Of Piper and Power

As many American Christians are aware (especially those with Facebook accounts), a furor has erupted over ultra-Reformed pastor and theologian John Piper’s recent comments about desiring a “masculine feel” for Christianity. Scot McKnight, ever a reasonable, rigorous, and thoughtful pastor-theologian, has provided a fuller account of Piper’s comments, and has asked some very important critical questions about how we should read those comments. I’d like to offer a bit more.

Perhaps I’m reading this too closely in conjunction with what I consider to be a corresponding controversy, that of Piper’s close friend and colleague Mark Driscoll’s church and its recent authoritarian attempt to clamp down on a congregant, but I don’t think the two are unrelated. There is, among these pastors and their churches and many of their disciples nationwide, a marked insecurity about questions of authority and power within the church. I find such a concern itself worrisome, since Jesus made it pretty clear in Matthew 20:20-28 that we are not to be preoccupied with such things.

With McKnight’s account, we find some curious claims by Piper, namely that a “clarification” of the Bible suggests a masculine Christianity (despite the fact that adam means “humanity,” that male anthropomorphic descriptors for God are not necessarily prescriptive for human relations, that Paul’s admonitions in specific letters to specific congregations had primarily to do with their own specific situations, and that God’s claims to authority–i.e., kingship–had to do with what we cannot claim for ourselves rather than what we should somehow emulate).

Then there is Piper’s proposal that “theology and church and mission are marked by overarching godly male leadership in the spirit of Christ.” In light of Matthew 20, it seems clear that “theology and church and mission” are not marked by much concern over leadership at all. Why do we need to insist on this consideration? And why in the world would that necessitate that only men are the initiators of ministry and only women should “come alongside” with the proper attitude? Is that how the Holy Spirit has actually operated throughout Christian history? I just don’t see it. As I read the New Testament, the primary concern for power dynamics within the church is that we submit to each other.

We also find curious wording about so-called “masculine ministry”:

  • it “believes that it is more fitting that men take the lash of criticism…than to unnecessarily expose women to this assault”
  • it “seizes” upon biblical doctrine and “presses it…into the lives of the people”
  • it “presses” the “rugged aspects” of Christian life “on the conscience of the church”
  • it proclaims the truth of scripture “with urgency and forcefulness and penetrating conviction”

Notice the assumptions (and insecurities) about power here. Does ministry inherently belong to men, who then decide whether or not to expose women to its risks? Can we “seize” scripture and “press” it into others, as though (1) scripture is an instrument under our power and (2) an instrument used to project power upon others? Do we minister to others by “pressing” into their lives rather than by allowing them to witness ours? Do we teach Scripture as a use of force, and with urgency (notice the inherent anxiety in such phrases), as though the Holy Spirit were monumentally impatient and it is up to us to ensure certain outcomes within a certain timeframe? As John Howard Yoder said, it’s not the job of the church to make history come out right, and that is the case whether that history is cosmic, national, congregational, relational, or personal.

In my view, it is not merely that Piper is holding onto certain views of the relative natures and roles of men and women, views that are  theologically, anthropologically, and historically untenable, but that Piper’s (and Driscoll’s and Wilson’s, etc., etc.,) overarching concern is with holding onto power. They have particular visions of what the church should look like, of what forms discipleship should take, and even where elements of those visions are right and healthy and reasonable (but especially where they aren’t), they want to be able to realize those visions without opposition, especially without a check by those who might be marginalized by said visions. So apparently, this is “masculine ministry.” This is  “leadership.” But in my mind, this is discipleship without mutual submission, which is no discipleship at all.

