My Favorite Bible Stories

Everybody has a favorites Bible verse or story. Or, at least we all did when we were kids in Sunday school. Growing up, I always liked the story of David and Goliath. I’d like to say that I did because of the whole “little guy versus big guy” morality play at work there, but honestly, I think I liked it because it was the most violent story in the children’s Bible, and I was a typical little boy.

MFBS - InstagramAs I’ve grown older, I’ve given very little thought to the idea of a “favorite” Bible verse. I certainly enjoy the Bible, and get a lot of meaning from it. I revere it as the container of the tradition of God that I find myself part of. But picking favorites hasn’t been high on my list.

I think this is true for a lot of other people, too, at least at a meaningful level. What I mean is, I don’t think most Christians put a lot of conscious effort into thinking about what parts of the Bible they really like, and why. I think for a lot, the default answer becomes “john 3:16” or something equally vapid and typical.

In this series, I want to explore the stories and verses in the Bible that come up most often when I am thinking and writing about my faith. These are the things that have really stuck with me, the verses and stories that I would choose out if someone who wasn’t familiar with Biblical Christianity asked me for a handful of verses as a starting point. I’m not going to tackle them in some hierarchical or ordered way; instead, I will take them in the order they come in the Bible (with one exception.)

Throughout this series, I hope you will think about the same thing: what are your truly favorite parts of the Bible, and why? Please share in the comments what you come up with; I’m curious to see what people say!

And starting tomorrow: Genesis 18:16-33.

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Tradition as Dependent Source in Theology

The following is a paper I wrote last semester, for my Introduction to Theology class.

Scripture, Experience, Tradition and Reason: the four parts of the classic “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” now commonly accepted as the authoritative sources of the Christian faith. Debate about how these sources should be ordered or placed in a hierarchy is common ground for theology. This paper asserts that Tradition is the primary source through which is the Christian faith is apprehended. Experience, Scripture and Reason are each brought to bear on our faith, but only through the prism of Tradition. This isn’t simply an assertion that Tradition should come first in the hierarchy of sources; rather, Tradition should be understood as a dependent variable in the functioning of the other three primary sources.

The concept of tradition is made up of multiple understandings.  Merriam-Webster defines it first and foremost as “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom.)” Tyron Inbody, in The Faith of the Christian Church, gives three different understandings of tradition in the Christian context. First, “tradition is the set of practices and beliefs we learned in our local church.” (Inbody, 39) He extends this first definition not just to that which the average Christian learned locally in their church, but in the sense of churches being connected to a history two millennia in the making.

scripturescroll1Next, Inbody says that tradition “is used in a narrow sense to refer to the official teachings of the church that interpret Scripture or complement Scripture.” (Inbody, 39) As he points out, “dogma” is a way of referring to this understanding of tradition, tied to the Councils of the church and the inherited teachings of the early church leaders. Finally, he defines tradition as “The whole sweep of Christian history, which we can call ‘the Christian past’, ‘the Christian heritage,’ ‘the Christian inheritance.’” (Inbody, 40)

Using these definitions as guides, we can understand tradition as the sum of teachings, histories, practices, beliefs, ideas, and behaviors passed down by our Christian forebears in their own lives in the Christian faith. These accumulated pieces of tradition are then appropriated in two distinct ways by each Christian. First, in limited form, as the multitude of concepts contained in the different pieces listed above are too vast for any one person to comprehend in whole; rather, each Christian in influenced by it all not directly, but indirectly, in the sense of the weight each piece bears on the others. Second, the pieces are interpreted through specific contexts unique to each Christian. These two pieces could be classified as unmediated experience, the lived experience of each and every person as a whole. (Not to be confused with religious experience, which is the theologized experience of each person.)

