Winter came a little early this year…


C.S. Lewis on the Bible

I’ve been gradually re-reading my copy of the three volume ‘Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis’. Lately I’ve come across a few of his thoughts on the authority and inspiration of the Bible – thoughts that seem relevant to a discussion some of us have been having over at connexions. I post Lewis’ thoughts here (hopefully I don’t run into copyright trouble!).

First, in a letter to Mrs. Johnson, written on November 8th 1952, Lewis says:

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our ancestors too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.

Second, in a letter to Janet Wise on October 5th 1955, Lewis has this to say:

My own position is not Fundamentalist, if Fundamentalism means accepting as a point of faith at the outset the proposition ‘Every statement in the Bible is completely true in the literal, historical sense’. That would break down at once on the parables. All the same commonsense and general understanding of literary kinds which would forbid anyone to take the parables as historical statements, carried a very little further, would force us to distinguish between (1.) Books like Acts or the account of David’s reign, which are everywhere dovetailed into a known history, geography, and genealogies, (2.) Books like Esther, or Jonah or Job which deal with otherwise unknown characters living in unspecified periods, and pretty well proclaim themselves to be sacred fiction.

Such distinctions are not new. Calvin left the historicity of Job an open question and from earlier, St. Jerome said that the whole Mosaic account of creation was done ‘after the method of a popular poet’. Of course I believe the composition, presentation, and selection for inclusion in the Bible, of all books to have been guided by the Holy Ghost. But I think he meant us to have sacred myth and sacred fiction as well as sacred history.

Mind you, I never think a story unhistorical because it is miraculous. I accept miracles. It’s almost the manner that distinguishes the fictions from the history. Compare the ‘Once upon a time’ opening of Job with the accounts of David, St. Paul, or Our Lord Himself. The basis of our Faith is not the Bible taken by itself but the agreed affirmation of all Christendom: to which we owe the Bible itself.

Thirdly, in a letter to Clyde Kilby on May 7th 1959 (written in answer to Kilby’s asking for his thoughts on the Wheaton College statement on the inspiration of the Bible), Lewis says:

To me the curious thing is that neither in my own Bible reading nor in my religious life as a whole does the question in fact ever assume that importance which it always gets in theological controversy. The difference between reading the story of Ruth and that of Antigone – both first class as literature – is to me unmistakable and even overwhelming. But the question ‘Is Ruth historical?’ (I’ve not reason to suppose it is not) doesn’t really seem to arise until afterwards. It would still act on me as the Word of God if it weren’t, so far as I can see. All Holy Scripture is written for our learning. But learning of what? I should have thought the value of some things (eg. the Resurrection) depended on whether they really happened: but the value of others (e.g. the fate of Lot’s wife) hardly at all. And the ones whose historicity matters are, as God’s will, those where it is plain.
Whatever view we hold on the divine authority of Scripture must make room for the following facts:
  1. The distinction which St. Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 7 between ‘yet not I but the Lord’ (v.10), and ‘I say, not the Lord’ (v.12).
  2. The apparent inconsistencies between the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 2: between the accounts of the death of Judas in Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18-19.
  3. St. Luke’s own account of how he obtained his matter (Luke 1:1-4).
  4. The universally admitted unhistoricity (I do not say, of course, falsity) of at least some narratives in Scripture (the parables) which may well also extend to Jonah and Job.
  5. If every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights, then all true and edifying writings, whether in Scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired.
  6. John 11:49-52. Inspiration may operate in a wicked man without his knowing it, and he can then utter the untruth he intends (propriety of making an innocent man a political scapegoat) as well as the truth he does not intend (the divine sacrifice).

It seems to me that 2 and 4 rule out the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth. And 1, 3, 5, and 6 rule out the view that inspiration is a single thing in the sense that, if present at all, it is always present in the same mode and to the same degree. Therefore, I think, rule out the view that any passage taken in isolation can be assumed to be inerrant in exactly the same sense as any other: eg. that the numbers of O.T. armies (which, in view of the size of the country, if true, involves continuous miracle) are statistically correct because the story of the Resurrection is historically correct. That the overall operation of Scripture is to convey God’s Word to the reader (he also needs His inspiration) who reads it in the right spirit, I fully believe. That is also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don’t. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, never even envisaged by the Ancients.

Lewis’ statements here seem to me to embody his usual sanctified common sense, and they have helped guide my own reading of the Bible for some time now.

