I was at the evening service in my home church last night and, I must confess, didn’t particularly engage with the theme of the sermon. It struck me as bordering on eisegesis rather than exegesis. To be fair, what it was doing was asking questions of the text that weren’t (I would have said) inherent in the text – the questions didn’t arise from the text; they were being imposed upon it (in my opinion). But, as I said, it did kick off a train of thought that I’m still wondering about.

The text in question was Exodus 27 (the construction details of the tabernacle and associated bits and pieces). It’s the habit of my minister to work through an entire book, leaving nothing out, hence this particular text. The Questions that were asked of the text were “Who can approach God?” and “”How can we approach God?” (the latter with two subsections – ‘by sacrifice’ and ‘through consecration’). Being a sound evangelical sermon, it was, of course, firmly linked to Jesus and the cross. But I have to confess, I struggle to make the link in a meaningful way. Or more to the point, I struggle with a reading of scripture that leans too heavily on the semiological, typological or prototype approach. And I also take issue with the ‘conclusion’ that only those who acknowledge Jesus’ sacrifice and ‘consecrate’ themselves are able to approach God in worship.

Anyway, to the point.

The train of thought that was sparked off was the idea of ‘progress’. It seems to me that what scripture witnesses to is the developing relationship humanity has with God. But it also strikes me as being more than that. When the first ‘sacrifices’ were made to God by Cain and Abel, why didn’t God simply turn round and say, “Well, thanks, but you’ve kind of got the wrong end of the stick about sacrifices.” It would have saved a whole lot of arguing over process and procedure. It would have saved an awful lot of legal wordplay over rules and regulations (and maybe no need for lawyers, so the world’s a better place all round – joke, honest). It would have saved some breath for God to not have to say that actually, He wasn’t overly enthusiastic about burnt offerings.

But, of course, that didn’t happen and I believe that it didn’t for a reason – progress. Being the sort of creatures we are, we have to be led through a process until we get to the realisation of what it’s really all about. (Have you ever tried to get a committee to agree on what you’d like done? You need to make them think it’s their idea or it’ll never happen.)  And so it strikes me that in scripture, and especially the Old Testament, what we have is a witness to the ongoing maturing (and I use the word advisedly) of faith until it gets to the point where Jesus, His ministry, His death on a cross, and His resurrection are actually meaningful. Any earlier and you’re in the middle of the sacrificial cycle with prophecy for/against the nations and prophecy for/against Israel with insufficient stability for the sacrificial system and the place of Israel to be really questioned. Any later and you run the risk of there being no Israel left, or at least a diminished number which would have lessened the significance of a Jew dying on a cross and not enough people around to take notice of what it meant, in terms of past prophecy and future hope.

So, where am I going with this?

That’s what I’m still working through I think. It does mean that we cannot erase the Old Testament as it stands as witness to that progress (or lack thereof) – a warning from history, if you like. But it also does more than that. It gives us our trajectory for future faith. If we only started with Jesus then there are any number of tangents that could be headed on. Not all would be fruitful, but interestingly, I don’t believe all would be dead-ends. Furthermore, it means that we can’t stop with the New Testament. We can’t hanker back to the church of the NT; we can’t ‘get back to basics’. We have to make sense of where we are and make sure that we haven’t entirely disconnected with the past. Progress isn’t about starting all over again every time. It may mean having to throw away a lot of baggage from time to time, but there can never be a clean break. Nor does there need to be.

But it does mean, I think, that we can’t superimpose the present on the past and shout, “Look, that was there all along – we (they) just didn’t see it.” It all has to be seen in the context of progress. Of course, that does also raise some fascinating theological questions, especially around pre- and post-cross salvation. It also means that we have to be rooted in scripture, but always interpreting and reinterpreting it in the light of our culture and context. In what better sense is it God’s ‘living word’ (lower-case ‘w’ deliberate)? To ‘disconnect’ from scripture and rely upon a personal sense of ‘spirituality’ is not Christian. It also raises issues of individuality over and against community (and now I’ve finally managed to drag these thoughts towards my Masters project) and the fact that we must surely draw upon the progress made by the whole faith community. Otherwise, are we not, as a society, simply standing still however much we may appear to progress as individuals?

