Call Me Fallacious

Some time back, I was in this confusing and exciting time in my life when God was leading me out of my theological comfort zone into something richer. (He’s always been doing this, of course, but this was one of those intensely formative seasons that shine in my memory like a hot flame.) During this time, I had been prompted to think more deeply about the practical and ethical implications of following a crucified God and in typical fashion, I preached a series of messages on the topics of Jesus and his cross. Nearly three quarters of the way through this series, a member of the church approached me and firmly told me I needed to preach “less Jesus and more Paul.”

This was not a particularly new concept to me. I am steeped in a tradition that occasionally holds those who focus on the gospels with deep suspicion. More to the point, many of my experience seemed afraid that thusly emphasizing Jesus would undermine the complex, perilously built arguments we had made about “sound doctrine” from the epistles. Thus, those who granted undue importance to the gospels were often labeled “change agents.” (Indeed, it wasn’t long after this man approached me that I was labeled similarly.) Some would even go so far with this view as to argue that Jesus’ teachings and actions were not normative for Christians because he lived under an older dispensation while we live under the new one. It was, in this view, Paul that counted where ethical living was concerned.

What struck me that day, during this formative season of my life, was that I had been preaching from Paul. Back in the day, I did handouts for every sermon and I happened to have a copy of each from the series I was preaching. I pulled them out and asked the man to look them over. Where were my texts from?

I’ll tell you. They were from Paul.

Even this week, I encountered a respected scholar from my heritage that argues against holding this “christological fallacy.” We can’t see the gospels – or Jesus’ teachings and life – as more authoritative than any other part of Scripture. Those who do so, the argument goes, are trying to get away with something: to undermine doctrine, or discredit some part of inspiration, or some other such nefarious nonsense.

But, let me suggest that my happy adoption of such a fallacy came about precisely because I took the authority of Scripture seriously. (I often remind people that I am only as “liberal” [whatever that means] as I am because I was raised to take the Bible seriously.) It is, after all, the witness of Scripture that leads one to place Jesus’ life and teachings at the center of how we understand what God is teaching us in Scripture. Jesus becomes the lens through which we interpret Scripture at the insistence of Scripture itself.

It is Paul who incessantly preached the crucified Lord. (And, might I suggest, that if we read Paul as primarily talking about anything other than Jesus, we’re reading him wrong.) It is Paul that would spend the opening chapters of nearly every one of his letters discussing the meaning of Jesus’ life, teachings, and actions before drawing ethical applications with an important therefore. (That is, he says, “I’m going to talk to you about how to live on the basis of all this talk about Jesus we’ve been having.”) It is Paul who gives us the rich, practical language of Christ-likeness.

And, this isn’t even to begin discussing all the ways the other writers of the New Testament insist on the same emphasis. Nor is it to begin discussing the beautiful, complex dance between the Jesus and the Hebrew Bible, which at the same time gives us context for understanding Jesus and demands re-interpretation through a christological lens because of Jesus.

I say all of that to stake out this claim: if it is a fallacy to see Jesus – his life and his teachings – as the absolute, defining center of how I understand both Scripture and my life, call me fallacious.

I’ve been called worse.

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Call Me Fallacious

My Wife, Conqueror

 

Death has been swallowed up by a victory.
         Where is your victory, Death?
        Where is your sting, Death?

(Death’s sting is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.) Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord.

~ 1 Corinthians 15:54-58

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death—the devil—by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death.

~ Hebrews 2:14-15

For those who were there or are willing to look, it’s no real secret that a few years ago my wife attended the annual Women’s March in Austin with a friend. Her reasons for going are somewhat less known. In many cases, this is because those who took notice of her presence at the march were considerably less interested in hearing her reasons for attending than they were their own assumptions about why she went. Then, as now, our nation and church situates themselves in a place where nuance, complexity, and depth are often lost to the more blunt and vulgar narratives of partisan politics, of elephants and donkeys.

