Christianity Is Not A Belief

Last night at work I had one coherent thought (the Dayquil must have kicked in, however briefly): that Christianity has long been mistaken for a belief. It was one of those things that suddenly seem so embarrassingly obvious.

It is not a revolutionary thought. We’ve all heard the cliche “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” stuff, and that seemed revolutionary at first too, but that message didn’t seem to penetrate. These days, I usually hear that line from people who feel comfortable not bothering to engage with a church, or even any other form of Christian community, much less with the much harder work of actually following Jesus. The revolutionary, iconoclastic, non-religious nature of actually being a disciple of Christ, the call to dig down to the difficult and core notion of what it means to relate to the God of the universe, has become a cliche way to justify shedding the outward trappings of religion in favour of a similar level of complacency – now guilt-free!

So that wasn’t what I was thinking when I had my moment of clarity on the factory floor. What I was thinking is that Christianity is not a system of belief; that’s Christian theology. Christianity, or being a disciple of Christ, is an activity of sorts: specifically, an ethical system or approach that presupposes or assumes the content of Christian theology. Simply put, believing Jesus is God does not make me a Christian; acting like Jesus does.

This also is not new or revolutionary. It’s straight from the epistle of James. I think the profundity of the thought, and what makes it worth sharing here, is how easily and repeatedly we miss this. We have to keep giving it new terminology to keep the message fresh. When “faith without works is dead” (from James) failed to prevent hundreds of years of empty piety and emphasis on orthodoxy (right belief) without orthopraxis (right actions) in the name of God’s grace, we went to “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” which itself lasted about ten minutes before it lost any power to actually change our behaviour. How many other warnings, commands, and cliches have there been to tell us that Christianity is something we do more than something we believe or ascribe to?

This brings me back to another question that’s been rattling in my head for the past week: what really makes someone a Christian? Despite James’ insistence that faith without works is dead, when Pastor Tim Keller was asked this question by the New York Times last week he spent the whole interview talking about the things someone must believe. On the other hand, when Jesus talked to his disciples about who his real followers were, it was all about actions:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” – Matthew 25:34-46

Serious stuff. After years of study and familiarity with the Bible, this passage still always chills me, fills me with the “fear of the Lord,” erodes my complacency. Because it gets to the heart of the matter, and I don’t know how I measure up.

Nowhere here does Jesus say that people had to acknowledge his divinity in order to be saved. Nowhere does it say that they must “invite him into their hearts”, that they must attend church and tithe, that they must believe theological statements or hold certain moral values or views. In fact, the people he acknowledges as truly belonging to him are mostly ignorant of having served him at all.

Which is not to say that we should not believe the right things; rather, behaving this way, embodying the Kingdom of God through ethical engagement with our communities and society, is only really possible and makes sense if we have a vision of that otherwise invisible Kingdom. Theology gives us that. Worship is not what defines us, but rather what forms us into people who, in our actions and orientation to God, resemble Jesus. Maintaining Christian community is not the goal of discipleship, it is the context of discipleship – it’s where we serve one another, and it is from where we go out to serve other communities. And holding moral codes is not the content of the gospel, it is our defence from the things that can distract us from our service to God and others. None of these things make us a Christian, but they can all help; but separated from actually following Christ, these things can just as easily be stumbling blocks, giving us a false sense of piety and complacency that keeps us from actually becoming Christians. The “goats” in the passage above (and other similar passages – e.g., Matthew 22:1-14) thought they were on team Jesus, but had missed the most important part.

By putting beliefs, morality, church attendance, etc., ahead of ethics we have developed a religion that is “a form of godliness but denying its power” (see 2 Timothy 3).

Evangelicalism, or American Folk Religion?

I hate Evangelicalism. Or, at least, I think I do. Except that I’m pretty sure that I’m an Evangelical.

It’s complicated.

For anyone coming to BTS lunch this coming semester, we’ll probably be talking about what Evangelicalism is. Like most self-identifying Evangelicals, I’m unable to accurately define it. Is it a theological tradition? Well, yes and no: it’s not a denomination, and seems to draw from a wide variety of denominations and traditions, but its lineage can still be traced back to certain theological thinkers and groups. Is it a culture? Certainly, but it’s not a distinctly national culture, with there being Evangelicals around the world; and it’s not simply a subculture in each of the cultures it can be found, as those who claim it would often prioritize it over any other distinctives of their culture. Plus all of that theology stuff takes it beyond being merely cultural. Is it a political group? Sadly, yes; but not so sadly, it’s actually a major part of many different political groups on both sides of the spectrum. In short, it doesn’t fit any particular category very well.

So how can we define it? Theologically? As I said, its theological lineage can be traced to specific people and groups…but how many Evangelicals are even aware of this theological heritage? So do we define it by where it comes from (historically) if a very significant portion of those who claim the title are ignorant of its history and may even largely disagree with its founders? Perhaps. There are a lot of people (on all sides of the political spectrum) who claim to be American patriots and love to quote their constitution in ways that would make its writers shudder and weep, but that certainly doesn’t make them less American at heart, whether or not they actually live there.