St. Francis

Steve London preached about St. Francis at the ordination service at our cathedral Sunday night. It was an inspiring sermon – probably one of the best ordination sermons I’ve ever heard. And it got me thinking about Francis again, which I haven’t done for a while.

Marci and I have a history with St. Francis. Back in the early 1980s, when we were living in the little town of Arborfield, Saskatchewan, we first read his story and heard some wonderful songs about his life by John Michael Talbot. We were inspired by the simplicity of his life, and we actually gave away a lot of stuff and tried to live in the Franciscan spirit ourselves. Later on I had friends who were members of the Third Order of St Francis and I was blessed and challenged by the way they lived their lives. In more recent years I have been touched and inspired by the Anabaptist way of following Jesus, which bears a lot of similarities to the way of Francis.

In his sermon, Steve drew out the most obvious and impressive feature of Francis’ life – that is, the degree to which he followed the teaching of Jesus and put it into practice. He literally sold all his possessions and gave all he had to the poor, and then went and followed Jesus. He embraced ‘Lady Poverty’ and lived as a beggar, while joyfully preaching the gospel of Christ and caring for the poor and the sick. It was this mark of joy that Steve stressed; Francis and his followers embraced a life of poverty and suffering, and yet in the midst of it they found the extravagant joy of Christ.

But Steve also brought out the challenge of Francis; he admitted that he admired and loved Francis ‘from a distance’. He said that when he thought of the things that gave him security – his home, his pay cheque, his pension plan and benefits – and then thought of what might happen if Jesus asked him to give them up, he was not sure what he would do. And yet, he said, Francis has moved over that line and given up everything.

Of course, Francis didn’t live his life of Christian discipleship in the midst of family responsibilities, which is what makes him such a troubling figure for people like us. He talks of literally following Jesus, selling everything, giving to the poor, living the mendicant life, and holds it up as the ideal, the best way of following Jesus. We are inspired by him, but few of us literally follow his example. In some ways, it would be easier if we could. What we try to do is to live by the spirit of Christian discipleship which he exemplified, but in the context of our very different responsibilities in the world.

As I reflect on this I’m reminded of one of Richard Foster’s books, Money Sex, and Power. In this book Foster reflects on the three traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; they are, he says, a response to the three issues of money, sex, and power, and the response is ‘no, no, no’! But is it possible to give a more measured response to the question and yet still be a faithful follower of Jesus?

This issue was of course also a part of the spirituality of the early Anabaptists. Like Francis, they sought to live a life of following Jesus in close obedience to his teaching and example. However, unlike him, they did not follow a monastic model or take monastic vows; they continued (with a few notable exceptions) to live in their own homes and families, but tried to follow the gospel principles of simplicity, honesty, and love for enemies in a life of Christian discipleship.

Steve’s sermon challenged me to think again on the example of Francis, not only as a way of discipleship but also as a model for Christian ministry. Francis’ simplicity, his love for God, his obedience to the teaching of Jesus, his joyful proclamation of a gospel which he himself was living out – these things touched thousands of lives in his own day, and have touched millions more since then. I could do worse than to try to live my own ministry in the spirit of Christian discipleship exemplified by St. Francis.

Sermon for October 4th: Marriage and Divorce (Mark 10:1-12)

I was going to speak to you this morning about the work of Philip the evangelist, as the last sermon in our series of ‘More Bible People You May Not Remember’, but then I read today’s gospel and realised that we couldn’t really read it unless I also preached on it. This is because, for some of us in church today, the words of Jesus here will come across as words of condemnation and not words of hope. And while it isn’t part of my job as a preacher to protect you from the words of Jesus, it is part of my job to make sure we’ve heard those words accurately.

So let’s start by acknowledging that, for many of us, Jesus’ words that we heard a moment ago were very painful. For some of us who are living with the pain of very difficult marriages, his words seemed to close a potential escape hatch for us. For some of us who have been divorced and are now remarried, his words seem to condemn us to living in sin for the rest of our lives. Some of us have a different kind of pain; we have been the victims of frivolous divorce. We didn’t abuse our spouses or cheat on them; they simply found someone younger and prettier than us, and so we were traded in for a newer model. And some of us are the children of divorce, grappling with the fact that statistically we are far more likely to go through divorce ourselves than are the children of lasting marriages.

Jesus wants to spare us pain by teaching us how to live in accordance with God’s original intention for us. We need to try to find a way to hear this text today as a word of life and grace, not condemnation. So let’s turn in our Bibles to Mark 10:1-12 and take a closer look at it.

Read the rest here.

Bryan Moyer Suderman sings songs of faith for small and tall at St. Margaret’s.

