Saturday, 27 September 2008

Scripture - to rule or to serve? - A discussion with reference to Karl Barth

If you ever take the time to read the beliefs section in Protestant Church's they nearly all say - 'We believe in the Bible as the infallible word of God'. This is usually the very first thing they say about their beliefs. This has always confused me, primarily because it is such a vacuous thing to assert on it's own. None of the Church's statements spell out what they actually mean by the assertion that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. In any case they are still articulating their beliefs about Scripture first and before they articulate their beliefs about Christ. This has concerned me for quite some time. Surely any Christian Church owes its existence and beliefs to Jesus Christ, and as such, should articulate these beliefs first. I think the current prejudice towards Scripture before Christ is wrong. Its should be the other way round. Scripture points to and attests to Jesus Christ and as such is subservient to Him.

John 1 verse one tells us that 'in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God'. From the outset then we can see that the notion of the 'Word of God' is only properly appropriate to Jesus. It is important to remember this in a discussion of the purpose of the Scriptures. Jesus Christ is the 'way, the truth and the life' in such a way that all Scripture serves the purpose of confirming and witnessing to His Lordship. Below is an extract from Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics which I think opens a Christian discussion of Scripture very well.

"What counts is that the Bible speaks and is heard. Again, the Bible cannot do it merely as the book of the law of the Church's faith and order. To the degree that it is treated as such, it is in fact, controlled. Lke the apostles, it does not will to rule but to serve. And it is where it is allowed to serve that it really rules; that it is not betrayed to any human control. It is not a prescript either for doctrine or for life. It is a witness, and as such it demands attention, respect and obedience - the obedience of the heart, the free and only genuine obedience. What it wants from the Church, what it impels the Church towards - and it is the Holy Spirit moving in it who does this - is agreement with the direction in which it looks itself. And the direction in which it looks is to the living Jesus Christ. As Scripture stirs up and invites and summons and impels the Church to look in this same direction there takes place the work of the Spirit of Scripture who is the Holy Spirit. Scripture then, works in the service of it's Lord, and the Church becomes and is apostolic and therefore the true Church."

This is a brilliant piece of Theology regarding the purpose of Scripture. The ultimate purpose of Scripture is to attest to the supreme Lordship of the 'Word made flesh'. This is such a simple precept at the core of Christianity, and yet so many Church's, in my experience do seem to be guilty of this 'controlling' of the Scriptures to fit their own distinctive doctrines. Martin Luther, the great German theologian was very much aware of this danger of bending the Scriptures to fit our own ends rather than Christs.This leads him to apply a general rule of interpretation of the Scriptures which runs as follows; if a book of the bible is not Christ centered then it is not part of Canon. On this basis he rejects the book of James and its assertion that 'faith without works is dead'. Luther insists that the majority of Scripture insists over and over again that justification before God comes on the basis of faith through Jesus Christ and not works (see the entire book of Galatians, Hebrews, Romans, Ephesians if your in doubt!). I applaud Luthers spirit on these grounds and actually think he is being a responsible Christian in insisting on the grace of God (Jesus Christ) over and against everything (even Scripture) if it does'nt conform to the Lordship of Christ.

I would disagree with Luther's total rejection of James, but that is another issue altogether. Luther's challenge is that we worship Christ and be aware that we don't turn Scripture into an idol. I would agree that the Scriptures are the word of God, and that the very large majority of the Scriptures are reliable in themselves. Nevertheless I acknowledge that the authors of Scripture didnt write in a cultural vacuum and as such Scripture has small parts that are not applicable in the same way that they were then. This does not detract in the slighest from the claim that the Scriptures should be our first reference point for authority in all matters - I believe they should. It does however challenge the view that the authours of the Bible were incapable of error during the intense inspration they underwent in order to compose the various parts of Scripture. They were sinful men like us, and although I believe in the complete inspiration of Scriptures I deny their total inerrancy. This is because the belief in the total inerrancy of the Scriptures is very dangerously close to Idolatry. I am not going to waste time in this discussion going into which parts of the Bible I do not believe are Christ centered (and I don't believe there are many). The important thing to take from Barth's theology is that the bible is a servant of the true 'Word of God' who is Jesus Christ and insofar as Scripture is written by man (albeit inspired man) we should know how to interpret Scripture - that is, in light of the Lordship of the Son of God. Jesus is himself the Way and this demands that we understand all things in subjection to Him, including the Scriptures who serve to witness to his Lordship. Ultimately though Jesus is the man who 'destroys all categories' and in this way non of our concepts can fully incaptulate everything that is the phenomenon of Christ. It's worth trying though!