In the weeks after the march, I was frequently asked why she marched. (It is telling that, so far as I know, no one bothered to ask her why she marched.) As if she only went because I had given her my permission, I was grilled as to why I was okay with her (a Christian!) participating in the Women’s March when there was so much sinful stuff happening around her. Why didn’t she leave when she saw how bad it was? My answer, of course, was because my wife takes communion.

The table is the place where we gather every week as racists, bigots, adulterers, liars, thieves, addicts, idolaters, hypocrites, gossips, gluttons, greedy opportunists, abusers, rabble rousers, drunks, and law breakers. We gather as those who are prideful, judgmental, accusatory, stubborn, lustful, angry, spiteful, apathetic, contentious, self-righteous and … well, you can imagine how this list could go on and on and on …

What’s more: Each Sunday, I find myself at more places on that list than I care to admit.

And God has made room for all of us messy, broken people at his table, redeeming us in the middle of that messiness. God reminds us of who he is at his table. He is the one who left heaven to wade into the messiness of our existence. And, he is the one who sends us out from the table, into his messy world.

So, it’s no more shocking nor objectionable to me when my wife would follow him into the middle of it all at the Women’s March than it was when a group of ladies from a former congregation decided a few years back to follow Jesus into the middle of it all and minister to strippers in their dressing rooms.

This is to say that, for my wife, it was theological. It was christological and pastoral. It was not political in any modern sense of the word. Here’s what I’m suggesting:

What happens if you begin without the assumption that the only way of making change was via the government or the assumption that the only purpose of marching was to try and force the government to change? (Because, you know – you don’t believe change is contingent on the government.) What if, instead, you believed that the way to make change in the world was to follow in the way of the kingdom by building relationships rooted in the sort of love God demonstrated in the person of Jesus?

Why would you march? One reason might be that reimagining our assumptions as described above leads to the possibility of marching for someone rather than against something or someone. It opens the possibility of the act being more about saying to others, “I hear you in your darkness,” rather than saying to the government, “I demand you listen to my voice.” If you reconfigure your imagination in this way, it doesn’t matter so much why other people are walking down the street next to you. In fact, your individual presence in the march is probably politically insignificant on a national, state, regional, or local level – even if you are marching against someone or something. But relationally, the act stands to carry great power for the loved one struggling in the darkness whom you have marched for.

This marching for, this symbolic act of solidarity and advocacy, driven by the love Christ had shown her, a love she intended to share with others regardless how the partisan among our community would react, this marching for is why she was there. And she was seen. Not only by those who whispered against her, caring for their assumptions more than her reality, but also by those who were hurting. Those who were holding the darkness inside, too ashamed to tell their story – to step into the light – lest people think them sullied or irredeemable or somehow deserving of the sins thrust upon them by their abusers. She marched for them and they saw and it opened a door, however small the crack, for healing.

I say this because she needs to be seen. Often, people will only see the quiet woman who is so inundated with our brood at worship she can seem aloof. Others will never look past her blue hair and tattoos. Others still will look at her, see she is not a good Republican, and lean into unfortunate assumptions. What they miss is the deep strength and character the Spirit has formed in my wife. What they miss is the passionate advocacy she offers for those on the margins. What they miss is her determination to use her voice for those who have been denied theirs.

Having been set free from the fear of death, she uses her freedom to bring others into the healing and love Jesus has given her. And, in doing this, she has taught me more about what it means to follow Jesus than any fifty teachers and preachers I’ve had in my life.

My favorite of her many tattoos is the one on the back of her neck. It is the seal of the Moravian Church. The seal depicts the Slaughtered Lamb carrying the banner of the cross. Around the edges are the words, “Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur.

“Our Lamb has conquered. Let us follow him.”

Amen.

PS: You really should check out her new post about why she advocates for rape and abuse victims. You can find it here.