Tradition is mediated through the religious institutions that Christians build and inhabit. The most common of these institutions is the church, where the majority of Christians go to learn about and interact with their faith. To this setting, Christians bring their own experiences, read the Scriptures, and deploy reason. The tradition of the church provides the guideposts for engaging these three sources in a way that makes sense in a Christian context. “Theology that does not root itself deeply in what Christians understand to be their sacred traditions cannot speak meaningfully to those Christians, nor can it hope to guide them in any meaningful way toward the God for whom they long.” (Ray, 16)

This received tradition, then, interacts with the other three primary sources of faith in a way that makes tradition essential to understanding those sources as legitimate lens for interpreting the Christian faith. Scripture is held by Protestants to be the central and most important source of the Christian faith. Inbody notes that “almost all Christians agree that without Scripture, theology would be unthinkable.” Yet, without tradition interpreting and orienting it, Scripture would be inscrutable and nonsensical. The stories, teachings, and psalms contained in Scripture all hold religious meaning for Christians because they have a tradition of meaning built behind them by the church and passed down from generation to generation. For instance, the story of Paul’s Damascus Road experience would simply be an ancient story of a mysterious encounter if tradition did not preserve the importance of the story for Christian lives today.

The road to Damascus also illustrates the importance of tradition in making meaning out of religious experience. For Paul to draw meaning from his vision, or from any believer to ascribe Christian relevance to their experiences, the tradition of the faith must be brought to bear. By interpreting our personal experience in the here and now through the lens of tradition, which includes the lived experience of more than two millennia, we are able to link our experience to Christ, and thus understand it’s relevance for our understanding of God and it’s role in our salvation.

bibleExperience is the primary source of human knowledge, generally speaking. All human epistemology is experiential at the most basic level. But as Inbody points out, “Everything we know, including what we know through experience, we know through our language and culture. Thus experience does not, and cannot, exist apart from a social context.” (Inbody, 50) In the Christian context, this language, culture and social situation is part of the tradition of the church.

Finally, reason used in understanding the Christian faith is conditioned by the tradition of the church. As Inbody points out, reason has a variety of meanings in the Christian context. (Inbody, 43-47) For simplicity sake, reason here is understood in essence as “faith seeking understanding.” Christians seek to understand their faith; the base human desire for order and understanding does not evaporate in religious settings. But, in Christianity, tradition still must play a role in the reasoning process. No one person is capable of comprehending and systematizing all of the Christian worldview on their own. Each person is indebted to the tradition of the the faith, worked out by a variety of minds across the history of humanity, as they construct their own view of God and Christ. For instance, a person may have their own unique view of the purpose and function of the Holy Trinity. But that person is dependent in the first place on the tradition of the church regarding the existence and structure of the Trinity, something that is not necessarily self-evident in Scripture itself, but was arrived at through the traditioning process in the early centuries of Christian history.

Of course, their are limits to the role of tradition in the interpretation of Christianity, and dangers inherent in it’s use as the primary source of theology. As Ray and Schneider point out, tradition co-opted by hegemonic power can become destructive: “A religion formed and sustained by top-down power reveals only human power.” (Ray, 40) Tradition can be wielded against the interests of God’s people; it’s normalizing power can be used in the pursuit of power at the expense of others, shutting down alternate views as on contradiction to itself. This is why it is important that the traditioning process be open to all Christians, no matter their station or situation, and that they each be allowed to interact with tradition in a way that sustains and promotes abundant life. God is revealed as the primordial powers of life and love; any tradition or use of tradition that denies or obscures this fact is illegitimate and hegemonic. Theologian Karen Baker-Fletcher puts it beautifully: “The God of life is the norm and ultimate concern of theology…Without the power of life, there is no breath for God-talk.” (Baker-Fletcher, 39) To put it in the words of a contemporary cry for justice, tradition without the life-giving and loving presence of God inspires the lament of the late Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe!” Life is choked out by a tradition bent on power and control rather than abundant love.

Christian theology is inevitably a construct serving a specific purpose. As Ray and Schneider write in Awake to the Moment, “All theology is constructed out of the best efforts of human beings to understand the ineffable reality and experience of divinity in the world.” (Ray, 12) Luckily, each Christian is not required to construct out of nothing. Their is a rich and powerful tradition available to Christians in the making of theology. Crucially, this is not an optional mode of theologizing; all Christians are subject to the tradition: “all of our theological ideas are also constructed – none of them fell straight from heaven without passing through the sieves of human interpretations, languages, wonderment. This is not to say that theology is not inspired by revelations of God, rather that our attempts to understand those revelations always involve interpretation.” (Ray, 38) That interpretation requires an interpreting tradition that delineates what is and isn’t within the bounds of Christian thought. This isn’t to say that bounds can’t be pushed and stretched to envelop new ideas. But even that pushing and stretching requires the tradition already established to relate to and orient towards the center of the faith, which is Jesus Christ.

