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For Jason: God’s Word is the Living, Concrete, Historical Christ, who Encounters Us

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For Jason: God’s Word is the Living, Concrete, Historical Christ, who Encounters Us

by Dr. Peter Krey (November 17, 2010)

I just finished a blog about the campaign that atheists are planning this Christmas. They want to publicize some of the most blood-thirsty passages from the Bible in order to undo a believer’s faith in God. A point that they and many believers do not understand is that Christians do not “believe in” the Bible. That is a form of idolatry which can be called Bibliolatry. Immature Protestants want an inerrant Bible as an external authority to accommodate their faith much like the Roman Catholics have an inerrant pope and an authoritative magisterium. By the way, only a ministerium is appropriate to the teachings of Christ. We are forbidden by Christ to be masters and bidden to be servants. As Bishop Dolan told the nuns who came out in support of Obama’s health insurance reform, while the bishops took a stand against it: “We’re pastors and teachers, not just one set of teachers in the Catholic community, but the teachers.”[1] I guess that put the nuns in their place.

Both an inerrant pope and inerrant Bible compromise the meaning of faith. After Dietrich Bonhoeffer we have come to understand that we believe in the historical and concrete Jesus Christ, present and living amongst us because of his resurrection. Jesus Christ is the living Word of God, the Word become flesh, that is, the true God become a human being, promised in the Old Testament and witnessed in the New and his Kingdom will come on earth the way it is already experienced in heaven.

The evidence for our belief, our faith, our trusting in Christ comes from encounters we have with him, the Word-Person and the transformed lives we experience because of him. Such encounters with the living Christ in, with, and through his followers, send us on his mission of reconciliation, love, and compassion. Jesus is the Christ, the Prince of Peace, as opposed to a warlike Caesar, an emperor, a master of aggression and domination. The names, Kaiser, Tsar, Shaw, are merely translations of the same title Caesar. But Christ is the Prince of Peace. As opposed to military campaigns launched by earthly empires of the nations, he sent out his followers to do healing campaigns of both the mind and the body, to proclaim God’s reign on earth, so that God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven. Note: when we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” it sounds slightly quaint to our republican and democratic ears. Perhaps in its place we should use the “Beloved Community,” the way Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed it.

When writing a sermon I have always tried to uncover a little more truth and I pray for the courage to preach it. That also took place when in 1970 or 1971 I preached in the Wittenberg University Chapel in Springfield, Ohio for the students. The insight came from Gospel of John and it may well be the basis for what Bonhoeffer taught. This passage reads, “You search the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me for life” (5:39-40). Isn’t it strange the way Jesus says that you think you have eternal life in the scriptures? Jesus is saying that we need to take the further step to himself, the living Word of God. Christ cannot be pressed between the pages of a book like a dried flower. Flowers grow all around us alive out here in the world. We have to come to the concrete Christ here amongst us alive in the Holy Spirit and leading us into further truths, dressing us up in the Beatitudes that describe the new persons we become in his name.

I believe that the theology of Martin Luther of old can help us get a hold on some of the thorny biblical issues, both the moral ones and the historical ones, the errors found in the 66 books, that library of books called the Bible. (It’s difficult for me to speak of these errors so explicitly, but the scriptures have their human side.) Luther said, “The scriptures are the cradle in which the Christ child was laid; don’t mix up the Christ child with the cradle, the baby with the straw.” Distinctions have to be made and for making them a theological approach is needed to the Bible. Luther speaks of the Old and New Testaments as the 39 and 27 books as well as the old and new testaments, in terms of the witness to and promise of the coming Christ (the old) and the witness of his life lived from the cradle to the cross among us (the new); as well as his last will and testament (the service), when he speaks the words of institution in communion, making us his heirs. Christ and the Gospel of the Beloved Community he proclaimed are the promises of God for us, and not the inhumanities, atrocities, and injustices that God’s law and Gospel contend against.

It is certainly true that the sanction of slavery, genocide, the inferiority of women, and punishment of people for what their ancestors did can be found in its pages. But in the latter case, we have to celebrate the prophet and the time when the immorality of that practice became clear: “As I live says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used in Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge’” (Ezekiel 18: and 2), for “the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own” (20). Ezekiel declares that children will no longer be punished for the crimes of their parents and vice versa.

Now a Biblical literalist approach to scripture that cannot make the distinction between what the Word of God is against and what it is for, gets into outright moral confusion. In addition the problem arises that the biblical writers place these immoral commands, these bum-steers, so to speak, right into the mouth of God. Therefore the scriptures need to be read with the Holy Spirit as well as with a theological approach like that of Luther, in order to understand that the Gospel and the Christ, who proclaimed the Beloved Community and is thereby bringing it into reality, is fighting against these atrocities. This is what he taught his followers, the present-day Christs, the children of God, who are peace-makers, lovers of justice, who hunger and thirst for its realization in this sad world.

A case in point is the principle: “To all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Luke 19:26). In the spirit of Christ, “God fills the hungry with good things and the rich he sends empty away” (Luke 1:53). As a worldly principle, it is true enough, but it is not being championed by Christ as Gospel. It is against the mercy and compassion of Christ. We have to remember that because the devil also quotes scripture to his purpose, we have to discern the spirit in which the Bible is being cited. In addition, proof-texting, that is, using the scripture as if it were merely a series of independent verses without regard to context, its Sitz im Leben in the text as a whole as well as in its historical situation, usually violates the spirit in which the words were intended.

