Posts Tagged With: review

Incarnational Humanism by Jens Zimmermann–My Thoughts.

Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World. Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology (IVP Academic: Downers Grove, 2012), pp. 357.

I must say, the book’s beautiful cover caught my attention, and then the title made me take it home. My recent reevaluation of Christian theology has me reading more philosophy and theology than usual these days, and I’m glad that this book was pretty enough for me to read (that’s why everyone reads philosophy books, isn’t it?).

All kidding aside, the book is well-written. Zimmermann teaches English and German at Trinity Western University, his main interests being literary theory, theology, and philosophy; so he knows what he’s doing. He argues that a great deal of Christianity has lost touch with its roots. The two thousand years of theological and philosophical thought from the first century until now has taken it’s toll. The western church seems confused about it’s main purpose. Is it exalting Christ? His birth? His life? His death? Is it saving lost souls? Is it feeding the poor? Is it retaining a traditional liturgy? Is it social action? There are many more possibilities, but Zimmermann recommends that the church re-embraces the incarnational humanism promoted by the church fathers.

Even uttering the word humanism concerns many of the laity, since they usually relate humanism directly to secular humanism. Though he doesn’t say it outright, I think that is part of Zimmermann’s point. The fact that this misconception is widespread indicates that the church has forgotten its most important mission: the restoration of humanity. The incarnation event heavily influenced the early church and promoted humanism. So Zimmermann spends most of his time tracing the main ideas about humanism from the early church to the present.

While the idea of a deity becoming flesh was certainly not new in the first century, the Christian story of the incarnation represented a tremendous paradigm shift: we are not like the gods, but the holy God–the one who is completely other and separate from humanity–has become like us. We are not like the gods, but rather God infinitely condescended to become like us. Not born to royalty, but to poverty. Not born to prestige, but to the lowly. Humanity had now achieved a special level of dignity because God had ensconced himself in a human form and triumphed over sin and death for the sake of the rest of the world. God had achieved the victory that man could never win. He did that while he was a human being made of flesh. Thus, Christianity promoted the dignity of humans. Christ had proved that the world can be redeemed, so Christians ought to redeem the world. They should seek the betterment of humanity through education and social action. Furthermore, the church fathers made a sharp distinction between Neo-Platonism and Christian humanism. The truth of Christianity was more relational than cerebral (though truth and facts were very important).

Later, the Enlightenment and Reformation championed personal knowledge and independence. Philosophers such as Kant and Hegel equated knowledge and logical thought with humanity. Dignity had more to do with the cerebral instead of being itself. The reformers had legitimate and serious concerns with Rome, but also championed ideas and ideals over some of the more mysterious elements of Christianity. The Eucharist had to be modified in Protestant circles to accommodate to new ways of thinking. Even Luther modified his view of the bread and wine based on enlightenment thought. The center of Christian worship–the moment acknowledges the mysterious union between spirit and flesh–the Eucharist became segmented. To many, they became symbolic. The bread was just bread and wine was just wine. A Neo-Platonic separation between flesh and spirit thus became standard doctrine for many churches. So human beings were similarly segmented into flesh and spirit beings.

Later, philosophers such as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Heidegger negated the “spiritual” side of humans. Beforehand, people assumed that there was a common and even divine expectation for all human beings to fulfill, but these philosophers identified such expectations as elements of control that impeded the freedom of human beings. Thus, the cerebral element to humanity is really irrelevant; being is the only issue relevant to humans. So, expression becomes important for humans with no prescription for normality. Humans are not obliged to be anything or to act in any specific way. They simply are what they are. Later postmodern philosophers developed these concepts even more. As a result, the uniqueness and dignity of humanity became a misnomer. Humans no longer had innate value or dignity.

Zimmermann argues for a return to an incarnational humanism promoted in the Christian Church. Such an approach emphasizes the Eucharist as the embodiment of human dignity. It is the center of Christian worship which reminds the congregation of the incarnation event when God became human. This event brought ultimate victory for all humanity. It also represented divine struggle with human travail. It is God’s goodwill toward humanity. It teaches us that all human beings are valuable because all are in God’s image and God became flesh to save us all. God’s efforts should be our own. We should take on a similar mission when we partake in the Eucharist.

Zimmermann is quite fond of Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s approach to humanity and the Church’s mission. The Church must participate in the current state of the world (the penultimate) with a view to bring about the world’s ultimate redemption (the ultimate). Thus, the church seeks to bring about common good and divine good in the world, unabashedly involved in social action. We ought not be¬†legalists who consistently separate ourselves from the world and huddle triumphantly in our local congregations; neither should we be antinomians who have no stance on morality.

What a great aspiration! Zimmermann points us in a nice direction, but what kind of that church would that be? How does that look practically? Zimmermann doesn’t offer much practical guidance with these questions (except for some broad comments here and there). He remains philosophical overall.¬† I also wish that Zimmermann interacted with the theologians who had similar concerns in the twentieth century. There are no references to Barth or Tillich, for example. That was very surprising for such a well-documented book! There are also very few biblical references. To make his case among those who hold the scriptures in high regard, Zimmermann would need more biblical support to make his case.

