Holiness & the Credibility of Faith

Tony SigAs so often happens, I’ve been running several new posts around in my head, but I wanted to throw this out because of a number of disparate posts and discussions I have gotten in around the interwebs. I understand this first post will not have a ton to say to our Mainline audience; but we have as many Evangelical readers I’m going to post it anyway, and in the next post we’ll open the conversation up to include the broader Christian community.

Having been raised in the AG, I happen to know a thing or two about the “holiness movement.”  Of course we inherited it from Methodism, in a sadly degenerate form (poor Wesley, so many misunderstand him).

The wonderful thing about evangelical holiness is how gloriously simple it is, and how easily it fills one with a sense of deep piety.  It can easily be summed up in a few hard and fast rules.

Whatever you do for God’s sake don’t drink alcohol.  Never mind that if you really press most conservative evangelicals they will grudgingly admit that drinking is not a “sin” (though of course within a fraction of a second they will practically scream: “BUT  BEING DRUNK IS!!!@#$!”); none of that matters, it is bad

–  Don’t smoke . . . anything . . . ever . . . Jesus doesn’t like smoke.  Don’t chew either.  Just nothing to do with that plant tobacco and its more insidious cousins.

–  Don’t Swear Jesus isn’t really a fan of any bad word

Don’t have sex before you’re married (man Christians like to talk about sex)

These are the big four, especially if you’re a teenager.  These are the ones that will put you in the “your salvation is in doubt” category if you do them.  There are, of course, minor rules that flow out of these.

–  Don’t watch rated R and most PG-13 movies, unless Mel Gibson is in it or directed, produced or wrote it

–  Don’t listen to “secular” music (you hear that Beethoven you sinful ass!)

Of course there were in living memory other marks of true Christian holiness, our parents remembered them, but conveniently forgot to tell us how they managed to not live by these rules anymore.

–  Don’t go to movie theater’s at all.

–  Don’t go bowling

–  Don’t play with facecards

–  Don’t dance – unless it’s in the Spirit (for charismatics only)

–  Don’t spend any time with a non-Christian unless you are trying your darndest to convert them because they participate in the aforementioned unmarks of Christian holiness

We laugh, rightfully so, at these rules, or at least most of them.  But should we?  I suggest we should be appaled and disgusted by them.  A couple of things to note:

1-  They are all rules in the negative.  There is not a single positive command here.  The fruits of the Spirit and the characteristics of love as found (for example) in I Corinthians 13 are conspicuously missing

2-  For all the talk of evangelicals about the Bible, these commands are strangely found nowhere straightforwardly in the Bible.

When I slowly made the transition out of conservative evangelicalism, I liked to talk about alcohol.  In fact I still do.  This frustrated a lot of my friends who agreed with me about alcohol.  I like to pester on about it, how stupid it was that it was ever an issue.  They would accuse me of making it as big a deal as conservatives, just from the other side.  I still like to mention alcohol around conservatives.  This is not because I still think about it;  I mean I think about beer a lot, but not about its moral or spiritual ramifications or the opinions of conservatives on the topic.  And I’m not doing the same thing only from another side.  I think that the pre-occupation on these and similar rules within Evangelicalism is a sign of a deep problem and I want to tease some things out of this pre-occupation.

The lived Christian life in a community, and the emphasis’ thereof, create a sort of primary theology of Christian spirituality.

In simpler terms, while on the theoretical level, Conservative Evangelicals (from now on CE’s) may conform to standard evangelical orthodoxy, these and similar “rules of life” confirm unspoken theologies that are heretical mutations of true doctrine.  A few of these are

–  The replacement of baptism and faith as ONLY necessary marks of inclusion in the Christian community.  When these and similar rules are enforced, implicitly or explicity as the true marks of Christian holiness and inclusion, the Gospel is trodden underfoot.

–  The creation of a caste system of Christian worth based on the observance of shallow rules.  So that while people might be a Christian if they do these things, they are not as good a Christian as X is or those who obey X’s rules.  The subtle intrusion of a theology of “works righteousness” (for lack of a better term)

–  The replacement of scriptural fidelity and Christian tradition’ing with strange and unscriptural rules.  I just read something about this in Matthew today 😉

These result in a plethora of problems, too many of which to write about.  But, if I’m right, and I think I am, regardless of the fact that these rules may not be “evil” in themselves, when they are emphasized – and don’t underestimate how emphasized they are – they result in a community of marginalization and estrangement, of pride and failure. Rather the opposite of what the narrative of Jesus opens up.

But, far from holiness not being important, in the next post I would like to explore just how very important it is.  But I will argue that Christian holiness will look VERY different than it does in many communities (not that I am excluded from such critique, far from it)



  1. Thank you Tony, this is a great post. One of my biggest frustrations the past 5 or 6 years has been the mentality that faith or Christianity is a checklist of what one doesn’t do. Or the American mentality that a Christian is basically a person who doesn’t support homosexuality or abortion or the smoking, drinking etc you mentioned above.

    You hit the nail on the head with the idea that our preoccupation with these “rules” or ideals are signs of a deeper problem.