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So What Does “Inspired” Really Mean? The Bible as “God-breathed”

There has been a lot of discussion in the past year or two throughout the blogosphere and in various churches about biblical interpretation and its central role in evangelical identity. We might even say that evangelicalism is in the midst of rethinking its own approach to Scripture. Just a glance at a couple popular blogs of late (and the extensive discussions they prompt) illustrates the salience of this question. Rachel Held Evans has been discussing “biblicism” and various (mis)conceptions of Scripture, and Kurt Willems has recently reposted on the question of whether there really is a universally reliable “plain sense” to interpreting it. I think these are vital questions, and after a century or so of American fundamentalism–a movement rightly concerned with a faithful reading of the Christian Scriptures, but that unfortunately operates according to the very paradigm of those it reacts against (i.e., modernist scientific method)–I am very glad to see evangelicalism, or segments within it, reconsidering this very important question.

What the recent conversations I’ve linked here have not yet gotten to, though I’m sure they will at some point, is the question of inspiration. In so many evangelical statements of faith, the Bible is called “inspired” and “God-breathed,” a point that is often immediately linked to “inerrant” in a very scientific, journalistic, factual sense. What I want to do is take up this notion of “God-breathed.” This description of scripture is itself a biblical description, but I’m not at all sure we’ve been understanding it adequately.

Two biblical passages are usually used to justify this move: 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:20-21. Let me address the second passage first. 2 Peter 1:20-21 states, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (NRSV). The key word here is “prophecy,” which is rightly understood in the sense of people being carried along in the Holy Spirit; as such, what they proclaim by the Spirit’s direct prompting is not open to debate. This notion of prophecy is then taken by many evangelicals to refer to the whole of scripture: every part of scripture is closed to varying interpretations, and comes only directly from the Holy Spirit. There’s only one problem with this move: the text here does not apply “prophecy” to all of Scripture. It’s referring specifically to actual OT prophecy that foretold the coming of the Messiah. And as we all know, not all of the Bible contains such prophecy, but only a small part. (And this doesn’t even get at the point that not all of what constitutes the Christian scriptures was even settled at the point of this writing, but not until several centuries later!) So 2 Peter 1:20-21 does not provide by itself a tenable doctrine of biblical inspiration.

So let’s take up what many consider to be the more important passage, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which reads, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Again, we’re faced with the problem that not all of the biblical canon was settled at the point of this writing, so it’s not self-evident to what “scripture” the passage refers. But that aside, let’s deal with the notion of “inspired by God.” As many know, that phrase literally means “God-breathed.” This is key. For many evangelicals, “God-breathed” means that the message of scripture–even the very words of the text–come directly from the mouth of God, and therefore brook no ambiguity or difference of understanding. I even heard an Eastern Orthodox theologian recently claim the same thing, that it literally reads “breathed out,” and therefore there can be no argument or varying interpretation. This is the bread and butter of fundamentalist (in the historical, not popularly pejorative, sense) and evangelical theology. But is this what “God-breathed” really means?

First of all, there is no preposition “out” in the Greek. It simply states that scripture is “God-breathed.” So let’s be clear: that understanding of the verse–that God literally breathed out the words of scripture–is itself an interpretation, and I believe, not one necessitated by the verse. In my opinion, in order to understand what 2 Timothy means by “God-breathed,” we have to look where else in Scripture God breathes. There are at least three passages where we find God “breathing” (which, of course, has to do with the movement of the Spirit of Life). In the well known second creation account of Genesis 2:7, God the Creator breathes onto a clay form and brings to life Adam (literally, “humanity”). In Ezekiel 37:1-4, the prophet Ezekiel looks out over a valley of dry bones. God asks him whether the bones can live, and Ezekiel says that’s entirely up to the Lord. So God then “breathes” over the bones, and flesh grows upon them, and they come to life. Finally, in John 20:21-23, Jesus has risen from the dead and appears to his disciples, who are overjoyed to see him. He then breathes upon them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” by which they will have a new authority and power as his apostles. Note that in every one of these passages, God breathes on something that already exists, and gives it new life and power. He DOES NOT breathe the object into existence. Thus, to be consistent, we cannot claim that 2 Timothy 3:16 declares God to have breathed the biblical text into existence. Rather, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that already existing texts were “breathed upon” by God, that is, infused via the Holy Spirit with new life and power for the building up of the Body of Christ and the expansion of the Gospel. Someone may respond and say, “Yes, but wasn’t it God who first formed the things that were breathed upon? Didn’t he form the clay, make the bones, and gather the disciples?” Yes, one could say God did that. But that is not the event associated with God’s breathing; God’s “breath” (again the movement of the Holy Spirit) is a subsequent but more important step.

