New Knowledge or New Generations?

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.

-Ephesians 2:19-21

What is the point of seminaries? Is it to discover new knowledge or to train a new generation? While many would like to quickly conclude “both,” the two often pull in opposite directions on very common and central questions. For example, do we ask students primarily to critique what has been passed down or understand what has been passed down? Do we certify seminary professors by training them to research or training them to teach? Are we more focused on new books or new congregations?

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I think the answer probably does come around to “both” in the end, but my experience has convinced me that we’re too quick to focus on each of the former options and too reticent to spend our lives on each of the latter responsibilities. David Wells explains how the university model has shaped theological education all the way down to the mode of inquiry, the values that determine what is accepted as true:

The university opens its arms to those theologians who can successfully disguise themselves as psychologists, anthropologists, or sociologists looking for divine reality within the structures of the self or society, but it is a good deal less hospitable to those who find it hard, if not impossible, to see these mediating structures as themselves the vehicles of revelation and who look instead to Scripture as a confessional source that does not merely mirror human consciousness but is the means of transcendent disclosure.

David Wells, No Place for Truth, p.126

We need to remember that we are (miraculously) “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” We should devote significant time–more time–to understanding what has been passed down, training professors to teach, focusing on congregations and not just books, because our chief responsibility is not to be original. Jesus Christ originated the Church. Our chief responsibility is to be faithful to Him.

We may indeed hit upon new knowledge. For example, how do we spread the good news of Jesus Christ in a mobile phone world? What should Christians say and do about this American presidential election, and the next one, and the next one? How do I care for this student, this congregant, this friend? There are always new questions. However, our primary commission is not to discover new knowledge; it is to be and shepherd a new generation, called and cleansed and commissioned by Christ.

Sin We’re Afraid to Call Sin

But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses, all that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations, then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the rule, and one male goat for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake, and they have brought their offering, a food offering to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord for their mistake. And all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger who sojourns among them, because the whole population was involved in the mistake.

-Numbers 15:22-26

Compared to sin we typically think about, this passage might surprise us in two ways. First, it talks about accidental sin; we tend to think that we can’t be blamed for what we didn’t mean to do. Second, it talks about communal sin; we tend to think that we can’t be blamed for something bigger than us. However, we can and we can. Much of the injustice in our world is accidental and communal, but we are still responsible.

When we buy products built by children in unsafe working conditions, it’s accidental and communal, but it’s sin. White privilege is accidental and communal, but it’s sin. The cycle of credit card airline miles (for one person) and insurmountable credit card debt (for another) is accidental and communal, but it’s sin. Cornelius Plantinga describes this well (in addition to the essay quoted below, he wrote a whole, helpful book on the topic):

In a racist culture, racism will look normal. In a secular culture, indifference toward God will look normal, as it does in much secular education. Human character forms culture, but culture also forms human character. And the formation runs not only across regions and peoples, but also along generations. A boy can “inherit” his father’s sexist idea that men ought to dominate women. A daughter can “inherit” her mother’s sexist idea that women ought to let men do it.

-Cornelius Plantinga, “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin,” p.14

 

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This sounds bleak, but recall the message of the passage from Numbers. The main point is not to prove that there’s such a thing as accidental, communal sin; that’s almost assumed. The main point is that when this sin is realized and the offering is given, “all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven.”

Perhaps we avoid the idea of accidental, communal sin because we don’t like digging into something that we feel unable to fix. The good news is, Jesus Christ Himself is the offering, and he can change what we cannot change, both our society and us. We have a Lord who secured victory over sin and a Spirit who delivers us from our own flesh. Thanks be to God; we can dig in. We can acknowledge and seek out and repent for and address accidental, communal sin, because we follow Jesus Christ. His reign has arrived, and it’s taking over for good.

Too Hard on the Pharisees, Too Easy on Ourselves

 

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James Tissot, Les Pharisiens et les Hérodiens Conspirent contre Jésus, Brooklyn Museum (source).

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

-Luke 15:1-2

The picture of the Pharisees that many of us have inherited from Sunday School is a caricature; it’s oversimplified. The Pharisees were real people, and we will understand the gospel narratives more fully when we understand the Pharisees more fully. N.T. Wright has really gotten me thinking with this passage from Jesus and the Victory of God:

There is no reason to suppose that Pharisees, or anyone else, spied out ordinary people who were “associating” with “sinners” and angrily objected to them doing so. Accusations were leveled, rather, because this welcome to sinners was being offered precisely by someone announcing the kingdom of god, and, moreover offering this welcome as itself a vital part of that kingdom. The question was not about the sinners, or the moral or theological niceties of whether they had repented, and, if so, in what sense. It was about the scandalous implied redefinition of the kingdom itself.