    One of my favorite portions of scripture is Phillippians 3:7-8 which states “7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (there’s more but I won’t put it all here)

    That concept is basically saying it’s not just the bad that I toss out, it’s everything (including the good). When we put the emphasis on what we shouldn’t do or don’t do we can fall into the trap of thinking avoiding stuff and being good little Christians is the goal… and we just may be missing the entire point. In one of Oswald Chambers devotionals he points out that the good is the enemy of the best and I think emphasizing the points you talked about above in turn emphasize how to be “good” rather than all that dying and losing stuff Jesus talked about 🙂


  2. Tony:

    Could you please expand on this sentence for me: “The replacement of baptism and faith as ONLY necessary marks of inclusion in the Christian community.” I’m not sure I know what you’re saying.



  3. George,

    What happens when “the rules” are front-and-center as they are in many/most CE communities is that those who fail to “live up to these standards” are so judged and marginalized in many congregations that they are made to feel unwelcome and many leave or fake it.

    And so, even though on the theoretical level, CE’s would never endorse “earning one’s salvation,” the opportunity to live in a congregation is made dependent on adherence to the rules and not on their faith and baptism, which are the scriptural and catholic marks of inclusion.


  4. Tony:

    How do you interpret passages such as:

    Mark 1:15: “Repent and believe the gospel.”

    Matthew 25:31-46, in which behavior toward the poor, not merely belief, is the key to heaven or hell.

    James 1:18: “I will show you my faith by what I do.”

    1 Corinthians 6:9-11, in which Paul draws a stark contrast between what converts once were and what they are by God’s grace, a contrast centering on behavior.

    To me, these passages indicate that baptism, faith, AND works are all “scriptural and catholic marks of inclusion” in the congregation. I’ll grant you that conservative evangelicals (and us Pentecostals) have made “don’t dance, don’t drink, don’t chew, don’t go with girls who do” a rule of Christian behavior, a rule which has no biblical warrant. But the fact that CE’s have legislated the wrong rules doesn’t mean there are no rules.



  5. George,

    I’d go to the Matt. 28.19 before I’d go to Matt.25.31-46 on Christian initiation. Or look at St. Peter’s first sermon, faith (repent) and baptism = forgiveness of sin, ie-initiation into the renewed kingdom.

    Paul at least took it for granted that these Christians were baptized. As far as maintenance in the church . . .? Of course there are “rules,” but it seems to be a pastoral issue. If ones continued lack of fruit or negative behaviour is causing division in a congregation, then that is up to the leaders to decide how to handle it. Either way, that person is not then “not a Christian.”


  6. Tony:

    In the Great Commission, baptizing and teaching are both aspects of discipleship. But “works” are an implicit part of discipleship. Remember, Jesus said “teaching them to do everything I commanded you,” not “teaching them to think everything I taught you.”

    So, I go back to my question: Does the Bible teach that works are an authentic mark of the Christian? First Timothy 5:8 and James 1:26 seem to think that helping the poor is an authentic mark of the Christian.



  7. Reed:

    I don’t see how this quote advances the discussion, so you’ll have to explain. Tony cited rules conservative evangelicals have attached to holiness (drinking, smoking, etc.) that we both agree are not biblically authoritative. I have cited numerous Scriptures that link true Christianity to works generally and helping the poor specifically. To which citation are you applying Kung?



  8. Of anything I have a problem with, it’s the fact that you view premarital sex as something that’s okay. Do you feel that way, and if so, where is your scriptural backing?


  9. Horaios,

    I do not think that premarital sex is something that is “okay.” But I would say that that is a reflection of a Christian theology of marriage, not a scriptural mandate of marriage. As has been noted several times on this blog, there is no single “biblical marriage.” There are many kinds of biblical marriage, and many sexual expressions which seem to go unchallenged in the texts of Old and New.

    This is the inevitable state of Evangelicalism and anything remotely like “sola scriptura.” If we take Tradition into account, there appears something like what we think of as “traditional Christian marriage, but it is not found explicitly and straightforwardly in Scripture.

    Unless of course you can show me a direct and anambiguous passage which taken in context says “do not have sex before marriage.”


  10. Tony:

    As I’ve noted many times on this blog, in response to numerous assertions that “there is no single ‘biblical marriage,” Jesus seemed to think that there was. In his discussion of divorce, he grounded lifelong, heterosexual marriage in creation. In the same passage, he also provided a rationale for why the law allowed deviations from this rule–namely, accommodation to man’s hardness of heart.

    In my opinion, bloggers on this site repeatedly fail to take Jesus’ hermeneutic of marriage into account. They also fail to make distinctions between what is normative, what is normed, and what is narrated. If Jesus’ hermeneutic is correct–and, by the way, do you think it is?–then lifelong, heterosexual marriage is normative; deviations from this are normed (that is, governed by laws as an accommodation to heart-hardness); and deviations are also narrated, that is, mentioned without explicit moral comment.

    If Jesus’ hermeneutic of marriage is correct, then it is impossible to separate sex and marriage in a morally normative way. This rules out extramarital sex of any kind, which is why Old Testament law provides norms regarding virginity and why the New Testament outlaws all forms of porneia. In both cultures, if an unmarried man or woman engaged in sexual intercourse, they were married or they were penalized.

    Failing to see this big picture results in the need for an explicit prooftext, which is an ironically fundamentalist demand. And two can play at that game: Will you show me the prooftext that says, by way of commandment, “Have sex before (or outside) of marriage?”