With this in mind, I think we need to relinquish any hold we claim to have on the very words of the entire biblical text being the direct and exact words of God. Scripture itself does not require this understanding, and an approach more consistent with the entirety of the biblical narrative suggests that the process of what came to constitute the Christian scriptures was rather more open-ended, and therefore more open to varying interpretations. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our aim should therefore be to interpret humbly, sensitively, and with an eye toward conversation and even disagreement, all the while confident that together, we are endeavoring to be faithful to the scriptures that animate our life together as the community of discipleship called the church.

Introducing Chosen Nation

With the work of the wonderful folks at Wipf and Stock Publishers, my book is now out and about! Chosen Nation: Scripture, Theopolitics, and the Project of National Identity is a study of nationalism within the church, and the ways in which we distort the theopolitics of Scripture in order to imagine a nation compellingly holy enough to command our loyalties.

In the book, I first take a look at theological work that has been especially formative for me and examine it to see to what degree and in what ways it takes account of nationalism, which I understand as particularly problematic for faithful discipleship. Finding this theological work helpful but insufficient, I then discuss the relationship of Christian theology to nationalism throughout the centuries, and especially in more recent contexts. I then undertake a study of the theopolitics of Scripture, which forms the theological heart of the book; from this study we get a picture of the church we are called to be (especially in relation to biblical Israel). The last part of the book then examines Christian nationalism in the context of the Christian Right (in which I used to be quite active) and in certain contemporary political theologies.

The discussion covers literature in political theology, nationalism studies, history, political science, and biblical studies. It would be particularly useful in an academic setting discussion political identity and religion, political theology, etc. It would also be useful in a congregational setting, with particular attention to Chaps 2 and 4-6.

If you are interested in the book, you can order a copy here, here, or here. If you are a reviews editor or blogger and would like a review copy, please let me know or contact Wipf & Stock directly. If you are simply interested in discussing the book personally, please contact me as well. I would be happy to do so.

Returning Home to Eighth Day

As you might have read in the description, this blog is about theological reflection amidst the uncertain journey of life and vocation, along with rediscovering my hometown of Wichita, Kansas. I have the privilege in this “inaugural” post to write about both at the same time!

In James Sire’s Habits of the Mind, the author relates a particular angst common to those of us occupied with the written word: “When I first visit a great bookstore–say Eighth Day Books in Wichita or Blackwell’s in Oxford–I am exhilarated. So many of the books I have always yearned to read are there. What a joy! But before I leave, a mild form of despair creeps over me. I will never have the time” (p. 171). I’m well acquainted with this despair, since, as you just read, Eighth Day is a prominent feature of my hometown.

This bookstore, owned and operated by the incomparable Warren Farha, is a treasure trove of classical literature and works by the Inklings; Patristic studies and Eastern Christian mysticism and spirituality; works of theology and biblical studies, philosophy, history, and local interest; children’s literature; works by (often award-winning) local authors; and antique texts.

I cannot communicate to you here the smells of books upon books mixed with old paper and a bit of coffee, or the soft sounds of string music playing in the background as the visitor indulges in the space and experience that is Eighth Day, but perhaps a few more images (click on any to enlarge) will give you some sense of the richness of this place that not only holds so many stories of magical realms, but could belong in them in the role of home: that place of comfort and refreshment to which characters in the midst of uncertain journeys so long to return.

If you have the time, enjoy Eighth Day’s website. If you ever have the opportunity, though, come to this wonderful bookstore in person. Enter into this very special space, and stay a while if you’d like. They won’t mind.