Quotations of Karl Barth for thought:

"Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way"

"In the Church which is charged with this ministry the committment of the member is beyond computation. There is no possible place for idleness, indifference or lukewarmness. No appeal can be made to human imperfection where the claim is directed to the very man whose incapacity and unworthiness for this ministry is known and admitted even when he is charged with it, without altering the fact that he really is charged with it. If there is no escape in arrogance, there is no escape in pusillanimity or indolence."

"Apart from and without Jesus Christ we can say nothing at all about God and man and their relationship one with another. Least of all can we say that their relationship can be presupposed as that of a covenant of grace. Just because it is a covenant of grace, it cannot be discovered by man, nor can it be demonstrated by man."

"It was no mere fabrication when the Early Church was accused by the world around it of atheism, and it would have been wiser for it's apologists not to have defended themselves so keenly against this charge. There is a real basis for the feeling, current to this day, that every genuine proclamation of the Christian faith is a force disturbing to, even destructive of, the advance of religion, its life and richness and peace....No sentence is more dangerous or revolutionary than that God is One and there is no other like him."

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Blaise Pascal on Doubt

A discussion of the Theology of Blaise Pascal in relation to doubt.

Blaise Pascal characterises the despair of the doubter as one who says the following:

“I know not who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am. I am in terrible ignorance of everything. .... I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another.... I see nothing but infinites on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more.”

He goes on to argue that because Christianity proposes affirmative answers to the purpose and ultimate telos (end) of our lives and the world, it therefore demands the attention of the doubter, especially the one who seeks to know the truth and thus end his doubt. This is worth remembering when discussing with atheists and agnostics. Their ultimate answer as to the purpose of life, revelation and the hope that stems from this is a resounding ‘not sure – maybe’ or even a flat ‘no’. How often do we hear people say ‘ I would like to believe but....” It is to this ‘but’ or ‘no’ that Pascal turns to his attention and says that a person could only have a legitimate problem or ‘but’ with God and Christianity if ‘they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction’ and still been left in despair or lack of faith. Indeed Pascal maintains that an open hearted and genuine search for the purpose of our lives in Christianity cannot leave us wanting. Moreover, Pascal contends that the only reason a person boasts about their apparently vain search for God is because they have not searched in complete sincerity of heart and have not treated the matter with the gravity it deserves. The issue of faith ‘concerns ourselves and our all’ and should therefore be approached as the single most important thing for us to find an answer to. According to Pascal it is only when we don’t do this that people say they have searched for God in vain. An honest, true search for God will lead us to him. Pascal wants people to pursue Christianity for what it is and not what we make it to be, and he contends that when we do this we will never be disappointed.
So then, after this rather rushed and sketchy overview of Pascal – what does he encourage the doubter to do to cure his doubt? Rather unsurprisingly he calls for them to attend Church, and to seek advice from Christians who have been ‘cured’ from similar doubts and to imitate their attitude towards it. He suggests that this will hopefully lead a person away from doubt and towards faith. “But this is what I am afraid of” could be a response of someone in such a position – nervous to make the first moves of faith. It is in this context that Pascal provides his wager argument (which is commonly misunderstood as an argument for the existence of God). Pascal reasons the following in response to this; given the doubters despair and their inability to solve the riddles of their own existence and the world, surely they have nothing to lose and should thus ‘bet’ on the existence of God and the pursuit of his will over and against a worldview which gives them no closure, no answers and no consolation. The answer for Pascal is obvious; bet on the existence of God; to whom/what else could we go?