  11. George,

    In reference to what you just said; Yes, I think Jesus’ hermeneutic of creational marriage is normative – but that is Jesus’ hermeneutic of marriage not A “biblical marriage!” Simply because the words of Jesus are recorded and transmitted in a book does not mean that the authority lies in the book. The authority and interpretation lies in the proclamation of Jesus, which is different, even if subtly so, than the “bible” containing an inherent authority to set out a singular vision of marriage.

    In regards to what we were talking about before –

    I wonder if we are confusing the point I was trying to make. If, we are forgiven on account of the previous act of God in Christ then there can be no question of us marking ourselves by anything we do; we can only point to what God has done. conversion/faith/trust and baptism . . . are the ways directed by Christ himself to initiate people into this life of God.

    Unless we are going to believe in some light-switch theology of salvation maintenance, where ones life in the church is contingent on our own effort – on again off again – then it is the continually renewed trust in the act of God to save us (past/present/future tense) that constitutes our continued participation in the church.


  12. Jesus is the Word of God, the Word even, become flesh. Jesus, the (God-)Man walking around being the very Word of God. All things were made through Him, because when God said, “Let there be light” Jesus was the proclamation, “Let there be light.”

    “Simply because the words of Jesus are recorded and transmitted in a book does not mean that the authority lies in the book.”

    Exactly, the authority lies with the Man Who said the words, Jesus. If Jesus said it, it is God Who said it. And if God said it, it is final.


    1. This is a gross confusion of the Jewish and even Greek understanding of the “Logos” with the holy scriptures. A rather crude mistake based on a positivistic understanding of the English word “word” When the Johannine literature says that Jesus is the “Logos” it does not mean he is the scriptures.


  13. I don’t want to reduce Trinitarian theology to a simple statement “Jesus=God” While that is of course true, there is and should be more nuance than that.

    And saying that “What he says goes” usually means “what he says that I like goes.” Have you sold all you have and given it to the poor? etc… How we appropriate the words of Jesus are more complex than some 1 to 1 ratio of word to action.


  14. This reminds me of a story about an African chief conversing with a missionary.

    Chief: So, you’re telling me that if I become a Christian, I can no longer bed my neighbor’s wife?

    Missionary: Yes.

    Chief: And I can no longer raid the cattle of other tribes?

    Missionary: Correct.

    Chief: And I can no longer take vengeance upon my enemy?

    Missionay: That’s right. I think you are beginning to understand.

    Chief: Yes, I think I am. I am an old man and can no longer do any of those things anyway. To be a Christan is the same as being an old man.

    The point: If there is no evident joy and delight and excitement in our understanding of holiness, we have misunderstood it — and misrepresented it.


  15. Matt and Tony:

    So, the upshot of the missionary conversation on your reading of it is that it is a matter of indifference whether Christians bed their neighbors’ wives, steal other tribes’ cattle, and take vengeance upon their enemy?

    Or, let me take another crack at it, holiness is only authentic if we have “evident joy and delight and excitement in our understanding of holiness.” This seems to shift holiness from what we do to how we feel. There’s an element of legitimacy in that point, of course, but only an element. That is why Scripture always attaches specific behaviors to holiness: Levitical holiness codes, Pauline paranesis, Jesus’ commandments, etc.




  16. Tony:

    Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 5 is that a person who fails to support indigent relatives has denied his faith. That seems to connect faith and works far more closely than you’re allowing. I appreciate your strong Lutheranism (evident also in the 39 Articles), but I’m more interested in getting to the heart of biblical teaching.

    The “goats” in Matthew 25 confessed Jesus as “Lord, Lord” but were sent to hell because of a failure to obey. Perhaps they’d even been baptized. In which case they’d been initiated into the church but not into the kingdom? Why? Because nothing counts but faith working itself out in love (Paul). And because faith without works is dead (James).

    In other words, you’re quite right about the grounds of salvation: God’s action toward us in the death and resurrection of Christ. But I don’t think you’ve properly interpreted the necessary response to that grace. It is always a faith that produces works. Which must mean that works can in fact become a marker of genuine Christianity.

    In his paranesis, Paul advises Christians to remember their baptism as a spur to holiness (Romans 6). But Jesus said it is our “good works” that will cause people to glorify the Father (Matthew 5), and John said the world will know that we are “in Christ” because of our love toward one another. Again, what we do, and not merely what we believe, is a marker of genuine Christianity.

    I get the feeling we’re talking past one another because we’re (perhaps) addressing different issues. I cannot stress how STRONGLY I AGREE with you in your evaluation of conservative evangelicalism’s markers of holiness. I’ve always been more than a bit bemused by the requirement of teatotalling for followers of a man whose first miracle was turning water into wine, but whatever. For me, the question is not whether works are markers of authentic Christianity, but which works.



  17. By the way, now that I’m back in full pugnacious mode (after a wishy-washy episode in discussion with ADJ about genocide), I should reiterate again how much I appreciate this blog. It makes me think.


  18. Tony:

    Regarding the relationship of Jesus to Scripture…

    You wrote: “In reference to what you just said; Yes, I think Jesus’ hermeneutic of creational marriage is normative – but that is Jesus’ hermeneutic of marriage not A ‘biblical marriage!’ Simply because the words of Jesus are recorded and transmitted in a book does not mean that the authority lies in the book. The authority and interpretation lies in the proclamation of Jesus, which is different, even if subtly so, than the ‘bible’ containing an inherent authority to set out a singular vision of marriage.”