Biblical criticism in its higher and lower forms is also important for an accurate reading and use of the scripture – as much as believers have often rejected it, of course, if such a critical reading is done in the Holy Spirit and not used to reject the scripture’s witness to Christ. Lower criticism establishes the best readings of the text from the most trustworthy ancient manuscripts, while higher criticism in its many forms, can also help discern the spirit in which a text is read. If Christ himself was crucified and arose from the dead, then through all the forms of criticism, the Word of God will also once again arise from the crucified scriptures, full of grace and truth.

One time I remember with trepidation how I felt I had to preach against a text in Revelations, because I thought it taught the revenge of the martyrs. It was in the passage about the blood from the wine-press of the wrath of God that reached as high as a horse’s bridle. (See Revelations 14:20. The passage may well have another interpretation.) But Jesus said, “Father, forgive them they know not what they do!” He did not say, “God will get even with you for what you have done to me!” The higher criticism makes it possible for a believer to stand with the Holy Spirit against a text being used for evil purposes.

Just a word now about what seems like ancient plagiarism to us. “There are a number of books in the New Testament that claim to be written by people who did not write them.”[2] The ancients did not take the words of others and claim them as their own, but took their own words and wrote them under the name of an authority, some teacher or leader, much like Plato putting his words into the mouth of his teacher, Socrates. Perhaps thorough-going individuation had not yet taken place or perhaps people gathered together in a collective identity or it is possible that a school wrote under the name of its teacher. Thus our abhorrence for plagiarism can be anachronistic in some cases, while in others, like the Donation of Constantine and Pseudo-Dionysius, such plagiarism was as problematic for later history as today it is for us.

To reiterate, a theological approach to scriptures, reading them in the mind of Christ and under the influence of the Holy Spirit is important for believers. The theological approach of Luther also distinguishes between the law and the gospel, God’s commands and promises. (Scriptures speak to us in the structure of promise and fulfillment.) The many laws recorded in scripture are by and large, relevant to a particular time and place, one that varies immensely through the millennium in which the 66 books were written. But the Gospel, the promises of God and Christ, as the living Word of God with the Beloved Community he proclaimed, will always remain and that is what we believe in and can trust in forever and ever.

Considering the historical errors of the Bible, it must be said that the Bible is as little a text book in history as it is one for science. The Bible was not intended to be a history book and cannot meet Ranke’s historical standard of history as it actually happened. But don’t allow that to bury the pearl of great price that the Bible contains. According to Helmut Gollwitzer, the very unique character of the faith in scriptures is that, from the very beginning, it is derived from historical events.[3] Never is the faith, he continues, outside of the people’s history, or merely related to an unknown, end-time “God,” to whose providence one has to surrender, and such similar requirements, but here is an invitation to trust in a concrete, living God, who made himself known through concrete historical realities; a personal and compassionate power, able to be heard and called upon as the God of Israel (of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).[4] Thus [the Bible is a book of theology] because it features a [growing] faith that is grounded in these historical realities and challenges us to respond with faith as well in accordance with the historical covenant God made in it.[5]

[The scripture is about the living God active in history and the one who also encounters us in our personal lives, as already described by Bonhoeffer.]

Gollwitzer continues: in the scripture, historical realities are always words and actions related together. Not only the prophets, but all the people understood that their God’s hand was in the historical events that rescued or thwarted them. So the scripture understands the historical event as the deeds of a doer, namely God, who does them, and addresses his people through them. History for the scriptures is not an impersonal causal chain, but the actions of the One who [God, who saves, because of his sense of justice and compassion.][6] Thus whether the Exodus was small and insignificant in the eyes of the world or whether King David had a grand kingdom or was merely a local chieftain does not make a difference to the significance of the faith that understood God really at work saving his people, as a God reigning through history.[7]

When Jesus the Christ is born in the reign of Augustus Caesar and becomes crucified under Pontius Pilate, “God’s Word and deed, become concentrated in this one historical and living Person,”[8] the Christ, who is the Word of God become a human being, who in the last days will lead all the nations through a universal Passover and Exodus into the Freedom of the children of God and the rebirth of mother earth. Amen.

[1] “Catholic Bishops Pick New Yorker as Their Leader,” The New York Times, Wed., November 17, 2010, page A16.

[2] Jason Zarri, “Where I stand on Christianity,”  (November 13, 2010) from his website, Reflections on Religion, I wrote this whole essay in response to his article.

[3] I am following the words of Helmut Gollwitzer closely in  Denken und Glauben: ein Streitgespräch, (Thinking and Faith: a Disputation between a Philosopher and Theologian). Helmut Gollwitzer and Wlhelm Weischedel, Denken und Glauben, (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1965), page 113.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. I bracket my additions to Gollwitzer’s words.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Look at how the British viewed the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588. It was God that saved them, when the huge Spanish warships were destroyed by the storm. It is a story similar to that of the Exodus. Without divine intervention, the people would have been lost, that is, in accordance to faith.

[8] Ibid.


Written by peterkrey

November 18, 2010 at 6:17 pm

One Response

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  1. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for responding to my post–over the years you’ve always taken the time to address my concerns about this, and I’m very grateful for that. I think you make some good points here, and while I remain undecided about what I should believe, I am still thinking about returning to Christianity. I hope we can talk about it the next time we meet.

    Hope you get well soon,


    Jason Zarri

    January 3, 2011 at 7:02 am

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