Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Authority of the Biblical Message

After the passing of the apostolic generation, Paul intended (according to the evidence of his NT letters) to have left behind local Christian communities among the nations led by “elders” (i.e., older, mature believers) who had grown into an understanding and persuasion regarding the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God that would empower them to lead by example and persuasion (see also 1 Pet. 5:1-5 for Peter's apostolic endorsement of Paul's intention). The presence of mature Christian examples and persuaders would enable the body of Christ to build itself up in love (see Eph. 4:15-16), rather than be dependent on authority figures to supervise Christian existence.

The only biblical concept of “apostolic succession” is found in Paul’s words to Timothy: “. . . what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men [Greek, anthropois, or humans, male or female] who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). What Timothy had heard from Paul and was to “entrust to faithful men” was not doctrines about Church government or about the Holy Spirit but “the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13), which he also called “the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:14), referring to the apostolic gospel about Jesus and the kingdom of God.

(By “the apostolic gospel about Jesus and the kingdom of God,” I mean what Paul calls "gospel," which he claims was revealed to him by the risen Jesus [see Gal. 1:11-12]. The apostolic gospel consisted of Jesus’ “good news of the kingdom of God” [Luke 4:43], as it is typically referred to in the NT Gospels, into the framework of which Paul incorporated his explanation of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The grievous error of ecclesiastical Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has been to excise the eschatological kingdom of God of Jesus’ gospel from Paul’s gospel of the risen “Jesus Christ and him crucified” [1 Cor. 2:2] and, in so doing, inventing a Trinitarian “gospel” that has nothing to say about the kingdom of God because, unlike Paul, it explains Jesus' death and resurrection without reference to the kingdom of God. In the Trinitarian gospel, "God the Son" dies to appease God the Father--that is, to pay God the Father to forgive sinners--so that "God the Spirit" can distribute forgiveness to penitent--that is, church-going, clergy-supporting--sinners. This is a "gospel," I submit, that can be found nowhere in either the NT Gospels or the letters of Paul or any other NT writer. The apostolic gospel is, according to the NT writers, "the word of God," a phrase which refers, throughout the Bible, not to the Bible itself but to the biblical message, which the Bible was written to explain to its readers and to preserve for future generations.)

The international Christian community and every local Christian community thereof was intended by the apostles to continue under the same authority after as before the apostles died: the authority of the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God. Unlike ecclesiastical Christianity, the NT writers assert the centrality of the apostolic gospel to not only every individual Christian but also every local Christian community as well as the international Christian community as a whole. And the NT writers assert the power of the apostolic gospel to extend the authority of Christ to and exercise the authority of Christ within every generation of believers.

The body of Christ is a community of faith in that it is the faith of Jesus and the apostles (i.e., the good news of Jesus and the kingdom) that creates, sustains, and expands it. Christians are members of the body not because they have “placed membership” with some religious organization, or even because they have been immersed in water or performed some other initiatory rite, but because they believe the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom. Their faith makes them members and leads them (“led by the Spirit”) to edify one another in the faith at a variety of times and places in assemblies of all shapes and sizes. (And whoever believes the apostolic gospel, and to whatever extent he or she believes, that one is a member of the international Christian community, whether “churched” or “un-churched” or “ex-churched.”)

The Greek word, ekklesia, means “assembly,” and was a nonreligious word in the first century. In Acts, ekklesia is used with reference to a riotous mob (Acts 19:32, 39) and a town meeting (Act 19:41). By rendering ekklesia with the religious term “church” (as do all ecclesiastical versions of the New Testament), ecclesiastical Christianity has invented a religious organization that it can control with its clergy. The NT ekklesia was a community of faith in that it was assembled by the faith of its members in the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God, experienced by its members in the form not of a formal, hierarchical organization but of informal, egalitarian association (specifically in the form of household gatherings).

A formal, hierarchical organization requires an official, authoritarian approach to “leadership,” which is precisely what Jesus admonished his disciples against: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43). It’s a grave error to read “lord it over” as meaning to exercise authority only in a heavy-handed way. Jesus’ words equate the phrases “lord it over” with “exercise authority over,” whether heavy-handedly or even-handedly. Any kind of official, positional authority is out of place in associations characterized by freedom and equality, which require, instead, the interpersonal dynamic of mutual submission, each treating the other as one wishes to be treated oneself.