    (1) Are you suggesting that the Bible and Jesus have different definitions of what marriage is, but that Jesus’ is normative? If you are, I find that odd since Jesus grounded the authority for his teaching about marriage not in “the proclamation of Jesus” but in the first two chapters of Genesis.

    (2) It is the nature of a hermeneutic to lay out how the disparate texts of Scripture are properly interpreted. If I’ve correctly understood Jesus’ hermeneutic, it contains three levels: what is normative (marriage at creation), what is normed (the various allowances made due to man’s hardness of heart), and what is narrated (which is a lot of sexual anarchy, let’s be perfectly honest). In your response, you seem to address the “what is normative” issue but not the other two, but those also are the salient points. Jesus’ hermeneutic is not merely which OT Scriptures should guide Christians today, but how to interpret Scriptures on this point in their entirety.

    (3) You wrote, “Simply because the words of Jesus are recorded and transmitted in a book does not mean that the authority lies in the book.” I couldn’t agree more. Before there was a single Gospel written, Jesus’ teaching was normative for the church. But Trinitarian theology requires us to ascribe authority not merely to Jesus’ words–wherever recorded–but to the Bible itself. If the Bible is theopneustos (“God-breathed”), if the Spirit “carried along” the prophets in such a way that they spoke not their own words but God’s own words, and if Jesus is the Word of God–that is, his self-revelation–then the Bible has authority because it is God’s self revelation. That would certainly explain why, in Matthew 5, Jesus took pains to explain why he did not come to “abolish” but to “fulfill” the Law. As God the Son, he could not abolish but only fulfill the law of God because he and the Father are one.

    Perhaps I’m reading more into this paragraph than you intended. But than again, perhaps your words have implications beyond what you intended?



  19. George,

    I’ve never been called a Lutheran before!

    Let me try to take a better crack at this.

    Inasmuch as. . .

    1) There were battles in the early church over what exactly must be “done” to “mark one out” for initiation into the people of God . . .

    2) w/ some saying that circumcision and dietary laws were a must. . .

    3) God himself laid it down by a) a vision to Peter, b) the receiving of the Holy Spirit followed immediately by baptism @ the household of Cornelius, c) also by direct revelation to Paul. . .

    4) that to “become” a christian it was only necessary to a) have faith (ie- trust and “conversion”) b) to die into Christ’s death and be raised in his resurrection by baptism

    5) the resultant picture being that some erred into antinomianism. . .

    6) and brought about the counter-balance of works in the epistle of/from James. . .

    7) so that the resulting picture is this: It became the normative pattern of Christian mission to initiate people by baptism on account of faith and to expect that the transformation or regeneration @ baptism was such that it entailed a manifold plurality of truths a) dying and rising in Christ, b) forgiveness of sins, c) annointing/filling w/ the Holy Spirit, d)return from exile and restoration of Israel around Jesus

    8) which it was expected would result in good works, both the caring for the poor, loving one another and neighbor, etc…

    9) but that we still fall into error and unlove. . .

    10) which means continued judgement of the church and required penitence AND the inability, preached both by Jesus and Paul, that the final judge of faith and works is Jesus and Jesus alone until “God is all in all”

    So… though good works are indeed a true mark of Christian holiness they are not required for Christian initiation; AND since we all fail at various points in our lives to do/be good, judging people on account of their “outward lives” is not allowed except in cases where continued poor behavior is such that it seriously disrupts the live and love of a congregation, in which case it is a matter of pastoral discipline and not of questioning a persons very salvation.


  20. Tony:

    That last paragraph was very helpful.

    Reading back through this exchange, I see that you’ve been focusing on Christian initiation all along, while I’ve been focusing on what happens after initiation. So, to state a point of agreement with you: Faith marked by baptism is the biblical mark of initiation into the Christian faith.

    Are you quite sure of this statement, however: “judging people on account of their ‘outward lives’ is not allowed except in cases where continued poor behavior is such that it seriously disrupts the live and love of a congregation.” Really? Matthew 18:15-21, Galatians 6:1-2, and James 5:19-20 indicate that the process of discipleship (I prefer this word to discipline) begins when people sin, not when their sin becomes disruptive to the congregation. Indeed, it seems to be the point to begin the process of discipleship before the behavior becomes disruptive.

    One other passage to look at is 1 Corinthians 5:1-12. Here, the man’s incest had not disruptive the lives and love of the congregation, and that itself was a big problem. Of course, had someone taken the incestuous man aside earlier and discipled him correctly, the congregation never would’ve know about his behavior, so that it never would’ve become disruptive in the first place.

    “Judging people” is ambiguous. If it means simply passing moral judgment regarding their behavior and taking corrective action, then judgment happens any time we disciple someone. If you mean specifically a church judicatory in which excommunication is a possible outcome, then that’s a final step on the way out the door of the church, although hopefully it’s the first step on the way back into the church if repentance results.

    My motivation in this debate is simple: Discipleship to Christ means more than believing in Christ. It also means acting like Christ. That’s why Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels is filled with so much moral instruction (e.g., the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount or the instruction on “righteousness”). Paul’s teaching also involved paranesis, or moral instruction. Note, for example, in Ephesians 4:17-32, that to be “in the Lord” or to be “in Jesus” is fundamentally ethical.

