Sunday, January 29, 2012

iMonk: Hard Talk II--Defending Dissent

After all, since this is something Michael Spenser wrote at Internet Monk and I've been reading Internet Monk since, I dunno, ten years ago, I'm linking to it.  I have a feeling we may be sharing similar thoughts about the necessity within evangelicalism to give room for dissent.  It'd be an irony that evangelicals whose roots emerge from what was considered historic and necesary dissent of the abuse of church power would now themselves represent the same kind of self-preserving and self-justifying misuse of power in the very churches where leaders would decry Papists as holding wrong doctrines.  Well, when Israel became the divided kingdom which of the two groups faithfully and always served the Lord?  Yeah, that's right, neither of them.

Now my own assessment of the prophetic role is going to come off as substantially less exalted than what others may have suggested.  This is not because I consider prophets unimportant but because I have begun to appreciate the significance of Deuteronomy 16-18 that many people using "prophets" as a basis for defending their own authority tend to skip over; the prophet was a role provided within the Torah as an ad hoc committee role to adjudicate issues that the Torah did not cover in case law. In other words the understanding much of the time was that the majority of life within Israel did not require a prophet to be consulted all the time. 

It is true that prophets often played a critical role but that is because we have written documents from prophets whose work got canonized. This is not the same as looking to Deuteronomy 16-18 to get some idea of what was considered a normative role for a prophet. Some of the most important prophets (Elijah, Nathan and Huldah) in the history of Israel and Judea did not write anything down. They were also not necessarily critics.  They could, however, be construed as policy advisors.

The prophetic job was to advise a king whether to go to war because a military situation came up that the Torah didn't address.  The prophetic role as to assist in adjudication of an unusual case that was not adequately adressed by case law in the Torah.  The prophetic role was also to challenge Israel to be obedient to what was revealed and to not digress into the worship of other gods on the one hand nor to the neglect of obedience and faithfulness while professing a nominal faith on the other. The role of the prophet prescribed in Deuteronomy 18 was not to "write books of the Bible".  Eschatological prophecy is not even on the table there, despite the fact that many, many Christians assume it must be. 

There's a difference between a later Christian gloss on a passage in the Torah and what the passage was originally actually talking about. We can get to the Christian appreciation of Jesus as the ultimate prophet when we read Deuteronomy 18 but before we skip straight to the big old meaning with the indefinite article we need to properly come to terms with the definite article that doesn't have a capital letter in it, and with indefinite articles.  Any old preacher can claim to be a prophet because he preaches but that does not make him a prophet, it makes him more like a priest. If the preacher fields theological and ethical issues that are not directly dealt with by the Bible then, sure, he's started to play a prophetic role.

When Paul urges people to seek the higher gifts he doesn't write this as though there was some one and done litany of Spirit-given super-powers you get for life.  His corretion to the Corinthians assumes that they knew who had the gift of tongues and who had the gift of interpreting tongues. He also assumed that there was an ability to acquire the better gifts. When we consider that the fruit of the spirit is pretty prosaic it might also suggest that the gifts of the spirit may be roles we grow into and take for occasions rather than lifetimes; roles that can be informed by those things that out of love we do for the church/Church. 

Paul's instruction about the spiritual gifts has often been misused by cessationists and charismatics who are bickering about whether these gifts are really available now and what that is supposed to say about which of the two teams can make the greatest claim to legitimate institutional power.  Paul skips past that and doesn't bother to define the spiritual gifts contemporary Christians debate about.  He provides a few general guidelines and, famously, says "And now I will show you a still better way."

When Paul says to earnestly seek the better gifts he does not describe the gift very clearly, what he does describe clearly is the role the gift of service plays in a community.  In other words, cultivate the fruit of the Spirit and love your fellow believers and this will in itself constitute seeking to embody such gifts as Paul enumerates.  Pursue love of Christ and of neighbor and the spiritual gifts you actually need will take care of themselves for two reasons: 1) the fruit of the Spirit that grows in your life will prepare you for service and 2) the role you are able to play by the cultivation of that fruit in seeking to love the Lord and your neighbor will be something the Spirit takes care of without you having to constantly fret about it. 

You don't need to really ask yourself "Is what I am doing prophetic?" or "Is what I'm doing the gift of healing?" or "Is what I'm saying a sign of the gift of exhortation?" The gift of healing may not be something as flashy as laying hands on someone and healing their illness.  A gift of healing may be something such as a providential giving that allows someone who is going blind to see.  A person who plays a prophetic role does not have to always be speaking in oracles with King James English like, "Thus sayeth the Lord", a person who plays a prophetic role does not need to know he or she is doing so.  But a person who considers, as the prophet Jeremiah did, that the lying pen of scribes has transformed the Scriptures themselves into a lie can perform a prophetic role without having to display some kind of superpower. Yes, we're told about floating ax handles and parting seas and all that but we all know that the real Christian life is far more prosaic and we can forget that there was a more mundane concern in ensuring a floating ax handle was rescued.

At the end of days I would rather be in a position to wonder when I did anything like speaking in a prophetic way or bringing the gift of healing to someone when the Lord speaks than to boast in the things I was sure I did in Jesus' name only to discover He says "I never knew you." The world has been full of self-appointed prophets but what the Church may need are more accidental prophets, prophets who speak not because they want to or can't think of better things to do with their time, but who through providence and eagerness to love and serve the body of Christ bear the fruit of the Spirit and live the role when needed rather than thinking of it as some permanent vocation. 

Do you think Amos was a full-time prophet?  No, he tended sheep and dressed trees, right? Prophets did do ordinary things, too. There were some people who played the role of prophets as formal cabinet advisors to a king or priest in Israel but there were, we know this from Amos alone, some prophets had day jobs and only spoke when it was necesarry, when seeing the corruption of leaders and self-appointed spiritual authorities grew too be too much and they spoke against corruption and wickedness.

How could there be corruption and wickedness in the Christian community, you ask?  We all know the answer of course, but the need for a prophetic activity is that all too often we assume we're the ones who get to play that prophetic role for that other sinner rather than consider that God may have appointed that other sinner (of all people!) to speak in a prophetic way to us.  Schlatter was right to observe we do not lessen our share in evil by condemning evil in others yet the history of prophets has often been that though they, like Isaiah, recognize they are sinful folks with unclean lips, God sends them to speak up anyway. Tricky thing is that we may not recognize them when they speak to us because we're so sure they can't be legit.  Unsurprisingly, there were religious leaders and advocates who said the same thing about the greatest prophet, weren't there?

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