So do we define it by those who claim it? Such a wide variety of people claim the title Evangelical, and they vary not just in culture (coming from around the world), politics (from across the political spectrum), or theology (Calvinists and Arminians and Open Theists; High church and Low church; just war theorists and pacifists; etc.), but also in their own definition of what Evangelical means. I’d wager that most Evangelicals have a very vague notion of what it means, and that most of us have always assumed the title uncritically. So the conventional wisdom of simply asking an Evangelical what Evangelicalism is might not get us very far.

These are some of the questions that we’ll be exploring this semester, but as I’ve been preparing for the discussion I must admit that I’ve gotten bogged down in frustration. I hate Evangelicalism (which is not to say I hate Evangelicals), not least because I don’t know what it is and because I am one. This is a bit of an identity crisis for me in that sense. It’s good to be self-critical, or critical of our own traditions, but I can never tell if I’m being self-critical or simply pissed off about bad theology, rotten politics, and regressive culture. All of those things are part of the label “Evangelical”, and the people I’m irritated with often do those irritating things in the name of Evangelicalism (sometimes not even in the name of God, though that’s bad enough!).

It’s kind of posh to be a disaffected Evangelical these days. It’s sort of a Christian hipster thing. Christian bloggers talk about their experience coming out of conservative Evangelicalism and its culture, politics, and theology, and how they rediscovered Jesus and connected with progressive churches and all sorts of genuinely awesome things. I’m not talking trash about them – I love them, read them, and sometimes try to emulate them – but I’m starting to get the impression that every Evangelical in my age category and younger is just like me and Rachel Held Evans. In fact, I assume this to be true, and I’m quite skeptical when I’m told that Evangelicalism is actually a theological tradition that is still alive today. I catch myself assuming that people who claim the title of Evangelical are either ignorantly snared into American fundamentalism (which exists here in Canada, too), or else they’re courageously trying to redeem the word by bringing some theological nuance and weight to it. And then I hate myself for hating Evangelicalism, because I recognize how badly I’m reacting to something. Something I can’t even define.

Do I really hate Evangelicalism? Not really. I don’t hate it as a theological tradition (though I’m not sure how much I agree with the distinctive views of its historical leaders). I hate it when bad theology is legitimized by having the term Evangelical slapped onto it though, and I hate the fact that the term itself legitimizes anything, and I hate the fact that so many people buy into bad theology because of it. Do I hate the culture? Well, it’s hardly a uniform culture, but there are certain aspects of the culture that I’m not a big fan of. I don’t like the so-called Evangelical approaches to sin (we tend to focus on it rather than on grace), sexuality (we tend to focus on shame and spiritual existence rather than on living in the fullness of the bodily existence for which we were created), art (we tend to have bare walls in our churches, and our cultural expression is usually limited to inane Christianized facsimiles of more original “secular” art), and so forth. But how much of those emphases are distinctly Evangelical, and how many of them are more narrowly Conservative or Fundamentalist or American?

Ultimately, I hate the way my religion is abused. I hate when the pretenders, the ignorant, and the misguided use my religion and my people as a shield for their own actions, views, and goals. I hate when something as important as an idea gets corrupted, and I hate it even more when that corrupted idea spreads faster than the truth it’s based upon. That’s folk religion: when what people believe and do differs from the actual religion they claim, and they don’t even know it. Evangelicalism, because of its varied and difficult-to-define nature, is the catch-all for all American folk religion. It’s the label for every non-denominational church that lacks affiliation as a way of lacking accountability; every church of the cult of nationalism; every health-and-wealth swindler (though they claim “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal” too, but those also fall under the umbrella of Evangelicalism all too often); every cultural Christian who knows very little about what they believe but will enforce that belief on others with impunity (and often with disastrous consequences); every political group that wants to gain support from Christians of nearly every stripe (because nearly every type of Christian in North America can claim the title Evangelical for some reason or other); and so on. These types of Christianity often have very little to do with Christ, and they bear his name in vain. I hate that, very deeply. What I hate more is that most of the people involved in folk religion are completely ignorant of the fact, but that some of them know all too well, or should know better.

So, for a lot of reasons, I think we should get rid of the term Evangelical altogether. It’s nearly impossible to define, and the lack of a clear definition leaves it wide open for abuse. Let’s stop trying to renew it or reform it, because we’re only prolonging the life of numerous folk religions that do violence to more legitimate uses of the term, as well as to the people who follow them. If we absolutely must have a broad-reaching term for followers of Jesus, I propose we stick with the old classic: Christian. Let’s be Christians, and make it very clear who we’re named after. Once we have that down, we can identify particular theological traditions and cultural expressions and political affiliations. I have a feeling that not all of us will get that far, and that we’ll be much happier trying to look like Jesus rather than spending our time defining our niche.

If there are no Evangelicals, then we’re simply left with Christians. Those people aren’t hard to figure out, and pretty easy to identify with and love.

Authority, Politics, and Power

Last night as I was falling asleep I couldn’t stop thinking about authority in its different senses. Of course, when falling asleep my thoughts tend to be basic, half-formed, and repetitive, but I still had a sense that it was an important thought to work through, even though I’m sure I’ve worked through it before. Sorry for any repetition.

There are two main views on authority, that I know of. One is dominant in discussions of theology, and it has to do with correspondence to truth: a view or a witness is authoritative because they correspond with reality, or they are true. The Bible is authoritative because it gives true representation of God, but also because it is believed to be given by God, who himself is trustworthy and true.