    For me, if you want to put it in Pauline terms: We are saved by grace through faith for works (Eph. 2:8-10). And, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). And “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).



  21. George,

    Sometimes, brother, even though you are obviously incredibly intelligent and thoughtful, not taking anything for granted, but searching the Scriptures and heart; I feel that you can drift into a “conservative” evangelical doctrine of Scripture that allows for the “fullfilment” of the Torah by Jesus, yet suplants it with a “new Torah,” namely the NT. The NT is decidedly not a new Torah; the NT is the general and normative picture of apostolic proclamation and accomodation.

    *on Matt. 18.15-21 – A few problems immediately pop up here 1) Is this contextually as Jesus put it or is it a Matthean redaction for the instruction of his congregation? There are a few anomalies that beg the question… Matthew’s use of ekklesia and the semi-formal structure of a congregation implied by the reading lean in this direction. Also, this passage is exactly what I was talking about! “If your brother (NRSV says, “another member of the church”) sins against you . . .” Sounds like a pastoral matter of disruption in a congregation to me!

    *on Galations 5.13-6.10 (not just 6.1-2)
    – you were called to freedom, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity . . . *that is, conscience constrained by love ie-pastoral concern for the brother and sister*
    – “live by the Spirit and do not gratify. . . but if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. . . works of the flesh vs fruit of the Spirit. . . but “if anyone is detected. . . bear one anothers burdens in this way you fulfill the law of Christ. . . all must test their own work. . . warning that what one sows one reaps, ie-God will judge
    – seems to me, if I might paraphrase: “you are free if you live in/by the Spirit, but constrained by love. Not living in the Spirit produces x,y, and z, being in the Spirit produces a,b, and c; BUT if some are sinning, test your own work and bear one anothers burdens, knowing that whatever you sow you will reap by God’s judgement”

    *on James 5.19-20 – just what constitutes a “wonder from the truth?” If you know you could tell me, ’cause I would love to know

    I could throw a bunch of verses back if you would like to respond to mine… but I just don’t use Scripture that way. It is a canon, not a law. If I’m misreading you, please let me know, I’m not trying to lump you in with “conservatives” cause I know you are more thoughtful than that.


  22. Tony:

    Textual critic that you are, I’m suprised that you actually included “against you” in Matthew 18, given that the earliest and best manuscripts don’t include it.

    And anyway, let’s say a pastor raped a parishioner. On your reading of that passage, is the victim the only person authorized to confront her rapist? Once that “against you” is removed (as it should be), then Matthew 18 lines up with Galatians and James quite neatly: If a brother sins, whatever that sin may be, then a member of the church is authorized (by Christ no less) to confront them and lead them to repentance.

    I understand what you’re saying about “disruptive,” but I don’t think any of the passages I’ve cited require that there be a disruption in the congregation for discipleship to begin. Only that there be a sin. Indeed, the 1 Corinthians 5 passage seems to indicate that the sin was taking place outside of the congregation. Why do I say this? Because the “man” is to be excommunicated, but not his stepmother–which would be expected if she also were a member of the congregation.

    If Scripture is a canon, not a law–or more specifically, if the New Testament is–why does it contain so many commandments? And why so much casuistry? And you are aware that the Greek kanon pistis is the formal equivalent of the Latin regula fidei, both meaning “rule of faith,” aren’t you?

    But let’s get back to the original issue: Do you believe that the Bible lays out certain behaviors and virtues as authentic marks of Christian faith? To date, I would answer that question no based on what you’ve written. You seem to indicate that only faith and baptism are those marks, and I agree that those are the only initiatory practices Christ gave us. But my point all along has been that there’s much to Christian living past initiation.

    Regarding the phrase, “wander from the truth,” I take that as a broad category of theological error. Since you think “faith” is a mark of authentic Christianity, I would’ve thought you’d put a bit more effort into understanding this one. After all, faith must be true faith to be saving faith. Why doesn’t James specify what kind of wandering he’s talking about? For the simple reason that he’s talking about a category of theological error that has many exemplars. He could not possibly know all the theological errors that 2000 years of Christianity would eventually produce, so he left the statement broad and open-ended.



  23. George,

    “Textual critic” that I am I know there are better mss that do not include it, still, there are reasons (the oral pronounciation) to leave some room for doubt. Either way, it does not rise or fall on the reading specifically.

    I think we agree more than you seem to realize.

    – I affirm that there are normative marks of Christian holiness, most of which are positive in nature

    – I affirm that there may be times when a “sin” is such that it would require discipline for its own sake

    – But, where we seem to differ is at what point a failure to act “holy” is such that it requires reproval. Or even here, we may agree, possibly – but what I want to emphasize, and emphatically so, is that the “job” of the Body is not minute policing of ‘behavior’ but proclamation of forgiveness and grace in Christ.


  24. George,

    You say: “If Scripture is a canon, not a law–or more specifically, if the New Testament is–why does it contain so many commandments? And why so much casuistry?”

    ha! Why is most of the NT so ad hoc and occasional? Why does St. Paul draw attention to things being “his own opinion” and why are some books (certainly not just the Revelation of John) written in such eager anticipation of an apocalyptic consumation, only for us to find out that things didn’t exactly go according to plan?


  25. Tony:

    You didn’t answer my question, and your questions don’t overturn my point. The Old Testament is also ad hoc and contains plenty of apocalyptic, and yet you don’t find it difficult to describe as legal.