Does this mean that there is no authority? No. It means that the authority of Jesus, which he passed on to his chosen apostolic messengers, is invested in the biblical message of Jesus and the kingdom. Elders (in NT terms, not a title but a description) are those whose maturity in the faith is demonstrated by their grasp of the apostolic gospel, evidenced by their words and their deeds. In other words, they lead not by position but by persuasion. In Heb. 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them,” the word translated “obey” is a form of peitho, which means to persuade, as in, “Be persuaded by your leaders and submit to them.” No sense of positional authority is given by this or other NT references to Christian leadership.

This does not mean that leaders were or are superfluous to Christian fellowship. It simply means that leaders, as servants of the message and those who hear it, serve the message by persuading others to believe it and behave accordingly, as they strive to do themselves. Which is precisely the paradigm for leadership that Jesus constructed for his disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Jesus’ “commandment” was to follow his example of love, the love of God revealed in the apostolic gospel: “. . . but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). This, then, is the authority of love rather than of law, an authority exercised by means of persuasion rather than of coercion. The same authority that the risen Jesus gave (through the "Spirit") to the apostolic generation, he has given (through the same "Spirit") to the international Christian community of all generations: the authority of the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God (which the NT writers take great pains to enable their readers to understand with their minds so that their readers can apply the gospel to their individual and collective lives).

This means that the “laity” in “the pew” have as much access to the power and authority of Jesus’ good news of the kingdom as the "clergy" in "the pulpit," but their position in the “pew” may deceive them into thinking that the occupant of the pulpit has been given some kind of positional authority over them by the Lord (reinforced by the symbolism of the pulpit exalted in space over the pew), in which case they may never come to experience the persuasive power of the good news for themselves.

The “Church” (of whatever variety) is necessarily dependent on its clergy because it was designed to be so by the post-apostolic inventors of ecclesiastical Christianity. Christians find themselves psychologically locked into this system of religious authority primarily because they have been distracted from seeking a clear understanding of the biblical message of Jesus and the kingdom, and its all-sufficiency for Christian existence in the present age, by the religious superstitions of ecclesiastical Christianity, along with its religious sideshows, which are open to the public every Sunday, all designed (however unwittingly by those who conduct them) to keep Christians dependent on “the Church” and its clergy. The crowning achievement of the Church councils of the third and fourth centuries was to replace the Jesus of the apostolic gospel with the Trinitarian Christ of “the Church” as the mediator between God and humanity. Thereafter, instead of worshipping God in spirit and truth (i.e., through faith in the biblical message of Jesus and the kingdom) every day, Christians have been indoctrinated into “going to church” to worship God on Sundays (and maybe at mid-week “services”) through the rituals of their “Church.”

This is not to say that the NT writers prohibit organizations for the purpose of Christian ministry and fellowship. It may be that interpersonal relationships, household gatherings, congregational organizations, annual conferences, and other forms of association are each and all valid ways for Christians to build up the body of Christ. At the same time, any form of positional authority (as opposed to the persuasive authority of the biblical message) would seem to be inappropriate and damaging to the NT spirit of Jesus.

Church history reveals (for all to read) that, relatively early in the post-apostolic period, the Christian community was led to submit to a “bishop” in each city (later called the “monarchical bishop"), each one exalted over his fellow elders, who became his “clergy,” to enforce his rule over each local Christian community. Thereafter, the Christian community began to be transformed from an egalitarian community of faith into a hierarchical organization of law, eventually viewing itself as the kingdom of God on earth, and as having the mandate of God to impose its will (which it called “the will of God”) on all nations. And it did so with a vengeance, utilizing the full panoply of violent technology made available by the kingdoms of the world. With the Enlightenment and the subsequent rise of democratic government, the Church (thank God) lost its power to rule with violence. It ruled thereafter by perpetuating its religious superstitions, like “hell” (a word and a concept found nowhere in the original language of the Bible), and its psychological satisfactions for the felt need to be released from the God-given responsibility of self-government.

The NT escape route out of the misconceived and misdirected religious authority of ecclesiastical Christianity is the redirection of one’s believing towards a persuasive understanding of the biblical message of Jesus and the kingdom of God. Only as the authority of the biblical message is gradually, intelligently internalized can its truth about the hope of the kingdom and the love of God become a renewing, transforming power in Christian lives.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

A Proleptic View of the Kingdom of God

The term prolepsis signifies the rhetorical/literary device of referring to a future event as if it had already occurred and, therefore, exists as a present condition; as such, it expresses anticipation and assurance regarding that future event. (As when one is invited to a party and says, “I’m there,” or when a soon-to-be executed prisoner is referred to as a “dead man walking.”) While scholars and serious students of the Bible recognize prolepsis as a biblical figure of speech, I am persuaded that too few realize how frequently it appears in the biblical writings and how central it is to the biblical message.