Anyway, that’s been a bit of a long ramble for no apparent conclusion or purpose other than to be a bit of a brain dump on my part.

6 responses to “Progress”

  1. hey john—
    i’d like to think out loud with you about progress.
    a couple of months ago, i had my appendix removed.  the diagnosis and operation were relatively simple, anesthetics and antibiotics did their work, outpatient care and follow up care were quite straight forward, and i’m fit as a fiddle.  but 100 years ago, i probably would have died.
    i would argue that in the medical field, progress has to do with 1) extending life; and 2) relieving pain.  these are two of the qualities by which medical progress is assessed, and measured.  some of it is determined by looking backward in history (in the last 100 years, medicine has done this); and forward (in the next 100 years, medicine will do this).
    when you talk about your faith community, how would you identify, assess, and measure the qualities you felt were progressing?  does your community have particular standards?  are they rooted in scripture?  in a community mission statement?  in some other quantifiable creed or dogma?
    i would argue that often, progress in communities is identified, assessed, and measured in hindsight.  and from this hindsight, the community can determine, or discern, a sense of purpose, which then becomes a kind of standard.
    but if your faith community is initially unsure of its purpose, and then discerns a purpose in hindsight, and then proclaims that this was the purpose all along, (you just didn’t know it), and that it is making progress, i would argue that hindsight bias (vaticinium ex eventu) is at work on a community level.  and then progress becomes self-congratulatory, or a construct, or a way of avoiding other purposes that didn’t show as much ‘progress’ as they were supposed to.
    i mention this because it sounds to me like the sermon you were listening to is rooted in a very similar kind of hindsight bias—what you call eisegesis.  your speaker has a conclusion to justify, an agenda, and will fiddle with stories about scripture, mission, purpose, personal experiences, and current events in such a way that his conclusion appears to ‘fall out’ of the exodus reading.  messianic typology is the most pervasive of this kind of eisegesis hindsight bias, in my opinion.  there’s nothing wrong with faith communities working this way in my worldview, as long as the interpretation does no harm—if the hindsight bias is used to justify slavery, it’s harmful.
    but for someone like yourself for whom the theological principles discussed are important to your faith community, then i would argue that such homiletics is damaging to the community’s sense of real purpose.
    i wouldn’t think, myself, that progress per se is a useful lens through which to view a faith community’s actions, because of the hindsight bias pitfall that is a part of so many christian faith communities (fulfilled ‘prophecies’ is another instance of that hind sight bias that i think is more often damaging to a community’s ability to function well in the world than not).
    the temptation also is to measure the perceived progress, and then one’s efforts are to ‘raise the number of people saved,’ for instance, rather than to function effectively in the world.  when jesus told peter, ‘feed my sheep,’ he didn’t specify numbers of people and calories-per-person.  there’s no progress, per se, in jesus’ plea to peter. just respond to the predicament of hunger and poverty as you perceive it, to the best of your ability.
    rather, i would use scripture as stimulus for faith deepening.  i’d let the joys and concerns of the assembly, coupled with the readings, to act as the agent for what’s needed for your crowd to ‘weather the storm’ when it comes, whatever that storm is.  scripture doesn’t need to be used as hindsight justification for a favorite theological principle.
    just what i think.
    how’s your own homiletics coming?

  2. Hi Scott,

    Good to hear from you. Sorry to hear you had to undergo some medical procedures but very glad to hear the all went well and you are keeping fit again.

