Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Task of Dogmatics: Thoughts on LATC2017

I spent Thursday and Friday of last week at Biola University, Los Angeles, attending the fifth annual LA Theology Conference. The theme was 'The Task of Dogmatics'. Here are a few observations.

  • Kevin Vanhoozer opened the conference with a very Vanhoozerian tour de force under the title, "'Can I get a witness?' Analytics, Poetics, and the Mission of Dogmatics". The paper explored the question of where dogmatics exists on the spectrum between analytics and poetics. I appreciated how he pointed out the reality of poetics (with some good historical examples) within dogmatics  and then his appeal to Charles Taylor's use of the 'social imaginary'. He spoke of the 'dogmatic imaginary' - which I think he was proposing as a kind of norm which guides the diverse work of contemporary dogmatics. I wondered whether the appeal to Taylor might have suggested a different set of imaginaries, say a 'gospel imaginary' and an 'ecclesial imaginary' to which the work of dogmatics would be accountable (rather than to its own imaginary). I realise that much depends here on the nature of the analogy drawn with Taylor's idea.

  • I know that for me, and for at least quite a few others, the highlight of the conference was Katherine Sonderegger's "A lamp unto our feet". It was one of the most compelling instances I have ever witnessed of rigorous theological thinking presented in the most gentle, gracious and inviting style. (The published conference papers will be worth purchasing for this paper alone.) Noting, with Augustine's help, the sheer strangeness of the biblical material, she noted the cultural reality that the "days when the Bible is not met with offense have gone". This allows us freshly to grasp its uniqueness: it is non-naturalised; it cannot be identified with anything else; it cannot be wholly described by any other category. So, "The Bible is strongly unique and in just this way it stands at the beginning of all our theology". And it is for this reason, i.e., that it doesn't fit any category, it demands - rather than suppresses - our intellect, our humility, and our openness to the mystery of revelation. I couldn't help but reflect on Professor Sonderegger's emphasis on the Bible's uniqueness and the use of the word 'unique' in the description of the Bible in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia. Its use in that context still invites much reflection.

  • Not far behind Sonderegger's paper in my own appreciation was Douglas Harink's (elective) paper, "The abiding power of Romans for Dogmatics". After giving a brief historical overview of how the structure of Romans has shaped the doctrinal structure of Christian dogmatics, Harink posed the question whether this history had been brought to an end by the New Perspective readings of Paul and therefore of Romans. His qualified answer was 'not necessarily'. There is still a structure to Romans that addresses the metanarrative of Christian faith, but the theological shift in the New Perspective readings has been from an anthropological to theological orientations of Romans and this must shape the dogmatic use of Romans. The challenge to systematic theologians who draw on Romans will be to read creation and redemption theocentrically and messianically. Harink suggested that he already sees this tendency in the work of John Howard Yoder. I wondered whether we also see it in Moltmann, especially his The Way of Jesus: Christology in Messianic Dimensions.

  • Another fine, and superbly-crafted, paper was that of Michael Allen, "Dogmatics as Ascetics".  The substance of the paper was a comparison of the ascetic impulses in both Sarah Coakley and the late John Webster. Allen outlined his appreciation for the way both theologians treat theology as a work of self-criticism, renunciation and destabilisation. As such, theology is properly a contemplative task, and one that itself engenders contemplation. Allen argued that the ascetic element was more strongly grounded in Webster than in Coakley. He proposed that Coakley located theological self-criticism in the human capacities of the theologian whereas Webster placed this in the reality of the Triune God who cannot be mastered. Personally, I thought there was more room for Coakley and Webster to complement each other (or to be appropriated in complementary ways) than to be contrasted as sharply as they were in Allen's account. Nevertheless, his treatment of the general theme of 'dogmatics and ascetics' was full of insight.


