Friday, December 12, 2014

The Big Bang Theory of Gospel Preaching

The Holy Bible gets a hard time. Mostly from Christians! It's complicated. It's just another book among holy books - hey, we should read the Qu'ran at the next coronation service in England (says a bishop!). It's long. It's long-winded. It has some terrible scenes in it which would make even the CIA blanch. Did I mention its misogyny? Approval of slavery?

I know many Christians love to "hate" what he says, to accuse him of preaching a false gospel, of being the Protestant who reworks Luther and Calvin to endorse the Counter-Reformation, but +Tom is always worth reading and mostly Wright. That's because he probes deeply into the meaning of the Bible as the Holy Scripture revealed by God. The trick (I find) is to keep reading what +Tom Wrights. Some subtleties in his penetrative insights become clearer across different publications.

This week I came across a particularly illuminating essay, "Paul and the Powerful Word: Gospel, Community, Mission," published here.

It is long so you may find my excisions below quicker to read.

+Wright argues that the power of the gospel message is the power of the same creative Word of God which brings the world into being. The gospel now brings the new creation into being and thus fulfils the deepest expectations of the Law and the prophets.

Along the way there is a useful clarifying of +Wright's understanding of the relationship between gospel and Law.

But, most importantly, +Wright is challenging the church in the West to see beyond its divisions to God's purpose for the church, to be the new creation (which, indeed, is a world without divisions!).

Read on ... all the words below are +Wrights:

"It quickly became clear [at a recent Roman synod] that some people were using the phrase “the word of God” to refer to the Bible, while others used it to mean “the Bible and the tradition,” and still others wanted it to mean “the Bible, the tradition, and the magisterium.” Clearly we all have some work still to do in clarifying the question, never mind answering it. "

"Here [Paul in 1 Thessalonians] speaks of the powerful divine word as a transforming energy which, though unleashed through his own announcement of the gospel, is much greater than the sum of his own words or his rhetorical skill."

"within five verses we have three aspects of the divine word: it comes upon people in power through the preaching of the gospel, it is received with both suffering and joy, and it resonates outwards from the newly formed communities. There you have my subtitle in a nutshell: gospel, community and mission."

"Now we can see, as well, the way in which what Paul says about the powerful divine word is a lot more than simply fresh content, fresh information, upon which one might construct an intellectual system, even a theological system. The “word” in question creates a new reality. We can point towards this with inadequate illustrations: when a judge says “I find this person innocent,” or a priest says “I declare that these two are husband and wife,” a new reality comes into being. In a different way, when someone says “I love you,” especially if it’s unexpected, something happens which is far more than simply the conveying of information. All this goes with the theme which I and others have explored at length elsewhere: for Paul the gospel is about the sudden and dramatic fulfilment of the age-old divine purpose, generating a new creation, a new world in which there is not only new knowledge but a new type of knowledge, a type indeed for which one of the best names is agapē, love."

"The letter to the Colossians has creation and new creation as one of its main themes, with the famous poem of chapter 1 verses 15-20 offering a careful and subtle Christological meditation on Genesis 1.1 and Proverbs 8.22. The poem sees the Messiah as the hidden meaning both of the “wisdom” who was with the creator at the beginning and of that “beginning” itself. It is therefore no accident that, in the introduction to the letter, when Paul speaks of “the word of truth of the gospel,” he echoes Genesis 1. This “word,” he says, is “bearing fruit and multiplying” in all the world (1.6), just as in Genesis first the animals and then the humans are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply.” Paul is already hinting that what is going on through the gospel is new creation. This hint is magnified when he reports his prayer that his hearers may themselves “bear fruit and multiply” in the knowledge of God (1.10)."

"For Paul the word of the gospel, the word of reconciliation, is the word through which God renews and establishes the covenant in order to renew and establish creation. That is the point of the fulfilment of prophecy. And here we come upon a vital point. For Paul, the idea of a powerful word was not simply a matter of his understanding of what today we call speech-act theory. It corresponded to the ancient belief in the power of the prophetic word. The prophet’s words carried divine power. So did Paul’s."

"What then about Torah? Everybody who studies Paul comes, sooner or later, to the question of “Paul and the Law,” and many of us were taught the different answers: does Paul think the Law is a bad thing, abolished in the gospel, or a good thing, fulfilled in the gospel? Galatians seems to say the first, and Romans the second. But this is far, far too shallow. Paul is a lot more subtle than that—as we might expect from the larger context of second-temple Judaism in which he grew up."

"Paul, like some other Jews of his day, thus read Torah—Genesis to Deuteronomy—not simply as the long-distant back story of Israel, but as the whole story, with the last chapters seen as a long-range prophecy of exile and final restoration. In Romans 9 and 10 he retells that whole story, starting with Abraham, continuing with Moses, coming at last to the exile and then to the Messiah, whom he describes as the telos nomou, the “end of the law,” the goal, the point to which Torah was driving all along. And so he quotes Deuteronomy 30, not arbitrarily, but exactly to the point: the “word” which Deuteronomy says will be “near you” is the covenant-renewing word, the heart-transforming word, the faith-inducing word, the word of the gospel, the word of the Messiah, the Lord. 