The second view of authority is a sociological view, in which authority is something that the people who are under authority bestow upon those in authority. We obey our leaders because they are our leaders, but they are our leaders because we have collectively agreed to obey them. Children grant authority to just about anyone who’s older than them, agreeing that these older and wiser people can tell them what to do; teenagers refuse to grant authority even to those who may have a legitimate claim to it, such as their parents.

Authority in both senses tends to create positions in which that authority is held. Nobles became nobles because they led people through times of trial, and the people granted authority to them; being entrusted with this authority, they took on a role as leader and protector of the people, and passed that role on to their children. Many of those children had no such leadership skills, and flouted their responsibility, but the role or position of lord maintained authority, and people continued to invest authority into that position even if they disagreed with how one particular lord fulfilled the duties of that position (or failed to do so). In the same way, the Office of the Prime Minister began in Canada as the PM’s secretary, and the PM was just the first among peers in the House of Commons; but during wartime, we granted the Prime Minister the ability to give special powers to other MPs and form a Cabinet to help with wartime decision making, as well as expand the staff in his Office. Now the PMO has over 100 people in it, and there are 39 members of the Cabinet, all of whom have more power than a regular Member of Parliament; every successive government has grown the size of these institutions, investing more authority in them in spite of the fact that Canada hasn’t been in active combat for most of its history, and is not currently so. The position remains, and the authority of that position remains, so long as we continue to agree to grant authority to those positions (the sociological definition of authority). We will continue to do so until it has been proven to us that these positions are arbitrary and incorrect – until the positions themselves have lost any sense of correspondence to truth or reality (the correspondence sense of authority).

So here we see how the two positions are connected: so long as we believe that the person in the position of authority has authority in the first sense (that they are truthful and trustworthy), we continue to grant them authority in the second sense by granting them the respect and obedience due their position. The trouble is, when we’re talking about authority we tend to confuse it with power. The sociological definition of authority is “the legitimate or socially approved use of power.” Power itself is the ability the person in authority has to carry out the duties of their position: they can tell us what to do, because we’ve given them the authority to do so in recognition of their trustworthy and reliable nature or character. Perhaps, then, I should call this a third view of authority: that we grant authority to someone in recognition of the power that they hold over us. Because at a certain point, we only obey those in authority (and thereby continue to give social sanction to their use of power) out of fear of their power over us.

As someone who’s keenly interested in both theology and politics, this makes me ask: what kind of authority does God have, what kind of authority does government have, and how do the two exercise the power that comes with that authority?

In the first and third senses, God is the ultimate authority. He is completely and ultimately trustworthy and the only one in existence with access to all of the facts – therefore, he is an authority on everything. And he is also omnipotent, having the power to exercise ultimate control over everything in existence should he so choose. Usually theologians think of God’s omnipotence and omniscience when they think of his authority. The trouble with the theological emphasis on this third form of authority (that is, giving power someone in recognition of their existing power over us) is that it is the weakest or lowest form of authority, and tends to be recognized as illegitimate authority. It is the authority of a tyrant, or a mobster. If we only obey someone because they have the power to destroy us if we disobey, are we actually obeying? Do we owe allegiance to such an authority, or do we simply comply out of a sense of self-preservation?

When it comes to politics, things change a little bit. Politicians claim to have the first form of authority, as they claim to be experts who can guide our nation. We don’t often believe them, and a majority of Canadians didn’t vote for the current government, but they maintain the authority of their position nevertheless because of a combination of senses two and three  of authority: enough of us voted for them that they can claim that the people have granted them authority, and for those who dissent they exercise the power that comes with that authority, arresting and beating peaceful protesters (as in Toronto at the G20 protests a few years back). That exercise of power is widely recognized as being illegitimate use of authority, but so long as enough people continue to vote for them, they can claim legitimacy. We continue to renew their authority, even as they continually undermine any sense of being authoritative (in sense one, of being trustworthy and expert) by their misuse of authority (in sense three, of the ability to exercise power over others).

So, God has a perfect claim to sense 1 (trustworthy, expert), while any politician who claims that has a weak claim at best. God has very little authority in sense 2, in that a minority of human beings acknowledge, trust, or obey him; we tend to ignore him, or at least, ignore his commands. But for politicians in a democratic system, authority in the second sense is the only thing that grants them access to any authority or power at all. And while politicians often rely on authority in the third sense (the exercise of power to maintain authority in the sense of social sanction), their use of it actually undermines any authority they may have in the first sense (of being true or trustworthy) even when they’re successful at using it to shore up public support and authority in the second sense.

It appears, then, that senses 1 and 3 are mutually exclusive. If someone relies upon the use of power in order to maintain their authority, their credentials as a suitable expert whose commands are trustworthy is undermined.

Perhaps this is why, in spite of having all power in the universe, God chooses not to exercise it over the wills of human beings. He’d rather be respected and followed because of his character and correspondence to truth. This is why Jesus, having access to a legion of angels, submitted himself to the illegitimate use of power by the Romans rather than exercise his own, more legitimate  power (more legitimate because of the legitimacy of its source, in God).

Not long later, Jesus told his disciples “All authority [often translated as “power”] has been given to me in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18). What does that mean, when governments and tyrants still hold power over people? What Jesus is saying is that he is the primary authority, and that because he alone is completely legitimate and trustworthy. We still grant authority to governments, but their authority is only legitimate insofar as they conform to reality or are trustworthy, and the benchmark for their legitimacy and worthiness is now Christ. That is, a government is legitimate when it is Christ-like. A ruler is legitimate when they are Christ-like.