  • A particular highlight was to meet Josh, a Pentecostal pastor of a largely Hispanic congregation north of LA. He came to the conference because, after reading Sonderegger's Sytematic Theology last year, he wanted to hear her in person. This was not the only reading he did last year. He had also been reading Jame's Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree and a whole range of Russian novels. In conversation he relayed how he disciplines himself to such reading precisely for the sake of his ministry and for deepening his preaching. He had some fascinating - not to say inspiring - insights into the links between critical theology and pastoral ministry.

The general tenor and theological orientation of the conference was more self-consciously Reformed than I had anticipated. I was left wondering how the inclusion  of Catholic and Orthodox voices amongst the plenary speakers might have differently shaped the conversation about 'The Task of  Dogmatics'. Similar wondering was suggested by the absence of non-Western voices. To be fair, Kevin Vanhoozer pressed the claims of non-Western theologians at a couple of strategic points during the conference. These ecumenical and cultural limitations were echoed in the striking gender imbalance of both the speakers and participants. My guess would be that the male majority in the conference overall would have been around 8:1. Even as one who inhabits a male-dominated academic discipline, it was a long time since I have participated in an ecclesial or theological gathering where the gender balance was as acutely skewed as it was at this one.

Despite these concerns, I'm extremely glad I went. It was as well-organised a conference as you could hope; the standard of scholarship and discussion was very high; the general mood was very friendly. And, as usual, the lunch-time and over-coffee conversations were often as significant for one's learning as the papers themselves. I know that the conference has very helpfully fed my current project on Christian doctrine.

Judging by even the plenary speakers, next year's conference promises to be less susceptible to the gender and ecumenical limitations I mentioned above. With Frances Young, Megan DeFranza, Marc Cortez, Hans Madueme, and Ian McFarland tackling the theme of 'Theological Anthropology', it is sure to generate deep and spirited discussions. With Young and DeFranza I would imagine that the discussion of anthropology will be brought into close association with disability and sexuality. Look out for further details at the conference website.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Sabbatical Sojourns

One of the great privileges of academic life is that of sabbatical (or study) leave. The Board of my college has granted me the next six months as sabbatical. The major task is to complete the book, Christian Doctrine: A Guide for the Perplexed.  This is part of the Bloomsbury series of such guides. The contract requires me to finish the manuscript by January 31st 2018. The aim is to get the first draft completed by the end of the sabbatical.

The book won't be (yet another) introduction to Christian doctrines. Its main focus is actually on the question how doctrine functions in the church and, indeed, beyond the church (as part of the church's public witness). My short answer is that the overarching function, amidst its specific functions of teaching, apologetics, pastoral care etc, is that it helps to form the church's social imaginary.

But an equally strong focus of this particular book will be how the answer to that question is shaped by the realities of the theological and cultural diversity of the global church. This is a particularly contemporary challenge given the historical dominance of the Western tradition of doctrine shaping Christianity's social imaginary. For me this is not best addressed, however, by trading off Western traditions against non-Western traditions. I'm more interested in how these traditions are together shaped by and give shape to the church's emering doctrinal tradition - and how they find some unity around shared convictions about the living God.

To this end, I'm spending time over the next month engaging very intentionally with some particular examples  of both traditions. This week  I'm attending the LA Theology Conference at Biola University where I'll get to hear, among others, Katherine Sonderegger and Kevin Vanhoozer.  Then after a short stay back at home I'll be heading to India for several weeks where I'll be spending time at both the Mar Thoma Orthodox Seminary in Kottayam and then the United Theological College in Bangalore. I'll be given a paper to colleagues at both institutions on, 'Doctrinal Change and Constancy in a Global Church'.  Later in the sabbatical I'll be giving a similar paper to colleagues at Nanjing Theological Seminary. I'm really looking forward to the responses and insights from the Indian and Chinese colleagues.  For the outcome of all this look out for the book sometime in 2018!

