III Easter, Year B
1 Jn 3:1-7
When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, "You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and
rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you. "And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.
(1 John 3:1-7)
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
The reading today starts where the Johannine one last week ended, with skepticism. Once again we note that the so-called modern mind while aversive to the resurrection of Jesus, nonetheless acts frequently out of superstition and/or fear. Funny, that so many people can believe so many odd ball things, yet mock Christians for their faith in the Risen Lord.
The skepticism, however, is the prelude to the real lesson of the text. The real lesson of the gospel text is that he would open the minds of the disciples to understand the Hebrew Scriptures. In the narrative prior to this, the journey with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, it was prefigured. After breaking bread in his characteristic fashion, the disciples “eyes were opened.” What had they been discussing on this journey? The biblical text.
What were they discussing about the text? All that had befallen Jesus. Jesus interprets the text in the light of the events that had occurred to him, he provided a hermeneutic which would illumine the biblical texts. That hermeneutic is grounded in the events of his mission and death.
With mimetic theory, we have an opportunity to do the same; only this time we can see a bigger picture. The church did not place Scripture on the same level as all other literature; others did that. But in placing Scripture in relation to all other literature, the door was thereby opened for Scripture to exercise its hermeneutic power on literature and of course, myth. Today, we are in a position, not only to understand Jesus in relation to the literature of his people, we are also in a position to understand Jesus in relation to western Literature and culture and human culture on a global scale.
In order for us to achieve a satisfactory hermeneutic in relation to the Hebrew Bible it is absolutely necessary for us to understand that for the Jews of Jesus’ day, varying scriptures had different degrees of authority. This authority is functionally characterized by the degree to which texts ‘render the hands unclean’ or are to be ‘stored away.’ Different groups eliminated some texts others used to warrant their actions. For yet others, there was an oral tradition of interpreting the text that functioned as a framework within which the text was fitted. (Martin Jan Mulder, ed. Mikra)
On top of that are the distinctive ways in which both Jesus and the early Christians engage the Hebrew Scriptures. We have previously mentioned Jesus’ preference for the Aramaic Isaiah Targum, as a significant lens through which he interpreted the history and literature of Israel. Our point is that both Jesus and his followers engaged the Hebrew Scriptures but they did not treat them as if they fell from the sky. The critically engaged their Scriptures. Why?
Jim Williams says, “It is not as though the biblical texts present Israel as morally unambiguous in the person of its ancestors and leading figures. The ironic and critical recognition of participation in victimization and violence is, as a matter of fact, the most distinctive quality of Israel’s literature among ancient texts. What I would emphasize here is its insight into scapegoating, into the mechanisms that serve to justify victimization and violence in most cultures.” (The Bible, Violence & The Sacred.)
This attentive reading to the Hebrew text as a ‘text in travail’ (as Girard puts it) means that we no longer approach the Hebrew Scriptures in toto as an inspired entity. Like the Greek tragedians, something is breaking through the Hebrew Scriptures. But the hermeneutic key to unlock the door is the story of the victim who broke the victimage mechanism and initiated the process of its final destruction. Girard: “We are in a place between the full revelation of the scapegoat and the totally mythical. In history, we are always between the gospel and myth.” (Violent Origins)
The Risen Jesus walked his disciples through those texts that interpreted what he had recently been through. These events, his passion, death and resurrection allow us a glimpse at how Jesus discerned the strands and weaving of the Hebrew Bible. On this theory, it is possible to understand how it was that Jesus could predict his suffering, death and resurrection. He saw something in the Hebrew Scriptures very clearly, namely that the Creator, the covenant God of Israel, had called him, and had been nurturing him, for a specific task and purpose. This is the One he models his life after, this is the One he calls ‘abba.’ This is the One before whom he dies and who raised him from the dead.
With reference to the influence of Isaiah on the New Testament writers, James Sanders says, “Isaiah was apparently the single most helpful book of the Old Testament in assisting the early church to understand the sufferings and crucifixion of Christ; it aided the understanding of nearly every phase of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. Isaiah also helped the early churches to understand who they were and what their role was as witnesses to the Christ event and as those who prepared for the eschaton’s fulfillment by proclaiming what God had done in and through Christ. Christology and ecclesiology were formulated in the early churches with the help of Isaiah.” (Luke and Scripture)
Furthermore, the early Christians did not derive their ‘doctrine of God’ from the Hebrew Bible, they derived their understanding of God from Jesus. The focus of the early church was not on an abstract God, as though they didn’t already have a relationship to the God as Israel as Jews. Their understanding of God was, however, transformed as they began to juxtapose their experience with Jesus and with the Hebrew Bible. James Sanders: “It is becoming clear that early Christians searched Scripture midrashically to understand why Christ suffered the fate of a criminal, why he was so ignominiously treated, why he was crucified. They found help in the Prophets, especially in Isaiah, to understand how God could turn tragedy into triumph.”