    Indeed, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the laws or commandments are situated in the midst of narratives: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Lane of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before me.” “You have been bought with a price; therefore, honor God with your body.”

    Now, I don’t disagree with you that law is not a primary genre of the New Testament. So I can understand why you point to all the elements that you do–ad hoc-ness, Paul’s opinions, apocalyptic, etc.

    But of course the New Testament presupposes the Old Testament, and both are Scripture. The law, in one way or another, permeates Jesus’ teaching. The Great Commandment is a quotation of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, for example. Jesus commends Pharisees for diligence in tithing (which is in the law) but condemns them for ignoring the “the more important matters of the law,” such as justice and mercy. Paul himself said that commandments are summed up in the commandment of neighbor love. And John spoke of the law of love.

    So, back to my point, the New Testament contains rules, commandments, and laws–not just opinions, suggestions, and narratives.



  26. Thanks Matt, George and I can usually find something to disagree on.


    I’m wondering if we want to go down a path of a “doctrine of Scripture” or not. There are obvious holes in your appropriation of “NT command” passages. I don’t see you having sold all your possessions and given them to the poor. Do you require that women stay silent in a service? Is their hair long? Do they wear coverings when they prophecy? Wait…they can prophecy? I thought they were supposed to be silent! aaahhh, if only the NT gave us straightforward and logically consistent rules to apply to all matters in life! Are we supposed to go and buy a sword, or are we to know that to “live by the sword is to die by it?”

    So, sure, there are “command” passages in the NT, even to the point of sounding an awful like “law.” But neither of us follow these rules to the letter. Why is that? And how can we justify the selective obedience? “Some things are ‘merely’ cultural?” Who decides what is cultural and what is not.

    In this way, though there are “rules, commandments, and laws” the way in which the Scriptures come alive in the Church is by appropriating the ‘shape’ of the documents. Scripture is the norming norm, not the proclamation from on high, etched in stone.


  27. Tony:

    I’d be more than happy to discuss the doctrine of Scripture, although the questions you raise really have less to do with what Scripture is (the doctrine of Scripture) than with how we interpret it (hermeneutics).

    On hermeneutics, a basic distinction in laws, rules, and commandments is between apodictic laws and case laws. The former are broad statements with universal application: Do not steal, do not kill, etc. The latter are narrow statements with particular application to cases.

    Most of the commandments you’ve cited above apply to particular cases: particular women in particular cirumstances, the rich young ruler (although not necessarily the wealthy women who supported Jesus and the disciples), etc. Some of the cases–the commandment regarding the sword–are much harder to interpret because of lack of context.

    That’s how I would begin to answer your questions.

    But I’m sure you aware that the church has been wrestling with these kinds of hermeneutical issues for, oh, about 2,000 years. Surely there are resources even in the Anglican Church that touch on these topics. For example, here’s Article 7 of the 39 Articles:

    “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.”

    This draws distinctions between kinds of laws, explains a theological rationale for what you mock as “selective obedience”–at least when it comes to civil and ceremonial laws, and yet still finds room for the moral law in the life of the Christian.

    And here’s Article 38, on commandments regarding wealth:

    “The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same; as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.”

    So, to be perfectly honest, I think you’re being a bit coy in your treatment of the law, Tony–un-Anglican, even.

    Your last sentence confuses me: “the way in which the Scriptures come alive in the Church is by appropriating the ’shape’ of the documents.” But what if the “shape” (genre?) of the documents is legal? Ah, well, Scripture may be “the norming norm” but it’s not “the proclamation from on high, etched in stone.” But what if Scripture is “the proclamation from on high”? What if God speaks through it? What if he “etches it in stone,” or on our hearts?

    One wonders, to return to the doctrine of Scripture, how such an implicitly “low” view of Scripture could ever result in the belief that Scripture is a “norming norm.”



  28. George,

    I’ve never found distinctions between different kinds of laws at all convincing. If one were to theoretically ask an ancient Israelite whether some of YHWH’s laws are divided into two convenient categories of varying eternal truthfulness and authority and I doubt whether we would get anything like what you and others say.

    I also disagree completely that what I am saying is merely a hermeneutical issue. As it stands, Scripture at different points and for different reasons says things that taken in a straightforward fashion are close to mutually exclusive. For example, where some (many!) Psalms plead for the destruction and punishment of enemies, Jesus says that we should pray/love/serve our enemies. Those are mutually exclusive options.

    In my opinion you have a priori commitments to a certain doctrine of the nature of Scripture and convictions about the nature of “truth” which cause you to argue as you do. That’s fine, of course we all have a priori commitments, some conscious others not, but let’s not pretend that Scripture itself demands to be read as a single massive document.

    As far as the Articles of Religion… They hardly have an authoritative place in Anglicanism. And this is not just in the ‘liberal West’ but in many other parts of the Anglican world. You would be surprised how much the Asian provinces value their independence.

    So perhaps in regards to the Articles I am not very ‘Anglican.’ Though if that is true, you are not a very good Pentecostal. In fact most these days are not, having sold their soul to be valued in the National Association of Evangelicals, most Pentecostals have lost all sense of the continuing revelatory work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and instead have reduced themselves to conservative Evangelicals who sometimes pray in tongues.

    I may have an implicitly “low” view of Scripture, but I have a “high” view of the Holy Spirit in the Church to interpret Scripture.