What: Songs for Small and Tall- all ages music & singalong

Where: St. Margaret’s Anglican Church: 12603 Ellerslie Road

When: Friday, October 2nd at 7.30 pm.

Bryan Moyer Suderman is a musician in the Mennonite tradition; his music company is called ‘Small Tall Music’, because, as he says, he writes ‘worship songs for small and tall’ – for children and for adults (see his website here). Bryan has produced several CDs, including songs for Vacation Bible School and Christian Education programs, worship songs, songs about stewardship, and a new CD based largely on texts from the prophets you can find our more about his CDs and here some samples here). This concert is jointly sponsored between St. Margaret’s Anglican Church and Edmonton First Mennonite Church, and it will be an all-age event. Admission will be by donation at the door, with a suggested donation of $10 per person or $25 per family.

Images of Jesus

I once heard someone use the phrase ‘the gospel is like a Persian carpet; it has many strands, and each strand is relevant to a particular situation’. I suspect the same is true of the different images for Jesus found in the New Testament. By ‘images’, I mean ‘roles’ or ‘names’ or ‘titles’ – things like ‘Good Shepherd’, ‘The Way, the Truth, and the Life’, ‘Emmanuel’ and so on.
As I look back on my Christian journey, I can discern three images for Jesus which have been particularly helpful at different times. This is not to say that these have been the only images I’ve used during those times, or that I’ve been thinking about them constantly; I simply mean that these three have been the most prominent at successive stages of my Christian walk.
The first was ‘Jesus the Miracle Worker’, and this image was very important for me in my teens. I became a committed Christian in the context of the early years of the charismatic renewal – that is, for those of you who are scratching your heads and saying ‘Huh?’, a movement of the Holy Spirit that swept across the major Christian denominations, beginning in the sixties, largely influenced by Pentecostalism. I had been brought up in the Church of England, that most staid and respectable of institutions (at least in those days), and I had no more expectation that God could heal the sick than that daleks and cybermen were actually real (well, less, in fact – I fancy that in the mid-sixties I did think that daleks and cybermen were real!). I went to church every week, sang in the choir, occasionally read my children’s Bible story book and so on, but I didn’t have any sort of personal relationship with God and certainly didn’t think of God as a being who would intervene personally in people’s lives – at least, not in the modern world; he seemed to have done it in Bible times, and this troubled me a little.
But then in the early seventies I read Dennis Bennett’s book Nine O’Clock in the Morning and David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, and a new world opened up for me. Bennett and Wilkerson told story after story of people being healed and delivered and transformed by the power of God; they spoke of receiving a supernatural ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’, speaking in tongues and so on. This was a million miles away from my church experience, but I found it exciting and attractive, and eventually it led me to commit my life to Christ and to ask for these experiences myself. Our church at the time was gradually moving into the charismatic renewal, and in our house fellowship groups we experienced some of these gifts – healings, speaking in tongues, words of wisdom and knowledge and so on.
This was all tremendously exciting for me, and I’m grateful to this day that I had my early Christian nurture in the context of a movement which didn’t just celebrate what Jesus did, but also what he continues to do today, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus the Miracle Worker was the one who got my Christian life going, and for this I will always be thankful.
Nonetheless, there are of course weaknesses in this emphasis. It has often been observed that Pentecostalism has a fine theology of healing but an inadequate theology of suffering, and this becomes somewhat troubling when (as inevitably happens) one begins to notice that not all of one’s prayers are answered – not every sick person is healed, not every request for help is granted, etc. I wondered why this might be so. There was very little mention of unanswered prayer in the books I read; was I somehow more inadequate than these people? Was I not praying properly? Was there some sin in my life that was interfering with my prayers? ‘Jesus the Miracle Worker’ didn’t help me with answers to these questions; I had to find them elsewhere.
The second image that was prominent for me in a later period of my life was ‘Jesus the Friend of Sinners’. For various reasons which I don’t want to go into now, I had arrived in my young adult years with a fairly low sense of self-esteem and a pretty strong sense of my own inadequacy. I knew theologically that God loved me and that Christ had forgiven my sins, but I found it hard to actually believe and feel those things in an experiential way. What this meant, in my early Christian years, was that when I perceived myself to have ‘fallen into sin’ (don’t get excited; these were fairly unspectacular sins!), I felt as if I had to ‘go back to the beginning’ of my Christian life and start all over again. I had heard loud and clear the message that only the best was good enough for God, and since it was patently obvious to me that I was not the best, I often found it difficult to believe that God could do anything more than tolerate me.