There are two consequences to this insight. The first is that there is a specific way of reading the Hebrew Scriptures that utilizes the lens of Isaiah. Naturally one thinks here of the suffering servant. Regarding the pervasive influence of Isaiah 53 C.H. Dodd says, "Here [Isaiah 53] then we have a long self-contained passage, practically every verse of which is represented in one way or another in the New Testament, and in almost every part of it – Synoptic Gospels, John, Acts, Paul, Hebrews and I Peter. Its importance as a source of testimonia is manifest, and there is high probability, in view of its ubiquity, that its use as such goes back to the earliest period to which we have access.” (According to the Scriptures).
It is not at all difficult to see implications of the interaction of Isaiah and mimetic theory. “If one reflects on how widespread the notion of vengeance was in the Old Testament, it becomes doubly clear that with the non-violent behavior of the servant of Yahweh something new is indeed happening.” (Must There Be Scapegoats).
Furthermore, if the stimulus for the particular lens of Isaiah comes from Jesus during the time of his ministry (Chilton A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible), then it should not surprise us that the Risen Lord also interprets the Hebrew Scriptures with reference to himself as the suffering servant now vindicated. The Lukan narrative simply points up the fact that even after all of this time with him, the disciples still needed lessons in Hermeneutics 101. If those who traveled with him could not see and needed lessons, what then of us?
It is time to jettison the Christian myth of the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. It is feasible neither historically nor theologically. It is at odds with Jesus’ and the early church’s use of the Hebrew Bible and it is a cover for a scapegoating theology. Either one of these should be a mortal wound to this theory; together they annihilate it.
As long as the church interprets the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament through the lens of a sacrificial ideology, they will fail every time to proclaim the gospel of God in Jesus Christ. Instead, they will continue to announce the bad news of the ambiguous God. Fear will dominate rather than love. If the Christian church does not proclaim the good news of God, who will? It is imperative for Christians on a global scale to come to terms with their misuse of Scripture, particularly the Hebrew Scriptures.
Instead, we should be doing what Jesus and the early church did when they went to their Hebrew Scriptures, they went looking for Jesus. One might add, tongue in cheek, that Christians should do the same when reading the New Testament as well as the Hebrew Bible. In order for the church to live as Jesus lived, Jesus must also teach us how to read the Hebrew Scriptures. As long as we persist in the belief that we already know how, we will not be open to move from myth to gospel, from the power of violence to the power of love.
In my recent interactions with Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church (Analysis of the Purpose Driven Life and Does Peace Make a Difference?), I sought to show that a ‘flat reading’ of scripture as found in conservative Christianity leaves us with more problems than it solves.
I read again this past week Jack Rogers’ and Donald McKim’s The Authority and Inspiration of the Bible (Harper and Row, 1979), a wonderfully instructive and thorough presentation of the issues. Thirty years ago these authors explored the philosophical presuppositions behind the theory of inerrancy and concluded that there is little justification for modern inerrantists to claim church historical precedent for their views (either in the Reformation or the early church). Modern inerrancy stands alone, unhinged from the great tradition of Christian interpretation.
From my perspective, inerrancy is not simply an outmoded or outdated or unscientific viewpoint. It is more than that. It is a hermeneutic, a way of reading Scripture that has its origins in dualism and violence. As such it is anti-Scripture, but try convincing the ‘Fundagelicals’ of that. Their common retort is to say that if Scripture is errant in even on passage, it is errant in all. That is a false conclusion grounded in fear.
Inerrancy only protects the violent ethics of Protestantism. It is mythological. It can only lead to the Christian myth and the justification of violence. Inerrancy cannot be yoked together with the teaching of Jesus; they are night and day. Inerrancy is a holdover from a time when the church was at war not only with society but also with itself. As a theory, it thus stems from violence and leads to violence, it cannot do otherwise.
The church can however read Scripture the way Jesus and the early church read Scripture. It can begin to see that the Hebrew Bible is essential to understand the gospel, and that the Gospel illumines the Hebrew Bible in both its mythological and gospel aspects. Only when we do this can we be free from interpretations that violate, coerce, exclude and scapegoat others. Only then can we find our way clear to announce with Jesus the God who breaks bread with us…we, who considered God our enemy.
For readers who are new to Preaching Peace, Tony Bartlett’s Bible Studies on Isaiah are an excellent place to begin a non-mythological (and thus gospel) reading of the Hebrew Bible (see our Bible Studies page). I would also reference the many essays by Sandor Goodhart (see any bibliography on mimetic theory), as well as Jim Williams The Bible, Violence and the Sacred and Raymund Schwager Must There Be Scapegoats?
It seems unlikely that we will achieve a constructive conversation with folks who hold a “flat” or “inerrant” view of Scripture through a process of argumentation. While neither Michael nor I find this way of reading helpful or meaningful, it is obviously very important to a lot of Christians, especially in the United States.
One of the saddest elements for me in the non-conversations that happen between Christians concerning Scripture is the leap-frogging of questions and concerns that might create some space for a real exchange to take place. What I mean is this:
The desire that lies beneath the principle of inerrancy is probably one that we who seek to preach peace can appreciate. We may use different strategies (hermeneutics) to accomplish similar ends (to honor God, to know Christ, to have a reliable way of reading…), but chances are, our deepest desires are not so different. Unfortunately, we have no idea what desires drive inerrancy, because we never ask. We focus on the “strategy” for satisfying this desire (the “flat” reading) and overlook the human element that lies behind/beneath it.