On the other hand, Incarnational Humanism, represents a fantastic history of humanism from the first century until now. The writing becomes rather heady at times, particularly when he discusses the postmodern period, but the discussions are rich and enlightening. It is a strong philosophical argument that modern church academics should consider in an era where church identity can be hard to define.

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Categories: Book Review, Philosophy, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sacred Word, Broken Word by Kenton Sparks–Comments from a Former Fundamentalist

When I returned from the SBL annual meeting a few weeks ago, I told lots of folks about my experiences and about a few of the books that I purchased or had hoped to purchase in the near future. The one I began reading on the bus ride home was Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture by Kenton Sparks. I posted the picture of the book on my Facebook account, which led to a flurry of mostly negative comments. I don’t suppose most of the folks knew Sparks or anything about his book. They might have reacted to the title which calls the Bible both sacred and broken, and I’m sure Sparks’s quote from Bonhoeffer that I posted helped egg on the discussion:

“We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One” (Sparks, 1; Bonhoeffer, Reflections on the Bible)

A former fundamentalist, I understand the concern. People assume (as I did once) that any insinuation about the Bible’s brokenness is simply an attack on the Bible’s authority. Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me uneasy, but it is also one of the more wonderful and refreshing things I’ve heard about the Bible in a long time. The more I study the Bible through an academic and critical lens, I am less convinced by the traditional ways to reconcile Bible contradictions and difficulties. It is one reason I could no longer tow the fundamentalist party line. But old habits and theological positions die hard, and Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me nervous yet hopeful in my search for a different approach to Bible interpretation. But Sparks intrigued me with his first quote, so I eagerly dove into the rest of the 156 pages for the next week. I read it slowly, marking it up in several places with some !’s, some ?’s and a whole lot of circles, underlines and comments. Overall, I was enthusiastic about the message.

He began his book by affirming that the Bible is God’s word, the sword of the Spirit, and written by those who were moved by that Spirit (8-9). It contains God’s truth and elements of divine beauty. Yet it also contains some features that are very disturbing to modern readers–to Christians and non-Christians alike. It is pretty clear that one of the basic messages in the Bible is that the world was created by God and yet contains a great deal of pain and evil. Sparks touches on different theological approaches to the creation narrative and the effects of the Fall on the universe, probably to show the theological complexity of the issue. He also offered a very brief argument himself, but ultimately stated that no one can really prove conclusively that the Christian view of evil is correct (17-19). I agree, especially since the Bible itself offers several approaches to the problem of evil (compare the messages of Job and Ecclesiastes for example). Furthermore, Sparks observed that God expresses himself through creation even though it is fallen and warped (20-21; cf. Ps. 19:1-3). I had never considered this before; and so as I read I could feel my hope grow. The Bible can and does reflect a redemptive message through the pens of depraved authors.

Next Sparks devoted a few pages to Christology..which is a little weird until you see where he is going with it. The coming of Jesus is an example of how God seeks to communicate with mankind. God became incarnate, taking on the “likeness of sinful flesh” to redeem and communicate with those people who were condemned (Rom 8:3-4). Therefore, the fallen world is only redeemed when God interacts with it (27). But unlike the nature of Christ himself, the scriptures were written by sinful men whose works were adopted or sanctified for God’s uses. To claim the scriptures themselves were sinless all together, insinuates a kind of hypostatic relationship between God’s divine perfection and text or its authors. Since none of the human authors have a simultaneously divine and human nature, a perfectly written text seems unlikely. This was a difficult section for me, but I largely agree with Sparks and I think that it honors God more to separate him from the text in this way. An inerrantist view of Scripture seems to idolatrously elevate the Bible to a divine status.

After giving some samples of the “broken” elements in the Bible, including logical and theological inconsistencies along with moral difficulties such as genocide and slavery, we get to the heart of the book where Sparks makes his main arguments. The fact that some of the laws of the Old Testament codify actions that are morally troublesome these days, indicates that the Bible is not simply a divine yardstick to measure all morality for all people. In Sparks’s estimation, “biblical error became God’s wise accommodation to the intellectual and spiritual limitations of the human audience” (53). The idea that the text cannot have errors because it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) cannot stand since, “the Greek word itself does not really imply anything in particular about how the transaction between God and the human authors took place” (56). Strengthening his case, Sparks shows that other key theological figures have made similar remarks in Church history.

At this point, I’ve agreed with Sparks a great deal, though I feel some trepidation. When he states, “By virtue of its human form and character, Scripture is an adequate human voice that does not fare so well when judged by the yardstick of divine perfection” (61, emphasis his), I must wonder if there is a yardstick at all. What makes Scripture so special? Should we trust the Bible’s documents with the fate of our souls if it doesn’t fare so well against divine perfection? It’s here my hope begins to fade, giving way to despair. But Sparks doesn’t leave me entirely dead in the water. The Bible is not an end in itself. It is a divinely motivated witness to God’s work of redemption in the world through Christ (63). But this still doesn’t answer my questions.