    And thank you too for your thought-provoking comments. I think you highlight one of the dangers of using words like ‘progress’. We live in a society that loves metrics. Everything we have to do needs to be shown to have achieved more, been done more efficiently or given greater value. I think you rightly recognise that that is not where I am coming from with this post and I would endorse your closing remarks about what ‘progress’ in a faith community is more about. I’d rather see one person committed to making a difference than 100 who talk a good game. (I’m not suggesting we neglect the 100 – one of them may become the 1 committed person after all.) When I used the word in the context above, I think what I had in my head was the idea of ‘moving on’ without the baggage of implied improvement.

    I guess where I was perhaps going with this was to have a push away from “the good old days” mentality. I think we often look back at scriptural events and say, “we need to be more like that person” or “we need to do more of that sort of thing”. The danger is that “that person” and “that thing” are so alien to our current context that we have to twist too hard to get them to fit. Again that’s not to say that we cannot derive meaningful teaching from such things.

    As I’m typing I find other thoughts jumping into my head about this. I understand and appreciate the theology and reasoning behind this approach of reading all thing ‘Christ’ back into the Old Testament, but I wonder if it is actually necessary. Is our faith in the Christ-event itself so fragile that we need to ‘justify’ it from OT scripture? Is it necessary to say, “Look, it really is all about Jesus!” Of course, in a sense it is, but it doesn’t need to be all about this all of the time and in such a ‘developed’ sense. I wonder if the ‘strength’ and power of the OT lies in that evolving understanding of God that it witnesses to? It serves as a reminder of the need for preparation and formation rather than just arriving. And it also helps serves to make the Christ-event a focal point. But it’s not like a black hole which gathers all things to itself and never releases them. Rather it’s a focal point like the epicentre of pond ripples. There must be a outward direction and impetus from it – purpose, as you rightly suggest.

    And to follow up the pond ripple analogy – often we are like a cork on the water. We bob up and down as the ripples pass, but ultimately we are left unmoved. To make ‘progress’, we need to be part of the ripple itself. Maybe discerning which parts of scripture are ripple and which part are corks is the heart of interpretation.

    As for homiletics, I’m still firmly in the ‘narrative’ camp I’d say. I was never sold on historical-critical methodology and I think suffered a bit for it on the course you are alluding to. Anyway, that’s all in the past having graduated in the summer and now following theological thoughts again for my Masters.

  3. john–

    you’ve some interesting thoughts there.  give me a bit more time with them, and i’ll have other questions and notions.

    but i do have one open ended one i’d like to ask about your roles in your past parishes.

    there are a thousand different theological principles out there that have meant something of value to a faith community at some time.  some of them i find useful, and valuable, and some are of no consequence whatsoever.  in your experience, what theological principles are important to you regarding anglicanism, evangelism, and other dogmas, as they apply to a parish?  what theological principles are important to you, especially as priest and pastor?


  4. Great question Scott.

    I think it merits a post all on its own so I’ll give it some thought and post something in due course. Just to clarify though: the tradition I am from, and will be answering from is Presbyterian Protestant. Also I am not yet ordained – the wheels of the Church of Scotland selection and training process grind slowly (especially in my case).