I would suggest that the differentiation between a reading that treats all of the text as authoritative and one that reads some texts (especially among the books of the Hebrew Bible) as more illuminating with regard to the nature of God is an unnecessary one. We may, using Jesus as our lens for reading the Scriptures, recognize them all as authoritative, inspired, without claiming that they all reveal the nature of God. Once we have determined that congruity with the God revealed in Jesus is the key to identifying texts that reveal God’s nature, we may then with certainty claim that the remainder are equally revealing. The remainder though, are anthropologically revealing. Many of these anthropologically oriented texts claim to speak about God, but this only serves to reinforce for us the revelation of the god of myth.
What I hear when I listen to folks who speak of inerrancy is a desire to see all of the text as a gift, as God-given. To say that some texts are less authoritative than others seems to disconnect them from God. By acknowledging that God has revealed our own propensity for attributing violence to God in those texts that do not conform to the God of Peace revealed in Jesus, we maintain their connection to God, their “giftness.” We can let Scripture itself commend this hermeneutic. (See Paul’s discussion of the reading of Scripture with a veil over one’s face in 2 Cor. 3, and the way that Jesus removes this veil.)
I do not pretend that such an approach will yield instant results, but I do think that it honors the desires of those with whom we disagree, and creates the potential for a relationship based on vulnerability that is both Christ-like and open to new insights by both parties.
What does mimetic theory have to do with Christian eschatology. At first blush such a notion must seem absurd for what could a scientific anthropology say to this particular doctrine. More so what contribution could Christian eschatology make to the mimetic theory. Well, the answer, from my perspective is that each illumes the other is marvelous, not to say powerful ways and our text today brings the two together in close relation.
As is well known, love, particularly the love of God is a major, if not the major theme in the Johannine writings. Just as God is Light (1:5) so also God is Love (4:8). These are the two axioms around which everything Johannine flows. God’s love is demonstrated to us before we ever know what love is (4:10), in fact it is Jesus as the ιλασμοσ (the expiation) of our sins,as the one who forgives us and restores our relation to God that is the proof of this love (cf 2:2).
This love is worked out and lived out in us by God’s self. It is expressed as love to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Love is not a principle, it is grounded in the actions, the identity of Jesus. God reveals God’s self in the person of Jesus and Jesus is known in his relationships, how he relates. God’s Love is given concrete human form, or one could say love is modeled in and by Jesus. And here is the mimesis, “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Love is not abstract, but very concrete and is specifically modeled in Jesus. The “as” indicates a specific pattern to follow, it indicates a paradigm to be imitated.
In I John 3:2, it is said that when Jesus is manifested, we shall be like him, for we shall see him “just as he is.” The ουπω (not yet) of vs 2 is the indication that we have to do with eschatology, it is not yet manifest what we shall be, we are a work in progress and the goal of that work is conformity to Jesus (ομοιοι αυτω εσομεθα, 3:2). The imitation of love demonstrated in Jesus leads us to conformity with the God who is love in God’s self. In short our hope is that by imitating Jesus here and now as Love, we shall become as fully the embodiment of that Love as he was and is (and ever shall be). This is the hope that continually (αγυιζει present tense) transforms us, purifies us of our false beliefs about God and our tendency to make an idol of the gods of our theologies (5:20).
We have noted that love is the way we relate to others in the exact same way that God relates to us in Jesus, lived out in his flesh and blood relationships (1:1-4). The opposite of this is described as sin (αμαρτια) which is also equivalent to anarchy (αυομια). The purpose of the manifestation of the love of God in Jesus was to take away this sin/anarchy, to bear it away from our existence. Does the writer mean sin in general? No, for this is further defined in 3:10 as “not loving one’s brother.” To not love one’s brother is to intentionally choose to be uncompassionate (3:17), it can also be called a breakdown in the fidelity of the relationship (δικαιοσυνη 3:10) and furthermore originates in “the devil” (3:10). The biblical example of this is Cain, the biblical type of the founding murderer (3:11).
Our hope is otherwise. As “children of God” we, like Jesus, lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. It is this positive imitation of Jesus that constitutes our Christian identity, an identity that is forged in us by His Spirit and will be ours forever.
No significant issues today.
As Christians we are exposed to all kinds of eschatological schemes and promises, from the Rapture to pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. Now we know that these ways of speaking eschatologically are either exclusivist or Platonic (and often both), but are not biblical. Our hope is indeed eschatological; it is otherworldly, because it is not founded upon the violence that determines our human culture but on the love that characterizes the Kingdom of God.
Preaching this text today assists us to recover our “eschatological imagination” (as James Alison puts it). It brings eschatology into its proper relationship to ethics; our behavior is molded by our encounter with the Risen (eschatological) Christ, not by conformity to an abstract law or definition of goodness or good citizenship. It is a hope that is real and tangible as a witness to the world of the supreme act of God in loving the world in Jesus.