Does this mean that all governments should be Christian? It’s not necessary to be Christian by creed or culture in order to act like Christ (though that is difficult for us all). There is no mandate in this statement for Christian culture or worship to be required of all governments or authorities. Christ himself never mandated that people follow him, he only invited – again, because he refused to exercise authority in sense 3, using his power to make people obey. In fact, I don’t think that it’s coincidence that it was after his execution at the hands of unjust authorities, in which he refused to exercise his unlimited power, that he proclaimed that all authority had been given to him. It is because of his refusal to exert power over human beings that he proved his worthiness to hold all authority and power. It is the most powerful person who never needs to use their power, and there is nobody else who can be trusted with that power.

So what does that mean for me, a Christian citizen? I continue to invest authority (sense 2) in my government only insofar as they are proved responsible and trustworthy (sense 1), which can be measured largely by how carefully they use their power (sense 3). When they abuse their power, I speak up and, whenever possible, step up. When a government proves itself illegitimate and must be reformed or removed, it is absolutely crucial that it is done so in a non-violent manner. In a violent revolution, those who recognize that their authorities are illegitimate due to a lack of sense 1 and 2 are just as illegitimate as the existing authorities they attempt to overthrow, as both sides are simply competing for power (sense 3), which undermines sense 1 and therefore sense 2. A true revolution is one in which those who have only power are overthrown by those who have only true authority: those who are right, trustworthy, and true. True authority is given freely, because it is objectively and truly deserved.

What would this mean for a political party or government? Strive for truth, justice, and goodness, and you’ll have authority even if you don’t have power. (I think that the Green Party has authority in sense 1, even where it’s not recognized with the granting of the power to rule as in senses 2 and 3). If you have to sacrifice those things in order to gain senses 2 and 3, then you don’t deserve them and won’t be able to maintain them with any sense of legitimacy. Strive for truth, justice, and goodness, and recognize that this might mean that you won’t get re-elected; do it anyway, and see how people respond. Be a one-term government, and if you do it well, you might get another term. You might not, but it will still have been worthwhile.

A Review of Flame of Love by Clark H. Pinnock

Pinnock, Clark H. Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996. 280 pages.

Pinnock begins by defining the Holy Spirit as a member of the Trinity, emphasizing the social nature of the Trinity to not only clarify the concept of Trinity, but also to clarify the being and role of the Spirit, which is traditionally the most obscure member. The Spirit is not only active in our redemption and piety, but also in creating and sustaining the world (chapter 2); acknowledging this helps us to have a more integrated theology, as well as improving our integration of theology with science, questions of origins and death, our understanding of humanity and the human spirit, and our motivation for environmental stewardship.

Pinnock then describes a “Spirit Christology” (chapter 3), framing the Incarnation and Atonement as part of a work already begun by the Spirit (in prevenient grace), empowered by and dependent upon the Spirit (empowering Christ in his kenosis), and unifying humanity with Christ to participate in his representative recapitulation, thus emphasizing the saving power of his life and resurrection as well as his death. The church is the continuing incarnation and mission of Jesus in the world, empowered and directed by the Spirit, who is experienced in the church through both sacrament and charisma, and requires both in order to be a healthy and holistic tool of the Spirit for Christ’s mission (chapter 4).

Salvation is described not as a legal transaction of justification, but as a journey of being brought into union (at-one-ment) with God through the power and love of the Spirit, as evidenced in normally-charismatic events such as conversion, baptism, and Spirit-baptism, which should all be read as one event that may unfold over time rather than as distinctive events; charisma and tongues should be seen as normal rather than normative, and read in light of our growing union with God, which predates our conversion and is present in the world in God’s prevenient grace, as the Spirit works to make a new creation, part of which is forming us in the likeness of Christ (chapter 5).

As for access to salvation, historic emphasis on the particularity of the mission of Christ has distracted from the universality of the prevenient mission of the Spirit, whose universal activity in the world, including in other religions, can be recognized in light of the particularity of Christ, allowing us to hope for all others (chapter 6).

Pinnock finishes by describing revelation as God’s self-revealing (as opposed to liberal experiential models or conservative notions of timeless principles), mediated by the Spirit who both inspires and illuminates Scripture and safeguards it through the Spirit’s presence in and gifts to the Christian community, which is empowered to discern truth in consultation and unity with the body of Christ; in this way God’s self-revelation is both eternal and timely (chapter 7).

Pinnock’s approach is a breath of fresh air: a systematic pneumatology, written for a popular audience! Doubly rare! He focuses on how the Spirit has been neglected in theology, and points out how a more robust pneumatology helps us to solve theological debates, providing a synthesis that moves us past old arguments and into “both-and” solutions, doing so without excessive recourse to oversimplification of issues or to mystery. He writes with humility, acknowledging possible arguments and seeking support from many other traditions; he may be the most ecumenical baptist I’ve ever heard of! He’s often repetitive, and I felt that the book could have been cut down by about 1/3 without losing content, but his conversational and humble tone make up for it and allow me to recommend this book to readers of every level.

A solid “A”.

Sounds like a bad romance novel, I know. Don’t judge a book by its cover, or its title. Also, don’t search for this book title without safesearch on.

