Wednesday, January 18, 2017

No Idle Claim III

by Henk Hart

Scrub Hare, photo by Henk Hart
The ruminant hare of Leviticus 6:11 was unclean. Today we can enjoy it as a delicacy.
The third blog on Scripture ends the series with a brief presentation of how I think we can meaningfully read the Bible today.
Each religion will uniquely approach its sacred writings, Christianity is no exception. So how would my two preceding blogs relate to the Bible? New Testament theologian N.T. Wright has used the metaphor of a play in three acts for how the Bible, seen from a Christian perspective, unfolds the Spirit’s guidance on the human journey. Act one, the Old Testament, tells us the initial story of people living with God’s hopes and expectations. In act two, the New Testament, Jesus and the early church focus on the deepest spiritual core of act one. In their vision the living Spirit in the Torah could be followed beyond the law of Moses. For them Torah, as living source for the fullness of God’s grace, called for a life firmly rooted in love, free from specific rules and regulations experienced as permanent law. The third act would be written by the church in the freedom of the Spirit, seeking a constantly renewed and renewing embodiment of love in acts of grace and compassion shaped for their time.

The church seems to have been tempted to close the Biblical canon and to treat the NT as a definitive guide for the ages, not only in its spirit, but also in its actual rules. Over the centuries some of these rules have often not been followed, such as those about head covering, long hair, or the place of women, because they no longer fit later times. But there has been scant appreciation for the character of all NT rules as time bound. NT rules are then read as exempt from the NT’s own prohibition of new laws.

The gospel of John is helpful in this regard, because it shows the dynamics of following the NT’s Spirit when we adapt its letter to our times. In 5:39 Jesus points out that the Scriptures as guide to life must be read as bearing witness to him. So when in 1:14 John refers to the Word Incarnate as full of grace and truth, he tells us that in Jesus we experience the presence of God’s emeth and chesed. Focused on Jesus and guided by the Spirit the Bible becomes book of forgiving and life giving love. All its deepest spiritual intuitions serve to generate this love. Hence the importance of 8:11 where Jesus embodies the forgiving God. He does not condemn an adulterous woman as the law requires, but writes a new commandment of love. When John (14:6) talks about Jesus as way to God, he has in mind a spiritual dynamic rather than a new set of rules.

In the discourses of the upper room, 14-16, Jesus explains that following him after his death is made possible by the spirit of truth (i.e., of chesed and emeth), who will unfold for us the way to God as lived by Jesus. The Jesus to whom the Torah bore witness is the same Jesus made known to us by or in the Spirit. In Acts 10 and 11 Luke portrays the change from Torah as a specific law to following the Jesus of love: a radical move that engendered serious struggle among Christians. Peter, in a dream he accepts as coming from the Spirit, trusts that diet rules of the Torah are no longer the language of the Spirit for following Jesus.

The NT does not erase the Torah, but frees the Spirit’s arch blessings from being captured in a timeless specific tradition. The Spirit of the Torah and the Spirit of Jesus do not differ. Being “in Christ” is not different from loving God with all our being (Deuteronomy 6:5). But Paul ceaselessly teaches that freedom in the Spirit prohibits slavery to any rule bound tradition. Our lives are to be lived “in Christ,” or in God or in the Spirit. At the same time, he teaches concrete ways for the Spirit to lead people on their way. These actual NT paths of the Spirit belong to their own time. The Spirit of Old and New Testament remains God’s and Jesus’ Spirit. That Spirit lived in these Scriptures to show the way to love and life and will always remain recognizable in the actual rules of these Scriptures as spiritual footprints of old. But living “in the Spirit” today will ever require forging new paths to make the Spirit recognizable in our own time. And, as Leonard Cohen might say, what’s written in the Scriptures is not an idle claim.

Even the Old Testament unmistakably distinguished the Spirit of Torah from the letter of the law. Jeremiah (7:21-23) virtually denied that God had ever commanded the sacrificial instructions that people mistook for the heart of Torah. Isaiah (56:3-5) foresees that the spirit of Torah will one day set aside the prohibition that kept eunuchs out of the temple (Deut. 23:1).

When the apostles teach us to follow a “spirit” and not a law, they still set out actual paths of the Spirit for their time. These NT paths are footprints of the Spirit that we follow to make rules for our own time. 1Corinthians 7 is a clear and extensive example of how an apostle can struggle with a contemporary issue.  Paul wants to help Corinthians with guidelines for marriage. Being single, he has no experience and the Old Testament has few insights he can lean on. So, flexibly, he makes a concession that is not a command (6), gives a command he considers the Lord’s (10), makes rules that are his and not the Lord’s (12), lays down his own rule for all churches (17), offers his personal judgments as a reliable person (25), and presents his view as one who has the Spirit of God (40). Paul’s mature New Testament confidence in his own judgments as a follower of the Spirit sets out the heart of living with the Scriptures in the Spirit in our own times. They teach us to follow Jesus, whose Spirit leads us along paths of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

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