  29. Tony:

    Why can’t the division of the Law into moral, civil, and ceremonial kinds be the result of the Holy Spirit leading the church in its interpretation of Scripture? Surely your “high” view of Scripture could allow for that, couldn’t it?

    Indeed, I would argue that something like that was at work in the historical development of the understanding of kinds of the law. Why?

    First, the exile and the ongoing diaspora forced Jews before Christ to make distinctions between the kinds of laws they could keep in exile/diaspora, and the kinds they couldn’t. This privileged the moral over the civil (since they were not in the Promised Lane) and the ceremonial (since they had no Temple). After the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the millennia long exile that followed, rabbinic Judaism continued this arc of interpretation.

    Second, any straightforward reading of Paul and Hebrews indicates two things: (1) an appreciation of the moral law for its ability to demonstrate the justice of God and our need for Christ because of our inability to keep it; (2) a realization that the death and resurrection permanently altered the relationship of the Christian to Temple, priesthood, and sacrifice; and (3) a further realization that the church is neither Israel nor a nation but rather analogous to Israel in exile. We are, as Peter puts it, sojourners in this age. Like Israel in exile, the church appreciated the moral law–didn’t Paul say that love is the fulfillment of the law–without feeling under any necessity to keep either the ceremonial or the civil laws, although these laws were often instructive types of Christ.

    Third, the Jerusalem Council confirmed the law-free nature of conversion when it admitted Gentiles into the church fellowship without requiring circumcision or kosher diets. This didn’t mean, however, that they could do as they pleased morally.

    Given these kinds of considerations–and given your “high” view of the Spirit’s ability to guide the church–I’m surprised that you as a Christian don’t find the distinction between the Old Testament’s moral, ceremonial, and civil law to be reasonable.

    Would a Jew have made a distinction among the laws? Yes. Read the prophets. There is a constant polemic against scrupulous adherence to the cermonial law in the absence of real obedience to the moral law. At points in the prophets, God himself says that he would rather not have sacrifices in the absence of justice. And Jesus said a similar thing when he contrasted tithing mint, dill, and cummin while neglecting the “weighter” matters of the law. So I’m quite confident that a Jew in Jesus’ day could’ve understand that there are levels of law, in terms of weight, and therefore distinctions in law, in terms of kind.

    And, to reiterate what I said above, the Jews would have been painfully aware of this because of their status as exiles in diaspora. Indeed, the evolution of rabbinic Judaism over the centuries has been a greater appreciation of the moral law precisely because exiles in diaspora cannot begin to keep the ceremonial or civil laws.

    I’ll concede that the doctrine of Scripture is implicated in hermeneutical discussions. If, as you seem to believe, Scripture contradicts itself, then you don’t need to bother with harmonizing things. Of course, by the same token, you’ll have a hard time saying with a straight face that God is the author of Scripture. Instead, you’ll have to pick through which parts you think God said and which you don’t.

    Starting with the opposite assumption–that God is the author of Scripture–forces you to come up with a hermeneutic that takes all the pieces of the puzzle and puts them together. Obviously, the latter is my strategy.

    Interestingly, you disparage the imprecatory psalms and contrast them with what Jesus said about enemy love, to the point of claiming they’re mutually exclusive or contradictory. I wonder if you do the same thing with Jesus’ teaching about enemy-love and his teaching about hell. Or if you use the Gospels to contradict the hairier parts of Revelation.

    You’re quite correct that my hermeneutic presupposes my doctrine of Scripture. Yours does as well. But when you say, “let’s not pretend that Scripture itself demands to be read as a single massive document,” you’re arguing from your presuppositions. Why should I accept those, however? Couldn’t I just as reasonably say, based on my presuppositions, “let’s not pretend that Scripture does not have God as its author and is therefore internally incoherent”?

    The 39 Articles do not have an authoritative place in Anglicanism? I didn’t know that. I wonder, however, whether my interpretation of Scripture is closer to historical Anglicanism and majority-world Anglicanism than is yours, at least as regards Scripture. I mean, I’ll grant that Bishop Spong wouldn’t buy into my position, but I wonder about Bishop Wright and Bishop Orombi.

    Finally, I concede that I’m not a very good Pentecostal.



  30. George,

    You say:

    First, the exile and the ongoing diaspora forced Jews before Christ to make distinctions between the kinds of laws they could keep in exile/diaspora, and the kinds they couldn’t. This privileged the moral over the civil (since they were not in the Promised Lane) and the ceremonial (since they had no Temple). After the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the millennia long exile that followed, rabbinic Judaism continued this arc of interpretation.

    I have never read anything to imply that loyal Jews in the first century ever saw Torah as anything but a whole. Whatever the historical reality of a mixed lived holiness, even if some laws were obsolete in popular life for whatever reason. Plus, your categories of different kinds of Law miss the normal usage of “Law” to signify Torah, not a legal system!

    So absolutely I agree. Once again you have masterfully done all the work for me, undercut your own doctrine and advanced my own. It was unprecedented historical circumstances’ and crisis’ in the life of (at least the deported) Israel that precipitated the shift in theology. Keep in mind that much of what we think of as the OT, including, especially, the Torah, was itself compiled, edited, and redacted to something resembling what we have now during the deportation to Babylon.