Why I’m Not a 6-Day Creationist

#HamOnNye, the recent debate at the Creation Museum between Ken Ham and Bill Nye “the Science Guy”, made a lot of headlines, and not necessarily a lot of sense. Though I didn’t watch it, I’ve heard enough about it to affirm that, like most public debates about religion between Christians and atheists, it missed the point entirely (at least in my opinion). That said, debates like these have one positive function: they start conversations. This debate started a lot of conversations about Genesis, human origins, and science, and I’ve been part of several such conversations this week. Conversations are great ways to figure out what you believe, because it forces you to articulate it. So here goes: Why I Am Not a 6-Day Creationist.


First, some disclaimers: I used to be a 6-day creationist. Big time. I understood the whole debate to be grounded in competing assumptions in scientific method, and tried to become an armchair scientist. This led me to embrace Intelligent Design, which seemed to take science more seriously and didn’t appear to start with Genesis and work backward toward science, as Young-Earth or 6-Day creationism sometimes seems to. Getting deeper into science was beginning to be a lot of work that I didn’t have time for, though, so I went back to my studies in theology and biblical studies, and it was there – in Genesis, not in the underlying assumptions of science – that I found a satisfying solution. Now I’m happily agnostic on the whole debate about human origins: I no longer find any tension between Genesis and science, and find scientific approaches to human origins mildly interesting at best. All that to say that I’m not going to argue for Creationism or Evolution (theistic or otherwise). I’m not going to argue about any scientific evidence, which is beyond my expertise and seems to be where the debate gets bogged down: issues of missing links, faults in carbon dating, theories of sedimentation, longer lifespans and global floods, are all vaguely interesting and completely immaterial to my understanding of Genesis. As I told one friend this week, I’m far more interested in the type of theology that these views espouse than in their scientific validity.

I loved this book, back then. I’m sure I still have it somewhere. I’m sure it makes some decent points, but I think that it misses the biggest one.

Another friend framed the issue for me pretty well, so I’ll try to paraphrase him: if Genesis 1-11 isn’t factually true, then the fall didn’t happen; if the fall didn’t happen, then humanity isn’t born in sin, and death is not a result of sin; and if humanity isn’t born in sin, then we have no need of a saviour. I hadn’t heard it phrased in (roughly) this way before, but that’s basically how it was presented to me growing up: if Genesis isn’t true, then the rest of the Bible isn’t true. So here’s why I disagree with each of those points, in turn.

1. Is Genesis 1-11 True?

Creationists sometimes argue that if Genesis isn’t true, then the rest of the Bible isn’t true either. That’s actually very reductive of their own position, but I’ve heard them argue it, so let’s explain it, starting with what they mean by “true”.

Often, the word “literally” shows up here: Fundamentalists (in the sense of the 19th-20th century theological movement, not “radicals” or “ultra-conservatives” as the media uses the word today) believe that Scripture should be read literally wherever possible. Many take this to mean that it should be read as factually true, in the sense that the Bible is read as true historical accounts that are factually accurate, having been passed down to us from the most reliable eyewitness, God himself. (After all, if we’re talking about the creation of the universe, he was the only eyewitness!) The downside of this approach is that to read the Bible this way, you must completely disregard the notion of genre. If you take the genre of the different books and sections of books in the Bible seriously, I don’t believe that a single word of it would fall into this (thoroughly modern) category. Put simply, ancient peoples didn’t read that way, let alone write that way. Even the “historical books” are highly interpreted, with absolutely no concept of “objectivity” on the part of the writers. They told their story of what happened, and often rearranged events to make their point more clearly, because their primary purpose was not to be an eyewitness but to provide a theological understanding of their history as a people – as the people of God. To read even these “historical” books as “factually” true is to misread them. A truly “literal” reading of a text must take its genre into account.

The genre of Genesis 1-11 is myth. This doesn’t necessarily imply that the events in those chapters didn’t happen, but only that they were written in a particular genre that highlights truths that are much deeper than the mere facts. The facts are that God created the world, but the details of these chapters focus on revealing God rather than giving a blow-by-blow account of what he did to create the universe. The structure of Genesis 1, for example, is borrowed from other Ancient Near Eastern creation myths, notably Egyptian creation myths; this was done deliberately to show how Israel’s God is different from Egypt’s gods. Genesis 1 is therefore not only myth, but a polemical document designed to compare and contrast with other documents from the same region. The flood account of Genesis 6 does the same with many Ancient Near Eastern flood accounts, the most famous being the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest known stories in human history (far older than Genesis). When you read Genesis in the context of the older mythologies from Israel’s region, it becomes clear that their purpose is far from scientific, and entirely about showing how Israel’s God is distinct from, and greater than, all other gods.

So yes, Genesis is deeply, “literally” true – but not necessarily factually true. It could be factually true, but that would have no bearing on whether or not it were true in the sense of whether or not it reveals true things about God – which is its true purpose.