Adrian Plass, bless him, helped me out of this hole. His 1987 bestseller The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass did more than make me laugh; it also introduced me to a powerful little phrase of his: ‘God is nice and he likes me’. It’s hard for me to adequately convey the powerful (‘tho gradual) effect that phrase had on my spiritual life. At first I found it difficult to say it with honesty; of course God loved me, but did I really believe that he liked me? In other words, that he enjoyed my company and wanted to spend time with me? It was hard to believe that this was true, but gradually the Holy Spirit worked a miracle and I found myself beginning to believe it.
This not only transformed my life, it also changed my ministry. The gospel of God’s unconditional love and grace became central in my preaching and counselling, and I discovered that many other people had the same difficulty seeing themselves as both loved and liked by God. The good news of Jesus the Friend of Sinners is a powerful medicine to heal the pervasive sense of guilt and inadequacy that seems to be so prevalent in our world today.
Of course, this image of Jesus too has its limits. Another well known phrase is ‘God loves us so much he accepts us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there’. An exclusive concentration on Jesus the Friend of Sinners all too easily neglect the second half of that phrase, leaving us to settle down quite happily ‘just as I am’, without hearing the gospel challenge to experience transformation – to move forward and grow into the likeness of Jesus.
And this leads me to the third image of Jesus that has been prominent in my spiritual journey, the image of Jesus the Master and Teacher. I began to realise in the early 1990s that for a growing number of Christians the language of discipleship was the most meaningful language they could use to express their relationship with Jesus; the paradigm of the Christian as a believer was giving way to the paradigm of the Christian as a disciple. Gradually, I found myself moving in this direction as well, and this was helped by a reading of the books of Tom Wright (with his emphasis on the Lordship of Jesus), and more recently by the writings of classical and contemporary Anabaptist authors, especially John Howard Yoder.
There had been long periods in my Christian life when I found the actual teaching of Jesus about the life of discipleship to be a threat; I was well aware that I was falling short, and my weak grasp on the grace of God in the gospel meant that this led to fear of failure and punishment. So I concentrated on a doctrinal Jesus who died for our sins and neglected an authoritative Jesus who spoke a word for me to follow.
But as Jesus the Friend of Sinners did his gentle healing work in my life, I gradually came to the place where the teaching of Jesus was no longer a fearful thing for me. Yes, I knew that I didn’t measure up to it (I still don’t), but I was no longer afraid of the implications of this. This was because I now saw Jesus’ teaching, not so much as an entrance exam I was failing, but rather as the ongoing curriculum in the school of discipleship. Anyone who has faith in Jesus can enter that school, no matter what their past failures might be. And they will continue to fail, but as the years go by, with continued practice and the help of the Holy Spirit, they will find themselves being transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
And this is where I am now. I know that Jesus the Miracle Worker can intervene in my life and those of others, and I know that because Jesus is the Friend of Sinners I don’t need to be afraid of failure. So I can step out with the help of the Holy Spirit and apply myself to learning to follow the teaching of Jesus the Master and Teacher – learning to live a simple life, to love my enemies, to speak the truth, to seek first the kingdom of God and so on. I still have a long way to go, but as John Newton said, ‘I thank God I am not what I once was!’
Which images of Jesus have been helpful for you on your spiritual journey? And can you see a logical progression from one to another as you have grown through the different stages of your Christian life?
(Picture by Annie Vallotton, illustrating Mark 3:8 in the Good News Bible)

Hannah: There is No Rock Like Our God

Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the stories of some Bible people who aren’t so well known. We’ve thought about Mary Magdalene and how Jesus transformed her life, and John Mark and how God gave him a second chance even when the apostle Paul didn’t. We’ve thought about Cornelius, an outsider who was seeking God, and how God reached out to include him, and about Naaman’s servant girl who spoke the crucial words of witness that led Naaman to ask the God of Israel for healing for his skin disease.

Today I want to talk with you about the story of Hannah, a woman who was in a desperate situation and who cried out to the Lord for help. There are some aspects of Hannah’s story that we don’t find it so easy to relate to; she was in a polygamous marriage, and the tensions and rivalries of that sort of marriage are hard for us to imagine today. But the main factor in her story is all too familiar to many people; she longed for a child, and her longing had not been fulfilled. There are many people today who know all about that sort of grief, and even if we aren’t familiar with it, we’ve all had times when we longed for things and our longing was not fulfilled. So let’s see what happens in the story of Hannah.

Read the rest here.