My Wife, Conqueror

Paul’s Political Gospel

I was reading Romans 1 yesterday and it struck me afresh how political the gospel was for the early church. In the opening of his letter, Paul summarizes the gospel in this way:

“From Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for God’s good news. God promised this good news about his Son ahead of time through his prophets in the holy scriptures. His Son was descended from David. He was publicly identified as God’s Son with power through his resurrection from the dead, which was based on the Spirit of holiness. This Son is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we have received God’s grace and our appointment to be apostles. This was to bring all Gentiles to faithful obedience for his name’s sake. You who are called by Jesus Christ are also included among these Gentiles.”
The Good News was that Jesus descended from David, he was declared “God’s Son” (or “Son of God”) through his resurrection, and he is declared “Jesus Christ our Lord.” Much of that language is familiar to us – perhaps so familiar we miss the way it wold have been read in its original context.
  1. “Good News” (or “gospel”) was not any good news, but was largely Caesar’s word in Paul’s world. It spoke of the “good news of political or military victory” and perhaps especially brought to mind the ascension of a new emperor to his throne.
  2. In a very concise summary of the gospel, Paul makes a point of establishing Jesus’ connection with David, who of course, was a king. (On this point, let’s not forget that Jesus was singularly interested in proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom – not some ethereal “spiritual” reality, but God’s will done on earth as it was in heaven.) Paul wants to establish Jesus’ royal cred.
  3. Paul reminds us Jesus was declared the “Son of God” with power by his resurrection. In Paul’s context, “Son of God” was royal language – a way of referring to the king.
  4. Jesus is declared “Christ” and “Lord.” “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah” – the Anointed One or King. “Lord” was also Caesar’s term – in a world that was organized by households, and households were headed by “lords,” Caesar was said to be “Lord of lords.”

So, in Paul’s short summary of the Good News (of Jesus’ victory), he declares Jesus to be the King and Lord in direct opposition to Caesar’s claims to be king and lord. (Remember, he was writing all of this to Rome.) The gospel is not some bargain cast in consumerist terms about getting out of Hell or going to Heaven. It isn’t even primarily a message about us, though it is to us. It is the declaration that “The old king – the usurper – has fallen and the rightful king has won the victory. Everything is changing!” (It’s helpful to read this through the eyes of Daniel’s dream in Daniel 7, where God judges and condemns the monstrous powers of the world and installs his rightful king – the “Son of Man.”)

And the only appropriate response to this declaration? Paul says he is declaring this news to provoke “faithful obedience” among the Gentiles. In other words, he declares that the pretenders to the throne have been exposed for the sham they are, the rightful king has taken his place as ruler of the world, and we need to align ourselves to the new reality, to the new way of things.

Paul’s Political Gospel

Euangelion

This quarter I am teaching a class at 8&H about what Scripture means when it uses the word “gospel,” and this post will largely relate to that class. Specifically, I want to share the research I have conducted around the word euangelion. So, here goes nothing:

In the New Testament, the word we translate “gospel” is euangelion. It means good news, but in the world Jesus lived in, it didn’t mean just any kind of good news. Euangelion was the good news of victory, and was largely a political and military term. While relatively rare outside of Christian writings in the available literature, the word was most recently used in the context of the Roman Emperors coming into power. Living in the Roman occupied world, it would have been difficult to hear or speak the word euangelion without these overtones coming into play.

Here I want to take a moment to outline the usage of euangelion in the general timeframe of Jesus’ life, and also, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – which came a few centuries before Jesus was born. In a church culture where “gospel” has often been truncated to just “good news,” this will help us pick up some of the radical power the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus would’ve had for it’s original hearers. It was nothing short of earth-shattering.

Euangelion in the LXX

Work on the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the Septuagint (aka LXX) – began about the middle of the third century before Jesus was born and was finished more than a century before his birth.

Euangelion only appears once in the LXX, in (what we call) 2 Samuel 4:10*. Here, David recounts when he found out about Saul’s death in battle. The messenger, David says assumed the news of Saul’s defeat would be euangelion to David – the good news that his foe had been defeated and he was now the king. Even centuries before Augustus took up the term, the political/military flavor is present in this instance.

If we expand our search to include the usage of the verb form – euangelizo (“to proclaim euangelion“) – we find 22 further uses in the LXX. In most of those 22 instances, euangelizo is used to translate the Hebrew bsr. The remaining instances, it is used to translate the Hebrew sarid.

