God's Word for today

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Big words I sometimes don't fully understand

I've been having some interesting online discussions around the "Blogroll" that Mark Penrith has published on his blog, Because He Lives - mainly because, in an attempt to provide himself with a sort of "ready reference" of where various Christian bloggers stand theologically, he has attempted to classify the various bloggers according to their denominational affiliation (or non-affiliation, where applicable), and provide a basic theological framework that each blogger subscribes to.

As is normal with classifications such as this, there is often a degree of subjectivity involved, which Mark readily acknowledges - accompanied by a great deal of good-humoured leg-pulling as we compare our different labels (in pretty much the same way as a Sharks / Bulls debate or one over whether or not Sri Lanka's fast bowler Malinga "chucks" or not).

But then there was an interesting request from "Elmarie" (who is / was? also a regular contributor to website Discerning The World), asking Mark to include Biblical Christianity as a sub-category along with Calvinism and Arminianism.  This led me to question what is understood by the term "Biblical Christianity".  Together with my question, I made the statement that "I don’t consider myself to be a literalist, yet I regard myself as a Biblical Christian".

A response to this statement by "Grant" was somewhat surprising.  Although he stopped short of branding me as a heretic, he was clearly purturbed by my statement, questing whether my position is "even attainable by an individual?  To me [Grant] that is like saying: 'I don’t consider myself to be literate, yet I regard myself as being able to read'."

Well, either Grant has misunderstood my question, or I've misunderstood the term "literalism", which led me to fire up the trusty Free Online Dictionary, which defines literalism as follows: "(1) Adherence to the explicit sense of a given text or doctrine; and (2) Literal portrayal; realism."

Very few (if any) people use language that is always meant to be taken in a literal sense.  For instance, in South Africa, when one refers to a usually used and invariably neglected car as a "dog", they don't mean that this four-wheeled vehicle has become a four-legged canine animal.  Rather, the term figuratively means that the car is a "lemon" (to use the equivalent American metaphor) - it is dilapidated, in poor condition, and likely to be extremely unreliable.

Using a simple example from Scripture (appropriate, since I am a simple person), let's have a quick look at the version of Matthew 16: 18 in the Good News Bible: "And so I tell you, Peter: you are a rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my church, and not even death will ever be able to overcome it."

Jesus was obviously not literally saying that Peter was a boulder, and He was probably not even referring to the rocky outcrop of the area in which this statement was made to literally denote the physical building of a church, either.  In the original Greek, Peter's name - petros - means "rock", or more specifically, "smaller rock".  Jesus used this metaphor to depict Peter as the kind of person, who has seen Jesus for who He really is, to carry forth the message that Jesus is the Messiah - at the appointed time.  However, the "rock" on which Jesus will build His church - petra - depicts a firm foundation.  This firm foundation on which the church will be built will be Jesus Himself.

Clearly the use of the two Greek words for "rock" are not meant to be taken literally.

The fact that I have explored and (hopefully) understood the metaphors used, and the context in which they are used, means that I would not be a literalist in this sense.  Yet, if I have understood the truth of this passage correctly, and accepted it as being God's Word, then I can at the same time claim to be a Biblical Christian.

Another example would be Deuteronomy 22: 22, in which the penalty for anyone caught in adultery is death by stoning.  If a literalist were to in fact encounter such a person engaging in adultery, he or she would be duty-bound to ensure that the guilty parties receive the mandated punishment.  Failure to do so, according to my understanding of literalism, would be to fail to be a Biblical Christian.

So am I saying, then, that being contextual is Biblical and being literal is not?  Not exactly - besides, there are a number of passages in Scripture that appear to be self-evident on the face of it.  However, if one is to admit - however grudgingly - that all Christians do apply some degree of contextualisation, the challenge, if one wants to honour Scripture, is to discern which passages are contextual, and which ones are of universal application.  (The two terms are not necessarily mutually exclusive, either!)

Anyway, over to the theological "brains trust" for comment and discussion.  But please, lay off the "flame wars" (whether contextual in terms of hurling abuse at me on this blog, or literal in terms of trying to set fire to me with a flame-thrower) - I'm not trying to score theological brownie-points, but rather am earnestly seeking to grow closer and closer to Jesus each day.

It's a journey, folks - none of us can claim to have "arrived"...

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