Fundamentalists can apply their notion of literal or factual truth to the entire Bible because of their view of inspiration. The Bible is inspired by God, which implies that it is fully true – but the sense in which it is true depends on the sense in which you say that the Bible is inspired. Fundamentalists hold to “verbal inspiration” – meaning that God told the writers of the Bible exactly what to write, word for word. I believe that the Bible is inspired, but I don’t believe that it was verbally inspired; I believe that God speaks through human beings when human beings tell the truth, and that human beings participate with God by telling the truth at his prompting, and that this doesn’t require God to write it for us. This leaves me free to interpret Scripture in many different ways, seeing it as a collection of human-written books over a few thousand years in many different contexts and genres, and still find God within it. I should point out that a doctrine of verbal inspiration doesn’t require people to interpret the Bible as factually true, but even so, without the doctrine of verbal inspiration a factually-true interpretation of the Bible doesn’t hold up. The point here is that if you hold to this combination of verbal inspiration and a factually-true reading of the Bible, then if Genesis isn’t true the entire Bible is undermined; God must either be a liar, or not exist. I don’t think this is actually the case, but it certainly explains why some people argue for this view so tenaciously: their entire faith hinges on it. Thankfully, mine does not.

The Fundamentals. There’s a big difference between Fundamentalism as a Christian movement in the early 1900s and “fundamentalism” as we hear about it today, which usually means ultra-conservative radicalism. It was an important response to theological liberalism, but it wasn’t without its problems. Start here if you want to know where creationism as we know it today came from.

2. If Genesis 1-11 Isn’t (Factually) True, then The Fall Didn’t Happen

If Genesis 1-11 is factually true, then Adam ate a magical fruit (and I don’t mean beans) which gave him knowledge of good and evil and at the same time cursed all of humanity to sinfulness. This is incredibly problematic to me, and seems to lay the blame for all human sinfulness and misery at God’s feet: why would God even create a tree whose fruit was so incredibly deadly poisonous? Surely he’s smarter than that. That apple was more powerful than all of the weapons of mass destruction of history, because it (indirectly) created all of them. Yes, the sin was Adam’s (and Eve’s), in that they disobeyed God, but I’m not sure that a factual reading of Genesis 3 in a court of law wouldn’t end up with God being found guilty of criminal negligence causing Death.

If we are free to read Genesis as myth, though, everything changes. Adam (whose name in Hebrew actually means “human” or “humanity”) is representative of all human beings. It becomes a story that describes the human condition, rather than positing a single cause of the human condition. We’re all sinful, with Adam rather than because of him. Adam represents us all, in the same way that Christ represents us all: Adam represents our sinfulness, Christ represents our redemption. The fact that Paul makes this direct comparison in Romans has been used to support the existence of a historical Adam; I think it does the opposite, highlighting Adam’s representative function – a function that does not require him to be historically real as an individual human being.

If this is the case, and Adam wasn’t a real individual human being, then The Fall didn’t happen in a factual, historical sense. I’m okay with that; the implications of the Fall remain true, even if the event wasn’t factual, and a mythological reading of the text actually makes more sense because it implies that human sinfulness is the fault of humanity, and that we weren’t set up for endless torment by magic fruit. A mythological reading of Genesis 3 allows for the tree to be representative of human choice, a freedom that carries with it difficult consequences; God is responsible for giving us free choice, certainly, but that makes far more sense than God being responsible for giving us free choice and arbitrarily creating magical fruit. If the tree is supposed to be an actual, factual tree, then its presence is unexplained, and appears unwise; but if the tree is representative of choice, its presence is symbolic, and God is not responsible for giving us weapons of mass destruction.

Housecats in the garden of Eden? This artist (Hendrik Gultzius) must have been a creationist…

3. If the Fall Didn’t Happen Magically/Factually, Death Isn’t the Result of Sin

This is a slightly more serious objection. Scripture repeatedly links sin and death together, not least in Genesis 2 and 3. Adam and Eve are sent out of the garden, because if they were able to remain they would be able to eat from the tree of life and life forever. If we read this mythologically, as I believe the text requires, then the case for linking death to sin is even greater: mythologically, the tree of life is symbolic of relationship with or connection to God, who sustains our very being. This makes more sense than referring to more magical fruit, as though if someone were to find this tree they would still be able to live forever (like the “fountain of youth”).

In the Creation/Evolution argument, evolutionists must deal with the notion that evolution requires a continual cycle of death called natural selection – the idea that beneficial genes are passed on because creatures with less beneficial traits don’t survive, or the so-called “survival of the fittest.” If death didn’t exist before sin, then Adam couldn’t have been the product of evolution. Let’s keep in mind, though, that Genesis doesn’t say that there was no death before Eve ate the fruit; God merely said “if you eat of it, you will surely die.” Even then, this is only referring to Adam and Eve – the rest of the animals, even though they’re apparently all herbivores, aren’t mentioned in connection to the tree of life. There’s nothing anywhere saying that they can’t die, or that they weren’t dying for a very long time before Adam’s sin. So while this objection may appear troubling for evolutionists, I don’t think it’s as strong as it’s made out to be.

Some turn to Romans to make this argument, referring to Paul’s comparison of the old Adam and the new Adam (who is Christ). Paul says that through Adam we’ve received sin and death, and through Christ we receive forgiveness and eternal life. As I mentioned before, this compare/contrast doesn’t necessarily imply that Adam was a specific, historical individual, as Paul was trying to highlight him as representative of humankind; in the same way, I don’t think that this comparison implies that Adam’s sin invented death in a general sense, but only that Adam’s sin caused death, and even set a pattern of death, in contrast to Christ who brings life.

