply mean whatever meaning I perceive them to have, are melted away by God’s presence in history. Jesus was actually a Jew, and he was actually killed on a cross, and was actually resurrected. If the Scriptures are at all analogous to this as I have suggested (maybe I’m wrong), then we must say there are actual cultural, temporal and spacial characteristics of the biblical text and that these cannot be simply swept away by perspectivism.

Ultimately all I’m saying is that I think there is an analogy between the divinity-in-humanity of Jesus and that of the Scriptures. I think that this should be taken into account when forming a hermeneutic. My thoughts here make certain assumptions, yes, though they also force us to think seriously about what it meant for Jesus to be both God and man, and how the Bible is, in its own way, similar to this. If understanding Jesus means understanding his historical incarnation as a limited human, doesn’t the same apply to Scripture?

Like I said these are just some thoughts thrown together into a suggestion for further thought. I hope they inspire you to go beyond what I have said, and to correct where I have said things that are not quite right.


what is the purpose of the bible?


(N.B. This is an updated post which previously asked the question “What is the purpose of Scripture?” as an open discussion, hence the first few comments by others, which were responses to that original discussion question, might seem a bit out of context.)

Many discussions I have with people involve the Bible (not surprisingly). I am always interested to find out how people view Scripture; What is its purpose? What kind of authority does it have, and why? What kind of truth does it tell us? How do we interpret it? For today I am going to restrict my focus to the question of the Bible’s purpose. Keep Reading…

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