                         

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Crisp and Sanders on Historical and Systematic Theology


I came across this quote from material I used in teaching last year. It is from the Introduction of Crisp and Sanders, Christology Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics. It was a useful discussion starter in a unit my colleague, Katharine Massam and I taught, The Cracking of Christendom. It was semester-long course exploring the Reformation from both historical and doctrinal perspectives. It is a good summary of the issues at stake in the relationship between historical and systematic theology, in the relationship between doctrinal retrieval and constructive theology.
Theology that ignores the tradition is a thin, insipid thing. It also runs the risk of repeating mistakes that could be avoided by developing greater familiarity with the missteps of our forebears. If theologians do not attempt to dialogue with the past, retrieving the ideas of past thinkers without asset-stripping them, paying attention to the warp and weft of historic theology and the way in which the past may fructify the present, then we risk cutting off our noses to spite our respective faces. We can learn history from those who have gone before us. But they can also teach us how we ought to think, and furnish us with concepts, notions and doctrines that will ensure our theologies are much healthier than would otherwise be the case.
Systematic theology is not the same as historical theology, of course. The systematician will want to make normative, not merely descriptive judgements. But resources for such ends can be furnished by attending to theologians of the past and engaging with them in a collegial manner in order to come to normative conclusions about theology today. Theology that steps back in time only to hide there from the problems to be faced in the present ends up hidebound and moribund. Or, worse, it becomes an empty scholasticism that refuses to attend to the needs of the present, accepting only what has been hallowed by time and use, as if it is sufficient to look backward without looking forward. The constructive theological task is not identical to theological retrieval, however. One must be alive to the differences that inform theology of the past and the cultural, intellectual, and scientific changes that have occurred between then and now.

Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders, "Introduction" in Christology Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), Location 87-98, Kindle Version. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Theological subjects at Pilgrim in 2017

The unit descriptions for the various offerings at Pilgrim  Theological College in 2017 are now available online, as is the timetable. It's a pretty impressive range of units covering a huge range of theological, historical, inter-cultural, missional and exegetical interests. You can access the list here with links to each unit.

I'll be on sabbatical and Semester 1,  but will be involved in three units in Semester 2. Each will be taught at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Culture, Belief and Theology (Intensive): especially suitable for those starting out in theology and who want to do so by exploring the many-sided interface between Christianity and the culture at large. Watch the video here from Liam Miller reflecting on this unit when it was offered in 2015.

The Cracking of Christendom (Tuesday nights): co-taught with Kerry Handayside, this explores the social and doctrinal dimensions of the Reformation as well as its lasting impact, not only on the church but on the shape of contemporary Western culture.

Readings in Christian Doctrine (Extensive - four Fridays during semester): in this advanced unit, we'll be studying current trends in doctrinal theology, with a focus in 2017 on the doctrine of Scripture. The unit would be especially suited to anyone wanting to pursue postgraduate study in systematic theology.

Feel free to contact me if you'd like to find out more about any of these units.

Friday, December 2, 2016

An anniversary gift from Pilgrim Theological College: scholarships

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia, Pilgrim Theological College is awarding 'Anniversary Scholarships' to eligible students who enrol in a GradCert (3 units) or a GradDip (6 units) in 2017. Check out the details at this link.

And if you wonder why theological education is a good thing to do, then read this piece from one of our current students.

Other relevant links:

Pilgrim Theological College
University of Divinity
Centre for Theology and Ministry

Monday, November 28, 2016

A statement of faith - for Advent?

Recently I spoke at Wesley Uniting Church, Geelong, on the statement of faith I published on this blog earlier this year. The statement was the result of some initial musings by me and input from quite a lot of people. This process of input continued during the discussion at Geelong when local UCA minister Peter Gador-Whyte suggested that the statement could be modified for particular seasons of the church year. This would involve deleting some of the sub-clauses and leaving in those that were more oriented to the particular season. Such reduction in length would also make the statement a lot more user-friendly in contexts of public worship. Following Peter's suggestion here's a possible Advent version.

* * * *

We trust the one God.

We trust the Love and Life who is the source and sustainer of all that was, is and will be.

We trust Jesus Christ, Loves Beloved, Life's Light, Eternal Wisdom, Israel's Messiah, God with us.
 