-N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p.274

What if the Pharisees, like most decent people, didn’t enjoy excluding “sinners”? What if they weren’t mad at Jesus for associating with them, they were mad at Jesus for associating Himself so fully with God, for saying, essentially, “the kingdom of God is my kingdom and I’m welcoming you back in”?

For one thing, if this is the case, then we can dismiss our (or at least my) tacit notion that most people in the modern world are more morally advanced than the Pharisees. The Pharisees are easy straw men if we believe that they are the epitome of intolerance. However, if their main contention with Jesus was that they could not believe that the way to the Father is through Him, then they are not alone.

More importantly, if these are the Pharisees, then I have some Pharisaical tendencies. It’s easier to believe that good people earn good things than to believe that Jesus Christ earned God’s good favor. It’s difficult to try to keep following a Risen Lord whom I can’t see when I don’t know any other risen people. Yet, this is how the kingdom of God did come.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

-Luke 17:20-21

The Fear that Leads to Abundant Life

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.

-Proverbs 1:7

The beginning of a river often starts subtly: A melting snowcap, a million drops of rain, rolling down tree trunks, seeping through the underbrush. Yet, before long, it’s crashing together and cascading downhill, bringing clean, clear life.

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Knowledge, too, starts with something seemingly simple: “The fear of the LORD.” Not a degree or a genetic advantage or a particular age or experience or instructor. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.

The fear of the LORD is not terrorper se. It is recognizing, acknowledging, concluding that there is a God, and I am not that God. It’s something very like the simple second step from Alcoholics Anonymous:

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

-Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, “The 12 Steps Illustrated”

The fear of the LORD starts to gather and gain momentum when we realize that the very definition of “God” suggests this God is above me. That this God is above me implies that what God is like effects me. Thus, I should investigate what God is like. If this God deserves something from me, I should find out. If this God has power over me, I should know.

To jump right to the N-th step, if God is truly revealed in Jesus Christ, then what Jesus Christ says and does will become significant, perhaps consuming. Unexpectedly, Jesus Christ reveals that God not only deserves something from us but also wants something for us, that He has come like a shepherd, “That [His flock] might have life and have it abundantly.” What God wants, deservers, does, promises, cautions, provides–all these questions warrant inquiry and response.

It all starts with the fear of the Lord. When we recognize that there is “a Power greater than ourselves,” we find that we live in a different world than we otherwise thought. This new world only starts with a vague recognition; it begs exploration and deserves our lives and promises knowledge–the knowledge that leads to abundant life.

Pastors: Neither Boast Nor Complain

For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

-Galatians 6:13-15

Here Paul refuses an alluring and easy mindset for ministry: Counting. The misleading teachers in Galatia apparently wanted to count circumcisions (a fairly graphic and theologically troubling endeavor); we like to count baptisms or conversions or members or attenders or visitors or dollars or books sales or campuses or church plants. Like them, we are prone to counting for the sake of boasting, if only to ourselves.

We like to take credit for the good; we prefer to blame someone else for the bad. Somehow, we’re able to boast about our congregation’s strength and complain about our congregation’s weakness simultaneously. Bonhoeffer comments on the latter:

Pastors should not complain about their congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. Congregations have not been entrusted to them in order that they should become accusers of their congregations before God and their fellow human beings. When pastors lose faith in a Christian community in which they have been placed and begin to make accusations against it, they had better examine themselves first to see whether the underlying problem is not their own idealized image, which should be shattered by God. And if they find that to be true, let them thank God for leading them into this predicament. But if they find that it is not true, let them nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of those whom God has gathered together. Instead, let them accuse themselves of their unbelief, let them ask for an understanding of their own failure and their particular sin, and pray that they may not wrong other Christians. Let such pastors, recognizing their own guilt, make intercession for those charged to their care. Let them do what they have been instructed to do and thank God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer,Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: DBW 5, pp. 37-38

We should neither boast nor complain. As much time and effort as pastoring requires, we will only escape these two infections if we remember this: “Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” Only new creation counts, and only God can create anew. Thus, we need only (can only) boast in the surprising cross of Christ.

It’s a joy to come back to Seattle and see former youth group students thrive in relationships, jobs, faith, service, character, and insight, not least of which because the gap between what I taught and what they do, what I modeled and what they’ve become, what I understood and what they have mastered looms so large. The chasm reveals that I can’t count any of these young adults as “my creations.” In terms of human ministry, other people with gifts and wisdom I lack have cared for and raised these men and women. Zooming out, God has directed all this new creation.

It is only left to me to “do what I have been instructed to do and thank God.”

“Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”