Eating the fruit didn’t cause immediate death, and nowhere is it implied that there was no death before the eating of the fruit. (Surely there was at least plant death, as all of the animals ate plants. Did any eat insects? Do they count?) Does that mean that sin is unrelated to death? By no means! Death is very, very often the result of sin – and sin very often leads to death, indirectly if not directly. Human conflict comes from sin, always. But did sin create viruses? Did sin create harmful bacteria, allergic reactions, natural disasters? Genesis says that God kicked humans out of the garden to cut them off from fruit that would sustain them forever, implying they’d never get old – but what if Adam fell off a cliff? We’ve traditionally interpreted Genesis as saying that all “natural evil” (illness, natural disasters, etc.) were part of the ground being cursed, that nature itself (including human nature) was somehow tainted by a single choice of disobedience. That’s a pretty big logical leap from what the actual text says (it relates the “curse” to the difficulty of farming, not the advent of earthquakes and viruses). The text itself is so vague that it ought to suggest to us that it wasn’t intending to factually retell the beginnings of all painful or damaging things. It doesn’t really comment on “natural evil”, because it’s focused on moral evil – sin and disobedience, and the hardship that they cause. So again, reading the text with the text, picking up its cues and emphases, leads us away from the problematic argument and toward a more simple and theologically sound exploration of the nature of God rather than the natural world.

In short, then, I’m okay with there being death before the Fall. It doesn’t make sin less sinful, or less harmful, to say that not all death is caused by sin.

“Take off, eh?”

4. If Humans Weren’t Born In Sin, Then We Don’t Need A Saviour

I think that this is a big logical leap. I’m sinful, whether Adam was a real guy or not: I don’t need to have been ‘born in sin’ in the sense of having inherited a sinful nature from a specific historical person who ate magic fruit in order to need a saviour. I need to be saved because of the choices that I’ve made, and even because of the choices that others have made, whether or not a historical Adam ate fruit. It’s been argued that if we weren’t born with original sin, which seems to be some sort of spiritual-genetic predisposition to sin, then it would be possible to be perfect and therefore wouldn’t need a saviour. I say that it is possible to be perfect (the Bible actually tells us to be perfect, several times), but that doesn’t mean that anyone (other than Jesus) is! We have enough food to feed everyone on the planet, but people still go hungry; we have the resources to eliminate poverty, but there are plenty of poor people; we have the technology to live sustainably, but we still burn coal and indulge in excess. Due to the systematic nature of the effects of sin, even if a lot of people were perfect they’d still need a saviour! I think that this objection only works with a very specific notion of salvation (individual spiritual salvation from hell), which only reflects a tiny bit of what God is working at in this world: a whole new creation, new society based on reconciliation and new relationships and structures, a place with no more sin and death. If you see salvation in a more holistic light, it becomes clear that the most perfect person in this imperfect world still needs a saviour.


To sum it up: I think that if we read Genesis in light of its genre (myth) and context (ancient near eastern myths and cosmologies) we have no basis for scientific theories in it. It’s simply not about creation science, which makes it a very shaky foundation for creation science. The implications of this are only theologically threatening if we hold to a certain type of hermeneutics (modern Fundamentalist notions of reading all texts as woodenly “literal” in the sense of objectively and historically factual), a position which is exacerbated by its combination with a certain approach to the doctrine of inspiration (verbal inspiration). It doesn’t necessarily have any negative effect on our doctrine of sin and death, and certainly not on our need for a saviour and our doctrine of salvation. Far from being problematic for other doctrines, I think that reading Genesis mythologically makes much more sense in light of the world as we know it, relieving tensions caused by reading the text in light of certain philosophical assumptions (determinism, etc.) and leading to a more holistic and integrated theology that allows for greater input from other fields, including science. In other words, if we stop trying to turn Genesis into science, we can allow Genesis to speak for Genesis, science to speak for science, and God to speak in all things.

On Being Subject to Authority

The church-community has, therefore, a very real impact on the life of the world. It gains space for Christ. For whatever is “in Christ” is no longer under the dominion of the world, of sin, or of the law. Within this newly created community, all the laws of this world have lost their binding force. This sphere in which brothers and sisters are loved with Christian love is subject to Christ; it is no longer subject to the world. The church-community can never consent to any restrictions of its service of love and compassion toward other human beings. For wherever there is a brother or sister, there Christ’s own body is present; and wherever Christ’s body is present, his church-community is also always present, which means I must also be present there. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (DBWE 4), 236.

An interesting take on political theology: rather than being subject to two kingdoms (Church and World) as Lutherans hold, Bonhoeffer says that we as Christians are only subject to Christ, no matter where we are or what we’re doing. There is no sphere in which we stop being Christians, united to Christ and to one another; wherever one Christian is, the whole body of Christ is with them.

Does this mean that Christians are not subject to the laws of the land? Yes! Does that mean that we should not obey them? By no means! We are subject to Christ, who demands even more of us than any law; all just laws still fall short of the demands of discipleship, and so obeying the law is the least service to Christ. If a law is unjust, then it is contrary to Christ and must not be obeyed. Even though we should not obey an unjust law out of a sense of patriotism, refusal to obey an unjust law is again the least service to Christ. Whether we obey just laws or disobey unjust laws, in either case we do so incidentally, not out of service to the law or to the nation but out of service to Christ, to whom alone we are subject.