Sent from the very heart of God's love for the world, coming not to be served but to serve, Jesus became human in the womb of Mary.

Hailing from Nazareth, befriending outcasts, healing the sick, forgiving sinners, confronting falsehood, and showing mercy to enemies, Jesus proclaimed the long-promised reign of God.

We trust the Holy Spirit, the loving and lively breath of God, who blows where she wills: in, around and through the whole creation.

This same Spirit spoke through Israel's prophets, animated Jesus' ministry, and gathers a community, the church, which, like Jesus, is called to serve; it is an instrument through which Christ continues to command attention and awaken faith.

This is the churchs faith. It is the faith we confess. In this Triune God we trust. God grant us so to live and hope. Amen.
* * * *
 The above image is Igino Giordani's "Mercy in the Magnificat" and is reproduced from this website under a Creative Commons Licence

Saturday, November 26, 2016

What to expect of a theological education

There are many concerns about the relationship between faith and theological education. Some regard it as a sure way to lose one's faith. Some find it a pathway to liberations from the piety of their church or family. Some find it a way into the intellectual riches of the Christian faith they were previously unaware. The fact is a theological education produces all sorts of outcomes in those who venture into it. Pilgrim Theological College (the College where I teach) has recently posted this reflection from one of our students on what it means to take the risk of being theologically educated. It's definitely worth a read. And there's a good chance it will persuade some readers that it is well worth enrolling in a theological college. If so, think about Pilgrim.

Check out the piece here on the Pilgrim website.

And if you're in the vicinity visit us at out our physical home at the Centre for Theology and Ministry (below), 29 College Crescent, Parkville.












And this earlier post by me might also be of interest.




Monday, November 7, 2016

Letting go of 'contextual' theology

It was again my turn to contribute the Pilgrim Faculty column in our Synod's monthly magazine, Crosslight. I argue that it is time to let go of the discourse of 'contextual' theology and work instead with the idea that all theology is contingent. I think this would help us to be less preoccupied with (but not indifferent to) method and to more focused on theology in every context being a spiritual discipline. Near the end of the piece I write this.
As such, theology is as much a spiritual discipline as it is the implementation of a method.  Yes, it requires the self-awareness and discipline of method. It also requires the theologian – be she or he an academic teacher of theology or a congregational minister preaching sermons – to cultivate those contingent practices by which we live the Christian life: repentance, thanksgiving, praise, proclamation, speaking prophetically, love and mercy. Such practices and dispositions can’t be put on hold as we do the technical theological work of reading, interpreting, writing and speaking. 
The full piece can be read here. (It is a (very) short summary of the longer argument I make in Chapter 5 of Disturbing Much Disturbing Many, "'A unity which transcends': What's 'contextual' and what's 'theological' about 'contextual theology'?")

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

John Flett's Apostolicity

Today it was my pleasure and privilege to launch the latest book of my Pilgrim Theological College colleague and friend, John Flett, Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016). The following is the text of my comments on the occasion. It was one of five books being launched at the University of Divinity's Learning and Teaching Day, so I had only five minutes available. So much more could be said about the book, but I hope even these brief remarks generate interest in what is a very important book.