If Paul sees the powerful divine word as the fulfilment of prophecy, he also sees it as the fulfilment of Torah. God has done the radical new thing which he always promised, and in the word of the gospel this new thing springs to life —the life which the law longed to give but which, because of the flesh, it could not, as Paul says two chapters earlier. The divine “word” thus summed up the law and the prophets, not simply cognitively—as though somehow expressing in a nutshell all that they had taught, though Paul would probably have said that too—but narratively, in that the long story both were telling had reached its telos in Israel’s Messiah through whom the covenant was fulfilled and the creation therefore renewed. And it is that fulfilment of covenant and creation that leads us into the final section of this lecture."

"I have argued that for Paul the powerful divine word is both the word of the gospel, the announcement about Jesus and his death and resurrection, the proclamation that he is therefore Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, and also the fulfilment of Israel’s long hope, shaped by Torah and Prophets. In this Messiah the covenant is renewed; therefore, in his resurrection and through the gospel itself, creation is renewed as well. “If anyone is in Messiah, new creation!” That is of course paradoxical and partial, awaiting the final resurrection for its completion; but for Paul it is decisively launched.

That is the framework for the larger understanding of gospel, community and mission to which I now return. For Paul, the community of Messiah’s people were called into being by the powerful word of the gospel, and were to be built up in faith, wisdom and understanding by that same word, seen as having specific cognitive content but, deeper than that, as convenying the divine transformative “energy.” Thus a the word was declarative (saying what had actually happened), informative (saying what it meant), performative (bringing into being a new state of affairs) and transformative (effecting in human beings individually and together the new creation of which it spoke). All these were, for Paul, part of the whole work of the powerful divine word.
Paul sees the community called into being by this word as a pilot project for new creation.
And therefore, not only in Philippians 2 but all through, Paul sees the community called into being by this word as a pilot project for new creation."

"The church is the people of new creation who are to live, by the powerful word, at the heart of the creation that is longing to be free from its own slavery to decay. The church is to be the sign, and, by its prayer, part of the means, of that creation’s renewal. Of course one can parody this. One can speak of the church simply building the kingdom by its own efforts. That is not the point. The church is to be the community in which the signs of new creation—particularly, of unity across traditional boundaries, and of a holiness which instantiates what the Torah longed to do, a humanity free at last from idolatry, hatred and sexual sin—are coming to birth, demonstrating that there is indeed a new way to be human, and with that a new future for the whole creation.
It will I think be obvious that this vision of new creation is very different from the traditional western model, whether Catholic or Protestant, in which the only real point is to leave behind the present world and go somewhere else. There is a long debate as to whether the Platonic influence on Christian dogma has been healthy or not, and I hope it’s clear from what I’ve said tonight why I think it has been largely unhealthy."

"This is the powerful word which Paul spoke, and about which he spoke. And, as we look outward to the larger question of the word of God for today, this message must naturally be at the heart of what the church is and does. And when we look with Pauline eyes at the whole canon of scripture, and see how Torah and Prophets come together into this new word, we may perhaps glimpse ways out of the sterile antitheses which have for so long made life difficult in the western church. 

I haven’t talked about the gospels or Revelation, but I would want to say that the Bible as a whole is designed to work in the same way that the powerful word of the gospel works. It too is declarative, informative, performative and transformative. It too transcends the small rationalistic boxes into which both conservatives and skeptics have so often tried to squash it. 

If we say that the Bible carries the divine authority, we are not saying that it is an encyclopedia in which we can look up true facts. We are saying that it is the story in which all our stories are contained, including the story of how our Christian predecessors have read it. It is the work of art through which we ourselves may become God’s artwork and may then produce fresh artwork ourselves. It is the story of how God is putting the whole world right, within which is contained the story of our own putting-right so that we can share in God’s larger project."


Father Ron Smith said...

So MUCH about words (of Scripture) and so LITTLE about the Incarnate Word. Maybe that's the trouble with academic theology - not enough of the experiential - The Word made flesh and living amongst us.

We sometimes mistake the guide-Book for the Truth, the Way & the Life, which can be found only in Jesus, himself.

MichaelA said...

Fr Ron, it is only those who do not truly know Jesus, the incarnate word, who are afraid of Scripture.

Father Ron Smith said...

Dear MichaelA, I am not afraid of Scripture. Conversely, I use it daily. Also, in a church community like SMAA the Daily Mass has at least 3 readings - including the Gospel of the Day. My homilies and sermons are usually preached in the direct context of the Lectionary Readings - with the help of the Holy Spirit as Guide & Mentor.

However, the true Centre of Worship at the Eucharist is the Incarnate Word, in the Body and Blood of Christ, who said "DO THIS, to remember me".

MichaelA said...

Dear Fr Ron,

Peter posted a sermon, not a Eucharist - you criticised the sermon because it had too much scripture. Your point about the Eucharist therefore appears to be more like dodging.

And remember, anyone who loves the Incarnate Word loves his scripture. He gave it to us for our comfort, edification and blessing.

If someone thinks they have too much scripture, it probably indicates they think they have too much of the Incarnate Word.

Father Ron Smith said...

You've forgotten, MichaelA, that God also gave us the Scriptures for our learning, and that includes interpretation. I happen to respect the written Word; while I believe in the Word Incarnate.

Season's Greetings!