This can be seen in the way Christians live in community without coercion. Acts tells us that they held all things in common and gave to everyone as they had need, providing for widows, etc. They did not collect taxes amongst themselves to do so, but everyone gave as they were able, voluntarily. What the law requires under coercion, Christians give freely as service to Christ. In this way we are not subject to even the best laws, because we surpass them in Christ.

There is no such thing as a Christian criminal in this sense, because if we transgress so far as to break the law, we have long since failed to fulfill the demands of Christian discipleship, that is, to follow Christ. And when we break the law in service to Christ, we are not called criminals but martyrs, prisoners of conscience or faith.

So in all things seek first the kingdom of Heaven, and the law will be satisfied.

Bonhoeffer’s Double Standards

I’m finally working through Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, which has been a long time coming. It’s the last book I need to read for the course I took in January, Reading Bonhoeffer, but I feel like it should have been one of the first Bonhoeffer books I read. It’s certainly one of the more accessible of his writings, though that doesn’t mean that it isn’t difficult. Perhaps challenging is the better word.

In Bonhoeffer’s day, German Lutherans had (apparently) been enjoying Luther’s doctrine of salvation by grace alone for a long time, to the point where grace had become an assumption, and thus had little power in people’s lives. Bonhoeffer starts his book by talking about “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He holds that costly grace, or real grace, comes as a result of obedience in faith. Faith cannot be separated from obedience. Faith and obedience are a sort of chicken-and-egg situation: do you obey because you believe, or do you believe because you obey? Ultimately, the answer is both, which can be hard to get your head around. In obeying, you show that you believe at the same time that you learn to believe.

This discussion of cheap and costly grace has helped me tremendously to understand Luther. Living hundreds of years later and never having actually read Luther, all I know of his thought comes through a massive game of Telephone, distorted by time and retelling. I know mostly about the abuse of the doctrine, but Bonhoeffer put Luther in perspective for me.

Luther was a penitent monk who had given up everything to follow Jesus (Monks aren’t exactly known for their wealth and worldly ways), had trained for years in spiritual disciplines, and then realized that he was saved by God’s gift to him, which he received in faith. None of his training or renunciation of the world, none of what he gave up to be a disciple, was what actually saved him. It was just Jesus, from the start. Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is not a renunciation of works – he’d probably do it all again – but rather a strong recognition that works in themselves will not save anyone. Even the most pious works can be done with self-serving attitudes or purposes, but even right purposes and attitudes are evidence of Christ working in us and not something that we ourselves can be credited with.

Does this mean that works, even if good, are not necessary? Not at all; as has already been said, faith cannot be separated from obedience. It was only after Luther had gone through all of those acts of obedience in faith that he could properly recognize that faith was all that was required. His life of obedience had been the soil in which faith grew (a notion that still provides the foundation for the Catholic doctrine of grace, in which we grow in grace by works of obedience that make us into people capable of receiving more grace from God). Luther, as a veteran disciple of Christ, was able to say truly and with full force that salvation is by grace through faith, and that works themselves are of no value to salvation; the same phrase coming out of the mouth of a new or lukewarm disciple is not true in the same sense, if at all. Luther’s grace was costly, coming after toil and sacrifice; but assuming grace as a principle and eschewing works altogether is cheap grace, or not grace at all. I see this as somewhat of a double standard, but a good one.

In chapter 3 Bonhoeffer talks about “simple obedience,” and again I see a double standard here. He uses the example of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. By asking this question, Bonhoeffer points out, the young man is actually trying to avoid the question: he knows the law and has followed it all his life. He’s looking for something more. Bonhoeffer says he’s looking for a way to avoid the question, to turn a commandment into a philosophical question to be discussed rather than obeyed. I was always under the impression that he was just insecure and wanted guidance. In either case, Jesus turns him back to simple commands that should be obeyed just as simply. Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.

We have a way of interpreting Jesus’ commands in an inward, spiritual way, that doesn’t actually require us to simply obey him. We don’t really need to sell everything we have and give it to the poor in order to follow him, we just need to hold our possessions so lightly that they have no hold over us, so that we could hypothetically sell them and give all our money away. Rather than actually doing so, it might actually seem better to hold on to our money and things so that we can remain in this state of hypothetical “obedience.” Our method of “obeying” can thus often mean doing the exact opposite because of our insistence on reinterpreting the command. Bonhoeffer points out that if we obeyed our parents this way, or obeyed the authorities this way, we’d be in serious trouble.

Again, there is a double standard here. We don’t all need to give our money away, and we don’t all need to take a vow of poverty. Doing so might even be a type of self-righteousness, or legalism, or some other negative thing. There are other commands in the New Testament that talk about holding our possessions lightly. But once again, it’s easy for some people to “obey” Jesus in this paradoxical sense, obeying spiritually but not actually. Bonhoeffer holds that this is cheap grace, claiming to obey but actually being disobedient. Those who have actually obeyed Jesus simply, though, and followed him, are capable of obeying spiritually. It’s one thing for a long time disciple who has been practising simple obedience for some time to talk about and practise obeying the spiritual intent of Jesus’ literal commands; it’s quite another for a less mature disciple to use it as an excuse to avoid Jesus’ straightforward commands.

The key to it all is formation: obeying Jesus in faith makes us into the type of people who have enough faith to obey.