  5. john—
    i want to think more about progress and purpose, but i want to come at it a bit sideways.
    imagine yourself as the pastor of a parish (congregation?).  consider this as your faith community’s mission statement:
    “our mission is to respond to the call of the christian gospel, through the heritage of scottish presbyterianism.”
    imagine yourself and your vestry (board? council?) spending the day wrestling with this sort of mission statement. 
    consider the following questions:
    –is this our mission?  if it isn’t, what is our mission?
    –how do we perceive the ‘call of the christian gospel,’ right here, right now?
    –what qualifiers would we place before the clause ‘through the heritage of scottish presbyterianism?  for instance which of these three best describes our approach to responding to the call of the christian gospel:
    …<i>exclusively</i> through the heritage…
    …<i>primarily</i> through the heritage…
    …<i>beginning</i> with the heritage…
    –what responses have we made in the past to the call of the christian gospel?
    –what worked and what didn’t, about our past responses?
    –what responses can you imagine for our parish in the future, to the call of the christian gospel?
    –how will we resource these future responses, in time, effort, and money?
    ok, that’s part one.
    part two:
    how, then, does one think about faith community <i>progress</i>, in light of what was discussed with your vestry?
    one of the ways i look at these things is in configurations.  your parish has a particular configuration right now about how it responds to the call of the christian gospel (organization chart, roles of individual players, scottish presbyterian heritage, primacy/hierarchy of particular theological and social principles, resource allocation).  but one can imagine other configurations.  is there a ‘better’ configuration for your parish, for responding to the christian gospel than your current one?  if so, what does it look like?  what makes a different configuration than the one you have now ‘better?’
    progress, then might be considered the change, advancement if you will, to a better configuration, which is, i think, one of the things you are talking about in your essay.
    that’s part two.
    ok, part three:
    now, to the evening service you attended/participated in, the speaker’s methods and use of scripture, and your response/disappointment:
    if the speaker had been part of the day-long vestry seminar, i would ask him/her:
    in what way is your wrestle and presentation with scripture in support of responding to the call of the christian gospel?
    it may be that he/she feels strongly that his/her approach <i>is</i> in support.  it would be interesting to hear how typology, or semiology, or prototype approaches support the mission statement.  it might be that, after wrestling with how the scripture methodology presented is valuable, or meaningful, that the mission statement needs further wrestling.  or it might be that one’s scripture presentation time is better spent doing something else.
    when i wrestle with scripture with teenagers and adults, we share the lectionary readings and then i wait for theological principles to ‘fall out’ of the scripture, usually without too much teasing.  i never wrestle with the degree of truth in these principles; rather i accept them as true and then we wrestle with them from there.  it sems there are two directions to take things in:
    forward, toward hermeneutics and homiletics, toward practical applications of the theological principles in the lives of the group at hand; or
    backward into language exegesis, scriptural heuristics, historical criticism, and contextual study.[1]
    while there is some mixing of the two directions, especially with adult scripture study, most of the faith deepening comes from wrestling with the praxy the group thinks about.  and i would argue that it is this faith deepening that aligns well with the mission, ‘…to respond to the call of the christian gospel, through (in  our case) the heritage of roman catholicism (the american version).
    which is not to say that exegesis study, etc, isn’t of great value and fun, and in the long run, faith deepening.  it’s just that it seems difficult to do it really well in an evening service, rather than in a small intense group study.
    but in a service, i would ask, what is the purpose of scripture presentation?  to deepen faith?  to affirm the faith community’s primary theological principles?  to affirm the faith community’s heritage?  to challenge the community?  or something else entirely?
    just thinkin’…
    [1]  in the case of exodus 27, there is lots of critical thinking and scriptural heuristic thinking to be done.
    when did moses wander in the sinai?  about 2000 bce?  1500 bce?
    why would moses be commanded to tell the israelites to build a temple, etc?  is he writing this down, so that 500 years in the future the builders will know what god wants?  and if he’s supposed to have them start collecting stuff for this endeavor, who’s gonna carry all of it?  and keep it safe?  and inventory it?  aaron, i guess.
    when was this text most likely written?  my guess is, at the time the temple is already built to specifications, so that the temple description given to moses in the faith document actually matches perfectly what is in the temple where the author is writing the text.  about 400bce.  after the fall of the first temple.  this text is about the description of the second temple.  this is a classic example of <i>vaticinium ex eventu</i>.
    so then the questions for the small study group might be:
    why would the author in 400bce place this story in a text about moses, who lived way before the second temple was built?  there’s some interesting theological principles at work here, and some interesting hindsight bias at work here as well.  it calls into discussion how this kind of story telling might be faith deepening.  there’s also the issue of messianic typology to consider as well.  lots of food for critical thinking.

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