The chapter on epistemology was foundational to the book and one of the most intriguing parts in my reading, probably because I’ve been exploring postmodern ideas on my own. It is important because the way a person determines truth has direct bearing on that person’s ethics. Sparks promotes what he calls “practical realism” (73), which is a tempered postmodernist view. He acknowledges the importance of empirical evidence in the pursuit of truth, but recognizes that personal experience, culture, and traditions carry a great deal of weight as well. Thus, church tradition and history inform and guide church theology and ethics.

With this in mind, Sparks then revisits some of the diversity of ideas and difficulties in the Scripture again. In anticipation of Christ’s imminent return, Paul stated that people should avoid marriage (1 Cor. 7), but Sparks states that these days one is better off looking to Genesis 2 when deciding to marry (115). Good advice, I think. Regarding slavery: “We should not try to argue that biblical laws which allowed Israel to buy foreign slaves (Lev 25:44) fit very nicely with biblical texts that call for justice, equality, freedom and love of neighbor. At a crucial point the two views are simply incommensurable” (105). These slavery texts may have more self-serving purposes for the human authors than divine mandate. And, of course, there’s the church’s old view of geocentrism they finally had to abandon based on new scientific evidence.

Okay! I get it! But how can I know if my reading of the Bible is correct? I’m a Reformed Protestant, so I cry “Sola Scriptura!“and have placed little emphasis on church tradition for my hermeneutics. But recently I have joined a church that does place a great deal of weight on church tradition; so his points resonate with me now. Sparks notes that more Protestants are like me are recognizing the importance of church traditions in Bible interpretation (125). And so my hope grows even more! (FYI: See also the emphasis on tradition in 2 Thesselonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2) We also have confidence that the Spirit of God guides the church as she interprets the Bible. As mentioned earlier, we should also consider the natural world and scientific knowledge, since God also reveals himself in nature. Furthermore, Sparks argues that we should always consider our own experiences. He notes that he was taught as a child that Catholics could not be Christians, but working with several devout Catholics over the years has taught him that this is not the case. The church should take a similar approach when reading the Bible. Sparks also gives a list of guidelines and principles for validating one’s interpretation of the text. Part of it includes the mystery of God’s Spirit interacting with the church throughout history, and part of it recognizes one of the most obvious points of all the canon: God is on a mission to redeem the world.

If I could, I would thank Dr. Sparks personally for writing such a great book! It stretches the limits of my accepted doctrines and has given me the groundwork for an alternative to an inerrantist position. I had abandoned this position a few months ago, but Sparks’s writing has given me a nice blueprint for constructing a new hermeneutic. To me, the Bible remains authoritative even though it has clear evidence of human frailty behind it. Sparks affirmed my suspicions about the Scriptures, pointing out some difficulties I had never considered, and then gave me some guideposts with which I can chart a better hermeneutical method that still shows great reverence to Gods word. Now, I feel that I have stronger supports for my position.

Yet, I do have some criticisms and points of disagreements, but there is really only one matter I care to address. As a former fundamentalist, I was drilled with one doctrine above all: the Bible is inerrant. Without the Bible’s inerrancy, I had supposed with everyone else that all was lost. Without inerrancy, we can’t know God and his requirements. With an inerrant view, we can be certain who God is and what he requires. So when my friends saw the title “Sacred Word, Broken Word” and the Bonhoeffer quote, some felt two things: anger and despair. Anger because to question inerrancy is to question God himself, and despair because the recognition of errors in the Bible can feel like the foundation of one’s faith has been compromised. I’m a trained Biblical scholar, and I felt it even while reading Sacred Word, Broken Word; I can only imagine the layperson’s struggle through such a text. Sparks doesn’t seem to anticipate this tremendous emotional and existential struggle. Simply put, he is not pastoral anywhere in his approach. To be fair, he is a theologian and does a great job arguing his point. But this is a sensitive issue for some, and I didn’t see that he is aware of that.

The model I was taught as a fundamentalist is like that of so many: the Bible is my one foundation for truth. Sparks doesn’t replace that foundation with another, instead giving principles for good Bible interpretation via the church, tradition, experience, and nature. After reading Sparks’s book, there is no more singular foundation upon which a Christian can build his house (life). Thus, despair or anger for the fundamentalist reader. As one who has a so-called Calvinist perspective on the sovereignty of God, I find that this is a great replacement foundation to fill the fundamentalist void. The Spirit of God sovereignly moves through the church and through its members to eventually redeem us. We get it wrong sometimes, but through those errors, shortcomings, and even sins, God will be faithful to accomplish his purposes. A little emphasis on something like this would have been appreciated!

 

 

Categories: Biblical Studies, Calvinism, Existentialism, Postmodernism, Practical, Theology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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