In the listing below, you will find some diversity in the way euangelizo is used, but you will also notice the strong political/military connotations remain throughout.

  • 1 Samuel 31:9: The Philistines find Saul’s corpse. They spread the news of their victory throughout the land.
  • 2 Samuel 1:20: David laments over the death of Saul and declares that the news of his defeat (the news of David’s political victory) should not be published among the Philistines.
  • 2 Samuel 4:10: As discussed above, David recounts when a soldier brought him the news of Saul’s death.
  • 2 Samuel 18:19-20 (3x): Absalom has died in his bid to usurp his father. Joab refuses to allow a messenger to take the news of this victory to the king.
  • 2 Samuel 18:26: News of Absalom’s death is brought to David.
  • 2 Samuel 18:31: A Cushite messenger tells David the “good news” of his son’s defeat.
  • 1 Kings 1:42: Near David’s death, Adonijah declares himself Israel’s king, even though David intended to make Solomon king. As this plays out, Jonathan comes to Adonijah to tell him of David’s decision. Adonijah welcomes Jonathan in, assuming he has “good news” of Adonijah’s political victory.
  • 1 Chronicles 10:9: parallel to 1 Samuel 31:9 above.
  • Psalm 40:9: David proclaims the good news of God’s deliverance – God gaining victory and the impact that has had for David.
  • Psalm 68:11: God describes a great host of women announcing “good news” – “The kings of the armies! They flee! They flee!”
  • Isaiah 40:9 (2x): The heralds go up to the high places to announce God is coming as king himself over against the failures of earthly kings. (Check out the stories of Isaiah 36-39 to get some context for this text.)
  • Isaiah 52:7 (2x): Similar to the Nahum passage below. Against the oppression of the empires, messengers will announce the good news that “God reigns” and his people will experience salvation from their oppressors.
  • Isaiah 61:1: The Spirit of the LORD has anointed the speaker to declare God’s good news. Broadly, this good news is declared in the context of God coming as king and setting things right – “the favorable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God” (vs. 2).
  • Jeremiah 20:15: Jeremiah curses the man who brought his father the news he had been born.
  • Joel 3:5: In one of the most obscure uses of euangelizo in the Old Testament, Joel speaks of the survivors who have been called by the LORD.
  • Nahum 1:15: The feet of those who proclaim good news are beautiful. If you back up to verse 12, the context is the news that God is giving his people victory over those who oppress them.

As you can see from our exploration of euangelion and euangelizo in the LXX, the terms were distinctly used in the context of political/military victory at this early date before Jesus’ world. When Augustus Caesar took the throne, his usage of the word in Jesus’ world deepened that emphasis.

Euangelion and Augustus

When Augustus defeated all his detractors and ended the civil war that began at Julius’ assassination, he declared himself emperor. Famously, when his victory and reign were proclaimed throughout the empire, it was euangelion.

Following is the Priene Calendar Inscription, which talks about Augustus after he became emperor. It regards his victory, ascendency to the throne, and reign as such good news that the author is willing to date the coming of the gospel of Augustus retroactively to his birth:

It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [euangelion] for the world that came by reason of him which Asia resolved in Smyrna.

Throughout our class, we will use the story of Augustus to notice a variety of parallels with the way the gospel writers tell the story of Jesus. Some of these will be evident already from the inscription above. The point we take away, for now, is this:

When Jesus came into the world, there was already a widely known gospel, and it belonged to Caesar. While Caesar’s particular story would give the gospel writers some interesting details to work with, the word euangelion most broadly was used to describe “the good news of victory” that came about because of a decisive battle ending, a new king taking the throne, or some other similar regime change. It was political or military in nature.

(A good summary of other non-Christian uses of the term euangelion can be found here and will also help flesh out the picture we’ve been forming.)

As we will see throughout the quarter, this context seems evident to the New Testament writers as they talk about Jesus, and it will also play an important role in how we understand his kingdom, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension.

 

 

Euangelion