Monday, June 6, 2016

Big Ideas, Big Words

I've managed to read a little more of The Christian Frame of Mind, moving on from W. Jim Neidhardt's introduction, but there's a point from the intro that was eye-opening for me, and I wanted to take a moment to share it before its newness fades.

As I've been re-entering the world of theologically deep study, I recognize that many of my Christian friends, and even I myself at times, have had some prejudice against any Christian teaching or "doctrines" that can't be taken directly from the words of the Bible. We have preferred to open our Bibles and prayerfully read the words that are there on the page, relying on a prayer-filled "common-sense," or "Holy Spirit led" insights to bring us to common and practical applications of what God is saying to us, either as individuals or as groups.

Most of the men and women I have studied and prayed with over the past 30 years or so would only rarely use words like "incarnation," or "trinity" or even "theology," preferring instead to just use words that are there in our English translations of the Bible -- and those words simply aren't there, except, perhaps, in the footnotes. And now as I speak things like of "Incarnational Trinitarian Theology," I'm sure I will sound, to some, like I'm slipping away from Biblical teachings and moving, instead, to some sort of un-Biblical sophistication. Or maybe I'm just wanting to show off. Or maybe I'm just a nerd.

There's a prejudice, out there in the land of Christian spirituality--a prejudice against the hard "theological" work that I'm doing these days--and I can almost hear the silent objections to what I'm thinking and writing about even now.

That's where what I read in the introduction to The Christian Frame of Mind comes in. W. James Neidhardt, following T. F. Torrance and others, say, and I agree, that you can't get God's truth simply by reading a few sentences or paragraphs in the Bible. You need to have some pretty big ideas already firmly fixed in your mind. I think those ideas actually come when we're born again by the grace of God, and by what Jesus has done for us, but that's another story.

Here's an example from the book's introduction:
"... God's grace may be thought of as an invisible conceptual reality defined as 'God giving himself to humankind, so that they can know him an love him, so entering into a relationship with him which... is totally undeserved...' God's grace is not "visible" in the Old and New Testaments accounts of God's activity toward humankind -- at least not in the sense that it is continuously acknowledged. Rather, the concept of grace brings 'invisible' meaning to these accounts." (page xxiii in The Christian Frame of Mind)

The word "grace," of course, is there in the Bibles we read. But the fact is that neither the word, nor the idea of "undeserved favor" is there in every verse. Proper Christian Bible study, though, will hold that "invisible" idea in mind as we read all the Bible's books and chapters and verses. Christians do mostly understand that there's danger in taking things "out of context," that is, without a big picture view of what the Bible is all about. Some Christians, however, don't understand this, and they get into trouble. An extreme version of this was seen when Donald Trump says that his favorite Bible verse is "an eye for an eye."

Some big ideas, however, that we can see in the whole story of the Bible can't simply be summarized by one or two words that we can actually find in a word found in Bible itself. I already mentioned two of them. "Incarnation" is one. "Incarnation" is a summary of what happened when God came into human flesh, being born of a woman, but the word "incarnate" is not there. "Trinity" is another. You can find the words "Father," "Son," and "Holy Spirit" in the Bible, but not the word "Trinity." The big idea is there, and you can't understand Jesus without the idea, but you can't find the word in the Bible.

That's what Neidhardt and Torrance mean by saying some things are "invisible."

Does that mean we should avoid those ideas or those words? I don't think so. If we do, we'll miss the Bible's big story, and forget what the Bible is all about.

Now, most of the men and women I've studied and prayed with over the years actually do have big ideas like "incarnation" and "trinity" in their heads, but they (and often we) haven't wanted to use those words, at least not too much. For some reason, we like the idea of being simple-minded and unsophisticated. But, as I've already said, the danger is that we can take verses, and even chapters and books of the Bible "out of context," that is, without a big picture view of what the Bible is really about. (It's late and I'm rambling here.)

As I've been studying, I'm learning the importance of how important big ideas are. Perhaps these are examples of what Jesus meant when he said, "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear." Perhaps ideas like "incarnation" and "trinity" and even "theology" are a part of what Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would bring to us. Here's a fuller quote from Jesus speaking in the Gospel of John chapter 16:
12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you..." 
I've spent a lot more time thinking and writing about this tonight than I planned. I need to be up and out of bed in an hour and a half, on my way to work. Fortunately I've got really light duty in the mornings these days. I'll hope to say more about that later.

Peace to you in Jesus' name.

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