Thursday, July 2, 2015

What's the Core Message of the Bible?

In setting the stage for discussing the passages in the bible on homosexuality, I quoted Willard Swartley who suggested that one of the healthy approaches to controversial topics in scripture is:
The basic moral and theological principles of the entire Scripture are given priority over statements which stand in tension with these principles or with other specific texts on the subject.
Which raises the question: What are "the basic moral and theological principles of the entire Scripture?"

Read the last post here.

Earning Heaven

So much of religion (not just Christianity) seems primarily concerned with earning a good place in the afterlife. Muslims must have their good and bad deeds weighed at the judgement. Hindus and Buddhists are judged on their karma. Nearly every religion that exists has the same basic equation: Doing good = reward in the next life.

Yet that's exactly what Jesus militated against. He lambasted the Pharisees and teachers of the law for their dutiful adherence to the commands of the Torah and their willful ignorance of God's heart. Jesus rebuked them -- the ones known as the teachers, the ones renowned for their learning, the ones respected as scholars -- by saying, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'" (Matt. 9:13).

Still though, many Christians teach the bible from the perspective of accruing enough (or the right kind of) good deeds to earn heaven. I grew up thinking this. I thought that if I was only baptized (through full immersion) that I would somehow force God's hand and make him let me into heaven. I also thought that people who weren't baptized correctly had failed to appease God through strict obedience and would be condemned to hell.

That is the same basic belief system that the Pharisees had.

The Greatest Commands

When Jesus was asked about the greatest command he responded with two of them. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:34-40). For Jesus those two ideas summed up all of the Old Testament. 

Fun fact, the command to "love your neighbor as yourself" that Jesus put second only to loving God is found in Leviticus 19:18, which is the chapter between the two mentions of homosexual relations in the Old Testament (but we'll get back to that later). 

So, for Jesus, the commands against adultery are rooted in love (cf. Rom 13:8-10). The commands against eating pork were* rooted in love. The commands regarding hair cuts and tattoos were rooted in love. The commands about not mixing types of fabrics were rooted in love.

Some of the commands are pretty easy to figure out. Don't have idols is the natural outgrowth of loving God completely. Not stealing or lying is the natural outgrowth of loving your neighbor. Observing the Sabbath is a way to love God, love your neighbor (so they get a day off), and to love yourself (having margin in your life instead of working all the time). 

Other commands are more difficult to reconcile with the idea of love. Why would God command the death penalty out of love? Why would God allow slavery out of love? Why would God even care about the mixing of fabric or the edges of a man's beard? 

I hope that, going forward, we can make some sense of those difficult commands. They are, in no small part, related to the commands against homosexuality which, if Jesus was right, must also be rooted in love. 

Salvation Issues

When I was growing up in the church there was a lot of concern about what things were, or were not, salvation issues. The conversation came up around trying to figure out what things we could bend on and what things we had to be firm about. The young people wanted different music or the participation of women or to take communion on a Saturday night instead of a Sunday morning. So we tried to figure out if they were "disputable matters" or salvation issues (Rom. 14:1 "differing opinions" in the NET Bible). 

As we were trying to determine what we could or could not budge on, we almost completely ignored the matters that Jesus considers to be salvation issues. That is, those commands which, if disobeyed, will disqualify one from heaven. 

When Jesus taught about the last judgement he was, in many ways, speaking directly against the legalism of the Pharisees and law-teachers. Instead of the judgement being based around adherence to the Mosaic Law, Jesus taught that it was based on how we treat our neighbors (Matt. 25:31-46). 

If you feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned then, according to Jesus, you have fulfilled the law and treated Jesus with the same kindness that you offered to the least of his brothers and sisters. And conversely, if you withhold those things from the least of Jesus' brothers and sisters, you withhold it from Jesus and are condemned. 

I brought all that up to say that there are both prescriptive and proscriptive aspects to the core commands of love. Love demands that we engage in certain activities and that we avoid certain activities. Love constrains our actions (see 1 Cor. 13). 

What's Next

I feel comfortable with the assumption that, as Jesus said, love is at the heart of scripture. I believe that all of the bible is intended to bring humanity closer to God through loving him and loving one another. So as we move toward the controversial topics of the bible, I will use the greatest commands as the core principle of scripture to help us understand the more difficult ideas. 

Do you agree that love is the core principle of the bible? 

Are there other core principles that I've ignored? 

What would religion look like if it was less concerned with earning salvation?

Read the next post here.

* Note: I switched to the past-tense in referring to food-laws since those were specifically repealed by Jesus and the Spirit. 

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