    That is why I would never say something like “God is the author” of the Bible. The emphasis in Revelation (the theological concept not the book) should be on the Spirit. Otherwise how does one account for the complex traditioning going on in Scripture as it is spoken, recorded, remembered, redacted, revised, transmitted and translated?

    It is not just moral “laws” that are contradictory; there are many points within the text itself where there is polemic against other parts of Scripture. A classic example is the revisionist history of Israel written by the Chronicler. The author(s) explicitly re-wrote and re-vised previous accounts of Israel’s history to make theological points. How can we reconcile this in harmony? Where does explicit human intent and polemic fit in with a “God wrote it” understanding of Scripture?

    As far as what “laws” transfer into the church? It is problematically Western to train our focus on the Cross as judgment of “ceremonial law” since the sacrifices are done away with by the perfect Sacrifice. However much that is true (and it is!) it is missing the other parts of the narrative.

    We like to talk about Paul, and you mentioned Hebrews, but I would like to talk about Lukan theology for a moment. Pentecostals are supposed to like that.

    As early as 150 b.c. the Jewish festival of “Pentecost” was celebrated as a harvest festival yes, but came to signify the giving of Torah to Moses. In Acts 2, on the day of pentecost, the waiting disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit with the accompanying physical sign of “tongues of fire.” That is, the same “fire” that signified the presence of YHWH and the giving of Torah was now manifested by the giving of the Spirit with the result that they preached the Gospel in many (in this case intelligable) tongues.

    Luke explicitly sees what happened in the upper room as a “fulfillment” or “replacement” of the necessity of the Law (that is, Torah) in the life of the people. As Peter saw it this was a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.

    – I certainly do not disparage the imprecatory Psalms. I read the Psalter every day. What I don’t do is harmonize.

    – In my opinion. Doctrines of Scripture such as yours are not designed to speak about the nature of Scripture as such. Just like the qualifiers “inerrant” and “infallable,” they function to ensure the authority of the documents. I do not need such a doctrine to assure their authority, I have the living Tradition to do that. When/if I become ordained I need only affirm that “Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation” and I can do that with a clear conscience.

    – What I meant, but was not very clear about concerning the 39 Articles, was that absolute assent is not generally necessary for ordination in the large part of the Anglican Communion. I am not siding with “bishop” Spong by saying such a thing.


    as if it needed saying, I am enjoying this


  31. Tony:

    In the above series of posts, you’ve written several things that have left me confused when it comes to understanding your doctrine of Scripture:

    First, “Scripture is the norming norm, not the proclamation from on high, etched in stone.”

    Second, “let’s not pretend that Scripture itself demands to be read as a single massive document.”

    Third, “I have a ‘high’ view of the Holy Spirit in the Church to interpret Scripture.”

    Fourth, “I do not need such a doctrine to assure their authority, I have the living Tradition to do that.”

    Despite your nod to Scripture as the “norming norm,” i.e., the norm that is normative for all subsidiary norms (e.g., tradition, reason, and experience), you seem to place tradition in that norming norm role instead.

    It is, after all, tradition that puts the Scripture into canonical form, requring us to read it as “one massive document.” It is tradition that provides the correct interpretation of Scripture (explaining your “high” view of the Spirit’s ability to guide the church’s interpretation). And it is tradition that ensures the authority of Scripture, at least in your view.

    So, my first question about your doctrine of Scripture is this: Have I correctly understood your view of the relationship between Scripture and tradition? And if not, can you explain why not?

    Second, whether or not I have correctly understood your position on Scripture and tradition, a second question arises: In light of your obvious affinity for “the living Tradition of the church,” can you please show me where in that tradition you will find any of the kinds of statements made by you? My reading of the various creeds and confessions of the church indicates that the tradition believed in Scripture’s inspiration, authority, infallibility, and even inerrancy. Not only that, the tradition regards as God’s very own words the passages that you call into question. Additionally, one of the purposes underlying the various hermeneutical systems that the tradition came up with (the fourfold sense of Scripture, the three uses of the law, the division of the law into three kinds, interpretation according to types, etc.) was precisely to explain away the logical contradictions that you seem to think run amok in the Bible. In other words, I’m challenging you to show in the tradition where creeds and confessions made the kind of statements you make about the Bible. I don’t think you can, but I could be wrong.

    And third: whence does tradition derive its authority to tell us that a bunch of logically contradictory books–that anyway shouldn’t be read as “one massive document”–have authority over us?



    1. George,

      You have reason to be confused, as I have not been very systematic or precise! I’ll try to clear up a bit, but let’s just say I am still searching this one out.

      I would place Scripture in the place where Barth does in his “3-fold form of the Word of God” – 1) Jesus Christ is THE word of God primarily 2)The Gospel or Proclamation about Jesus, what he achieved and made known through the life, death and resurrection (got that definition from McGrath’s Intro to Christian Theology) 3) Scripture, as interpreted Christologically

      Add to that this bit from Schleiermacher (he gets a bad rap do ya know?) on the “two-fold character of the NT”, which seems to me applicable to a larger theology of the Scripture, intertwined with Tradition: “one the one hand, the first member in the series, ever since continued, of presentations of the Christian faith” and as, on the other hand, “the norm for all succeeding presentations”

      So I resonate with Eastern Orthodoxy who sees Scripture as itself Tradition, but of the highest and most authoritative sort.

      Any questions still?


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