****
 
In 1959, the Joint Commission on Church Union, the body whose work led to the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia two decades later, published its first report. In it the Commission wrote this about apostolicity: “Succession in ministerial order is good; succession in apostolic faith and life is essential.”
I have always been encouraged by this contrast and have often used it as a springboard to defend a concept of apostolicity not determined by ministerial order. 
Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective has, however, woken me from my apostolic slumber and made me realise that I wasn’t being anywhere near as radical as I thought I was when affirming a an alternative notion of apostolicity.  
This book is the published version of John’s Habilitationsshcrift which he completed in Wuppertal in 2015. It follows his earlier ground-breaking work on Missiology, The Witness of God, published in 2010.
John’s meticulous, broad-ranging and impressively-documented argument confronted me with the fact that the concept of apostolicity in which I had put such confidence was, firstly, a reflection of a binary produced by Catholic/Protestant polemics and, secondly, completely uninformed by the realities of world Christianity.  
By ‘world Christianity’ John means a polycentric, culturally plural and institutionally diverse communion. The pluriformity of this communion does not simply represent accidental and diverse manifestations of a stable universal.
Rather, this pluriformity is itself of material theological significance. It informs an ongoing  and dynamic view of apostolicity rather than being measured for its faithfulness to some pre-existing definition of apostolicity.
John threads various strands of evidence and argument together to reach this position. There is a close reading of key ecumenical documents beginning with the 1971 text, Apostolicity and Catholicity and extending to the recent 2013 text, The Church: Towards a Common Vision.
There is a sustained rejection of the idea of Christianity forming a fixed culture, a rejection that is built around, to a large extent, a vigorous critique of  Robert Jenson’s claim that there is. There is also a fascinating political analysis of apostolicity when John brings colonisation and apostolicity into dialogue.
John’s constructive argument builds on, among many other elements, the cultural diversity and cross-cultural encounter evident in the New Testament. 
Above all, however, he develops a Christology as that to which any concept of apostolicity must be subordinate. He argues that Jesus Christ himself is the foundation of the plurality of apostolicity.
Let me illustrate some of the strands of this argument with just a few quotations.
On the link often drawn between the church’s visibility and the apostolic universality of its structures, John writes as follows:
…isolating  the discussion of apostolicity from cross-cultural engagement permits an abstraction of ecclesiology from the concrete conditions of the church even whilst grounding the apology for that abstraction within an account of the church as a continuous visible social reality. A fundamental inconsistency is in play here. The logic of the livedness of the church community, if rigorously applied, needs to account for the richness of structures evident in world Christianity and by extension their richness through Christian history. (p.101)

John refers to Bolaji Idowu’s analysis of the Nigerian church and its deep sense of needing to become Western in order to become Christian. This leads John to reflect on the link between the ‘foreignness of Christianity’ and the process of colonization – and the ecumenical movement’s apparent blindness to this link.
It is difficult to shake the conclusion that the dominant ecumenical model for apostolicity, that of cultural continuity, mandates colonization as the method of cross-cultural missionary transmission with all that this entails for uneven power relationships, paternalism, building relationships of dependence and, finally, maintaining a state of Christian infancy (p.181).

Finally, in a wonderful chapter on the Christological foundation of apostolicity, John draws heavily on the claim that the centre and identity of church lies outside of itself precisely because its centre and identity is Jesus Christ. I quote:
The church finds its identity beyond itself, in the history of Jesus Christ. In this resides the possibility of conversion, the possibility of multiple Christian histories (p.320).
…diversity is a direct correlate of the apostolate’s Christological ground and calling – not secondary or accidental, but part of the full stature of Jesus Christ’s body (p.326).

This is a fine book. It is bound to generate controversy – and so it should. The questions are pressing ones and to neglect them would be to risk ignoring the challenges of world Christianity.
I hope, too, that this University, drawing together different traditions with diverse understandings of apostolicity, might also find ways to engage the issues which John raises. We need to do so, I believe, as the Australian church inevitably find its own life shaped to an ever greater degree by the polycentric and pluriform Christian communion of which John writes so powerfully.
It is delight to have John as a colleague and one who I’m sure, both through this book and the others which will come, will provoke and encourage us in our faith and scholarship. I warmly commend the book to all of you.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

What on earth is the Bible for?



What on earth is the Bible for?