A consideration of the biblical definition of "faith" reveals that Christian faith is a proleptic concept:

"Now faith is the reality of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). (The objective renderings "reality" and "evidence" are better translations of the Greek terms hypostasis and elenchos, respectively, than are the typical subjective renderings of English NT versions, "assurance" and "conviction," according to the original-language resources I have consulted.)

The proleptic feature of biblical faith is that the biblical message itself ("the word of Christ," which is the object and content of faith, according to Rom. 10:17) is the present “reality” of the future events that the message (and, therefore, that Christian faith) anticipates. Those future events are the "things hoped for" and, therefore (because they have not yet occurred), the "things not seen." So, to speak believingly is to speak about those future events--specifically, the parousia (i.e., the future coming) of the risen Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment, and the coming of God’s kingdom--as if they had already occurred and, therefore, are a present “reality.” A reality, then, not of fact but of faith in that though they have not yet occurred (are not yet a matter of observable fact), they are predestined to occur by the purpose of God, who has revealed his purpose in his promise to Abraham (see Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 18:18; Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:8). (The biblical, as opposed to the Calvinistic, meaning of predestination is that what God has promised is, for that very reason, predestined to occur.) Which is also to say that these "things" are a matter of God’s foreknowledge in that God knows that what he has purposed and promised will inevitably
occur. (Biblical foreknowledge, like biblical predestination, is simply the prophetic revelation of God's promised future.) What God has promised, then, is a present reality of faith (visible only to the eyes of faith) and will be a future reality of fact (visible to all inhabitants of earth).

To speak faithfully (i.e., believingly), then, is always to speak proleptically, that is, to speak of God's promised future (revealed in the biblical message of Jesus and the kingdom of God) as if it had already occurred and is, therefore, a present "reality.” This “reality” is, once again, the biblical message itself, which Paul calls “the word of faith” (Rom. 10:8) because it constitutes what is believed: God’s promise of resurrection from death to everlasting life in the kingdom of God, already fulfilled in the experience of Jesus himself. God’s promise (“the word of faith”) is the "reality” of what God has promised because God is faithful (which is the biblical definition of the righteousness of God).

The proleptic feature of biblical faith is also revealed in Paul's reference to the God "whom [Abraham] believed--the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were" (Rom. 4:17). In this case, “the dead” to whom God “gives life” is not singular but plural (Greek, nekrous, lit., “the dead ones”) and, therefore, God’s activity of giving-life-to-the-dead refers to the future resurrection of the dead to everlasting life in the kingdom of God. Which is to say that God now “gives life to the dead” as a matter of promise, to be fulfilled and, therefore, experienced by “the dead” when the risen Jesus (whose resurrection anticipates and assures the resurrection of the dead) comes to raise the dead, judge the world, and bring God’s kingdom.

God’s gift of salvation, then, is given in the form of promise: God’s grace is the promise of life in the age to come, assured by the forgiveness of sins which has been accomplished through Jesus’ death on the cross, offered to all and given to believers in the biblical word of promise. Jesus’ resurrection is itself, then, the past event which allows the future resurrection of the dead to be spoken of proleptically, that is, spoken of as if it had already occurred and is, therefore, a present reality (see Eph. 2:4-7). Likewise, Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of the kingdom allows the kingdom of God to be spoken of proleptically, as if present, as indeed it is a present reality of faith.

In conjunction with “giv[ing] life to the dead,” God "calls things that are not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17), which is the very definition of prolepsis: To speak of future events as having already occurred and, therefore, as if they were a present reality is to call “things that are not [yet] as though they were.” (I am quoting from the NIV because, in this case, its rendering is closer to the original language--which even more literally says, “calls things not being as being”--than are the renderings of typically more literal versions, such as the NASB, which says, “and calls into being that which does not exist.”) That is, the “things that are not” (Rom. 4:17) are the same as the “things hoped for” and, therefore, “not seen” (Heb. 11:1). And because “faith” is the “reality” and “evidence” of those promised “things,” to believe is to call those “things” as God calls them: To speak the word of God is to call “the not [yet] being as being,” that is, to speak of God’s promised future as a present reality. Through faith in the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom (i.e., “the word”), God's promised future is present--real and evident--in the mind and heart and life of each member of the community of Christian faith. The “reality” and “evidence” (Heb. 11:1) of God’s promised future--the kingdom of God--is the power of “faith” that transforms Christian lives from the inside out: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

Paul’s reference to God’s promise to Abraham accords with this interpretation: "As it is written: 'I have made you a father of many nations'," (Rom. 4:17a). God “made [Abraham] a father of many nations” by means of the promise to give Abraham a son, through whom God would make of Abraham a great nation, through which God would bless all nations (see Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 18:18). God called Abraham, hundreds of years before these words became a reality of fact, to believe the promise (the fulfillment of which Abraham would not see in his lifetime) and, therefore, to consider himself "a father of many nations." That Abraham did so, through faith in God’s promise, was his “righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6).