 

Bibliography

Baker-Fletcher, Karen. Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective. St Louis: Chalice Press, 2006.

Inbody, Tyron. The Faith of the Christian Church: An Introduction to Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.

Merriam-Webster. “Tradition.” Last Modified September 11, 2017. Accessed October 10, 2017. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tradition.

Schneider, Laurel C. and Stephen G. Ray Jr., eds. Awake to the Moment: An Introduction to Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016.

Doctrine and Dogma in the Bible

The following is an essay I wrote last semester, for my Introduction to Theology class.

Understanding the difference between dogma and doctrine can more easily be done through the use of examples. Reflecting on two well-known parts of Christianity, and how each operate within the concepts of dogma and doctrine, serves this purpose well. This paper will explore Christology and Creation in order to delineate the difference between doctrine and dogma.

Christ is understood commonly as the center of the Christian faith. As Tyron Inbody writes, “For Christians faith in God is christomorphic (Christ-shaped.) Faith is Christian when Jesus Christ is decisive for faith in God.” (Inbody, 189) As such, there are certain beliefs about Christ that are normative for Christianity. The Apostle Paul provides a strong set of dogmatic statements about Christ in 1 Corinthians 15. He writes, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-5 NRSV). Within just these few statements one finds the centrality of belief about Christ: he died, was buried, was resurrected, and experienced again by those close to him. These, at a minimum, constitute dogma about Jesus Christ. Very few would debate the inclusion of any of these points as Christian dogma.

Many Christians would, however, debate the line being drawn at those four things only. For instance, some groups would see as necessary the inclusion of his birth to a virgin, or his miracles, or the manner of his death, or a physical, bodily resurrection. The presence of a debate about the subjects, however, shows the presence of doctrine within Christology. The reality of the Resurrection is surely a dogmatic point. What form that resurrection takes is the stuff doctrine. Was is a physical body reanimated? Was it mystical visions? Was a new body constituting the essence of Christ experienced? Christians can debate these issues, and form traditions around them. They are doctrines. The resurrection is not.

The belief in resurrection serves a salvific purpose in Christianity. No matter the way it occurred, something about the resurrection stands as a saving moment for Christians. This is what is important ultimately about the event, and what makes it dogma. The specific salvific mechanism present is never explained in scripture, and thus is of secondary (doctrinal) importance. One need only affirm the reality of a resurrected Christ to be a Christian; to draw the line of inclusion in the faith at atonement instead is to distort the boundaries of the Christian faith.

creationfomanBeliefs about the creation of the world by God can also showcase the difference between doctrine and dogma. A pillar of Judeo-Christian thought is that God created the world, and everything in it. Few Christians would debate this notion. But how did that creation take place? When did it happen? Is it still happening, or is creation finished? These questions and more all shape doctrinal statements about creation.

Genesis provides two conflicting accounts of the creation narrative, the first appearing 1:1-2: 3, and the second in 2:4-3:23. The presence of two stories already opens up opportunities for doctrinal disagreements. Additionally, the growing knowledge in science about geology and cosmology and the beginning of the universe calls into question the story recounted in Genesis, and instead reveals it as meaning-making myth. Consequently, the only sure statement about creation that can be proclaimed in that “God created.” This statement reveals crucial knowledge about the nature of God. Beyond this, all understanding is left up to interpretation.

Did God create the world six thousand years ago? Or did God use the Big Bang and evolution? Are we all descended from Adam and Eve, or primate ancestors originating in Africa? The answers to these questions as they relate to a theological understanding of the creation of the world are not included in Scripture. What we can know is that God created the world. That is a statement of dogma. Any statement beyond that that purports to explain the mechanism of divine creation is doctrine.

The drawing of limited lines to determine what is dogma and what is doctrine is important to the maintenance of a Christian faith that values and nourishes freedom of conscience and individual decision of each person to become a Christian or not. Stopping at statements such as “Christ was resurrected,” or “God created” when making dogma, while leaving further speculation open, allows each and every Christian to ability to interpret and experience faith in a way that speaks authentically to them. Ultimately, the goal of Christianity is to bring human beings into communion with the divine, as revealed through the life of Jesus Christ. Setting markers that make this more and more difficult is theological malpractice.