A sermon preached in the Chapel of Queen's College, Oct 16th 2016
(Queen's is a residential college attached to the University of Melbourne)


During the week I was driving through that most tranquil of middle-to-upper class Melbourne suburbs, Ivanhoe, with its comfortable houses, trimmed gardens and tidy footpaths. Suddenly a very angry looking billboard claimed my attention. In big bold letters: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” And then below that in even bolder capital letters:  “READ YOUR BIBLE.”
*
During the 2013 election campaign, then PM, Kevin Rudd, was questioned on Q&A by a  ‘pastor’from Queensland who challenged Rudd on the issue of same-sex marriage. The pastor claimed that he couldn’t support Rudd since his policy was ‘contrary to what the Bible says.’
*
A couple of years ago, Andrew Bolt, someone who is probably not often quoted in the hallowed halls of Queen’s College, wrote a column about his discovery of the fact that there are two quite different creation myths in the Bible’s first book, Genesis.  For reasons that were not clear, Bolt was troubled by the content of this discovery, and the fact that he’d only just discovered this.
* * * *
Three little cameos that remind us that notwithstanding the decline in allegiance to Christianity in Australia in recent decades, the bible still has some vague kind of cultural presence, even some kind cultural currency.
I point this out not to gloat about the fact.
In fact I find each of these cameos quite disturbing.
I am indifferent to whether or not the bible still possesses any cultural currency.
But as a Christian minister and theologian, I am not indifferent to the way the bible is used.
The angry ‘Read Your Bible’ on the billboard assumes not only that everyone has a bible but also that you can pick it up, read it and that its meaning will be obvious.
The pastor from Queensland assumes that the Bible's words are clear and unaware that the bible is a text that needs to be interpreted before it can be used in Christian teaching.
Andrew Bolt appears to assume that the Bible should be more coherent than in it is, unaware that the bible is a collection of literature which derives much of its literary power precisely from the fact that is filled with tensions and diverse voices.
If there is confusion about how to use the bible, then Christians have to bear much of the blame.
Christians have been too quick to use the bible as a ‘rule book’, a ‘guide for living’, a kind of religious encyclopaedia, some sort of compendium of doctrine, or even as a divine oracle that conveys God’s voice directly to the reader.
More disturbingly, many have used it as a battering ram to inflict their own beliefs on others or to demand others agree with them.
Of course, during the 1700 years or so that what we recognise as the Bible has existed, it has been used and misused in all sorts of ways.
In this respect its fate has been no different than that of the authoritative literature of other communities.
Think how the American Constitution is used and misused, not least in discussions on its Second Amendment. Or listen in to Marxists making contrary appeals to Marx’s writings.  Or think how different directors instruct their respective casts to perform Shakespeare.
All authoritative literature bears its authority in the midst of disputes about its interpretation.
So can we say anything about how the Bible should be used?
Are their criteria for deciding some ways are legitimate ways of using it and some are illegitimate?
***
Well, what bearing does tonight’s reading from the text known as 2 Tim chapter 3 have on our questions.
This is one of the texts which has often been used as a battering ram to decide the question of what the bible is for.
All scripture is inspired (or God-breathed) by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correcting and training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
It seems rather straightforward: teaching, reproof, correction, training, being equipped.
But is it actually quite so straightforward?
In fact there are all sorts of ironies here:
What this letter was written – sometime in the second half of the first century of the Christian era, neither its author or initial readers would never have thought of this text itself as ‘scripture’. The writer wrote it and the reader read it as an exhortation to read the Israel’s own scriptures. For when this letter was written, there was no Christian bible.
It is hard to take this, therefore, as a comprehensive answer to the question of what the Christian Bible is for. 
* * * *
An answer to the question of what is the Bible must be shaped in part by our knowledge of what it is and how it came to be.
So, a few facts and figures, and a plea that you put aside Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code explanation of the  Bible as an imposition on the church by the 4th century Roman emperor Constantine.
Perhaps the most basic thing to say about the Bible is it that it is a two-volume work. The first, 37 different documents, consists of the canonical literature of the Jewish people. The second, 29 different documents, consists of the the authoritative literature of the early Christian community.
The first testament includes literature generated over perhaps a millennium, but collated in more or less its present form when Israel was held captive in Babylon during the sixth century before Christ.