While not a reality of fact at the time it was made, God's promise constituted a reality of faith for Abraham. This is another way of saying that faith in God’s promise made hope a life-transforming “reality” for Abraham: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations . . .” (Rom. 4:18). The essence of Abrahamic (and, therefore, Christian) faith is that “he was fully persuaded that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:21), and so, “it was counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:22).

As Paul says, “the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also” (Rom. 4:23-24), in that our righteousness, like Abraham’s, comes through having believed--and continuing to believe--God’s word of promise (which the NT writers call "the gospel," that is, "the good news of the kingdom of God," Luke 4:43). This is the faith, the confession of which refers proleptically to the promised “things hoped for” and “not seen” as if they have already occurred and, therefore, are a present reality. And this faith makes God's promise--the Christian hope of resurrection from death to everlasting life in the kingdom of God--as it was for Abraham, a life-transforming “reality” (i.e., power) in the community of Christian faith, both individually and collectively.

Christians can speak of the kingdom of God as present and of themselves as having entered therein because God’s promise makes this hope a reality of faith. When the risen Jesus comes with the kingdom, God’s promise will be fulfilled, and that reality of faith--evident now only to the eyes of faith, which alone "see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3)--will become a reality of fact, evident to, because observable by, all the inhabitants of the earth.

The reason the proleptic feature of Christian faith has been so little understood and, therefore, so little applied to biblical interpretation by ecclesiastical Christianity is that ever since the Hellenization of (that is, the imposition of Neo-Platonic philosophy on) the Christian tradition by the post-apostolic “Church Fathers” and their successors, realities of faith have been perceived as existing not proleptically but literally, in the present. These ecclesiastical realities of faith are “not seen” not because they are “hoped for” (Heb. 11:1) and, thus, have not yet arrived, but because they are believed to exist in an invisible, eternal world that transcends this visible, temporal world (a worldview, unbeknownst to most Christians, having come from Plato rather than from Moses and/or Jesus). Included among these supposedly invisible, eternal realities of faith are the immortal souls that indwell the mortal bodies of the living, as well as the immortal, disembodied souls of the dead, who have supposedly ascended to everlasting, ineffable bliss in Heaven or descended into unending, conscious torment in Hell (a word and a concept appearing nowhere in the original language of the Bible). Which is to say that, in ecclesiastical terms, the non-observable realities of faith of the invisible, eternal world are supposed to exist at the same time as the realities of fact that are observable in the visible, temporal world.

By comparison, the biblical realities of faith are the “things hoped for” and, therefore, “not seen” (Heb. 11:1). That is, they are the eschatological (from Greek, eschatos, lit., last) things of the coming age of righteousness and life: the parousia of the risen Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment, and the kingdom of God. These “things” are promised by God in the biblical message of Jesus and the coming of God's kingdom. As realities of faith, they are, at the present time, proleptic “things.” Nevertheless, the fact that they have yet to occur makes them no less real--that is, powerful--in the lives of Christians. They are as real as God’s word of promise, the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God, which Paul calls “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes . . .” (Rom. 1:16). They are as real as God’s “Spirit” (Greek, pneuma, literally, breath, the biblical metaphor that represents God's presence and power in the form of the gospel), through which God has revealed these “things” (1 Cor. 2:9-13) and through which God empowers the lives of those in whose minds and hearts dwell the Christian hope of resurrection from death to everlasting life in the kingdom of God: “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

This proleptic view of the kingdom of God accords with the biblical texts that refer to the presence of the kingdom (e.g., Matt. 13:38, 41; Col. 1:13) as well as with those that refer to the futurity of the kingdom (e.g., Matt. 13:43; 1 Cor. 6:9; 15:24). The kingdom of God is primarily eschatological (not ecclesiastical, as it was for St. Augustine, who began the ecclesiastical tradition of equating "the Church" with the kingdom of God on earth) in that the kingdom of God will be a coming-age reality of fact, even as it now constitutes the Christian hope of salvation. Nevertheless, the kingdom of God is, for that very reason, a present-age reality of faith, existing in the form of the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom, as it is believed, empowering the minds and hearts and lives of Christians, who consider themselves, through faith, to be citizens of the kingdom of God even as they anticipate its coming at the end of the age with the parousia of the risen Jesus.