This literature draws on a vast range of genres: myth, law, liturgy, proverbs, history, prophecy, apocalyptic, doctrine, tragedy, and royal ideologies.
It is held together by a cluster of convictions that God had called Israel to a special vocation for the sake of the  world, and that despite Israel’s repeatedly dire circumstances, God would be faithful to Israel, and through Israel, to the whole world.
The second testament includes literature generated over , by comparison, an incredibly short period: at most five decades in the second half of the first century. It begins to be recognised as authoritative for the later Christian community in the second and third centuries. 
This literature of the second testament draws on a much more limited range of genres:  summaries of Jesus’ life (which we called gospels), letters from various Christian leaders to various Christian communities scattered around the Mediterranean, and some sermons and apocalyptic. 
This second testament is held together by a cluster of convictions that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and risen, and that as such was Israel’s promised Messiah.
The two volumes are put together in the one collection because of the conviction that the story of Jesus told in the second testament was the climax of Israel’s story. This, of course, is a conviction that remains contested by Jews and Christians to this day.
So, the bible didn’t just fall out of heaven.
It’s diverse literature and its collation was driven – however informally – by certain convictions about God, Jesus, creation and the world.
This, I think, helps us, to answer the question ‘what is the bible for?’
* * *
When we read the bible, we are entering into a narrative of witness to diverse views about the events and ideas which generated Christianity.
And those ideas are often in tension with each other. There are debates going on within the pages of the bible about how best to be faithful to the events to which it points.
For instance, take the verse which last year Donald Trump declared as his favourite: Exodus 21: 25.
But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
According to press reports, he applied the verse to mean that the government should treat in kind those who have taken American jobs, money, and health.
Quite apart from the fact that Jesus invited his followers to turn their back on this teaching, Jewish scholars will say that even in its Jewish context this text is not actually a straightforward teaching of retribution in the first place. In fact, they take it as a rejection other texts which seem to condone outright retribution. So, the very presence of this text is itself a kind of argument for some form of proportional justice.
On the basis of Jesus’ teaching about this very text, however, Christians are called to an even more radical restorative justice. But the point about the Exodus text is, I hope, clear. It has a context and it reflects that Jews were debating amongst themselves the very character and nature of justice.
It is possible to offer similar readings of the New Testament material.
The mere fact that we have four gospels, each with clearly different interests, also points to the fact that the early Christians were exploring the tensions inherent in their generative cluster of convictions. And they were quite comfortable in holding them in tension.
The coherence and consistency in the Bible, the absence of which was such a disappointment to Andrew Bolt , is not what the Bible provides. And, more importantly, it is no less persuasive for that.
The Bible emerged because people were re-shaping,  or re-imagining, their worldviews on the basis of these core convictions about Jesus as Israel’s messiah.
* * *
That helps to tell us what the Bible is for. It is collection of literature into whose diversity and tensions we are invited to enter to see how our own imaginations might be re-shaped.
The Australian writer Margaret Wertheim, has said:: “From Homer to Asimov, one the functions of all great literature has…been to invoke believable ‘other’ worlds.  Operating purely on the power of words, books project us into utterly absorbing alternative realities.” She includes the bible as an example of such literature.
One theologian has developed a similar line of thought.
…Scripture [is] itself a body of literature that does not primarily describe the world but rather imagines a world, and by imagining it, reveals it,
Please note that I am not proposing a sacrificium intellectus by which we retreat to a biblical cosmology and psychology and pretend that they are adequate to our present day sense of science.  Just the opposite:  I suggest that we expand our minds by entering into the imaginative world of scripture.
…To live within this imaginative world is not to flee from reality but to constitute an alternative reality. (Luke Timothy Johnson)
To understand the bible in these terms invites us to come to it with the question, ‘What if…”  What if God does exist….. What if God has entered the world in Jesus of Nazareth... What if in him there is reconciliation and new life. What if……
Then to read the bible is to re-imagine the world,  God, and our lives as something of inherent value and grounded in the love which is at the heart of all reality.
So, instead of an angry 'Read your Bible', there is an invitation to imagine the world of God and creation that the Bible imagines. And to read the bible like is to begin, at least in part, to read it for what it’s for. AMEN.